“Were my uncle’s tunes really so bad, Mr Shaw?”
The question was to Martin Shaw (1875–1958), from a vicarage hostess after a hymn festival Shaw had led. His core message was of “Englishness” in music. For him that meant the influence of folk song, and plainsong, and church music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – three very different things, but an exciting combination to him and his friends. And he hated the music of the generations immediately before his own.
Shaw’s autobiography Up to now does not tell us how he answered the question, but acknowledges that he had “rather unwisely [gone] perhaps further than I should have done in my criticisms”. How much had his hosts known of what they were letting themselves in for?
What should one pack to visit a hymn festival?
The hymn festivals were in great demand through the 1920s and 1930s. Shaw enjoyed staying in country vicarages. Usually, when he accepted an invitation to lead a festival, he made it a condition that the host parson should find a horse for him. He discovered riding in his forties, and thereafter was happiest on horseback.
His baggage to these hymn festivals changed as the years went on. Initially, he would take a large box full of copies of the English Hymnal. He’d been involved in the making of the English Hymnal, and felt it best embodied his own ideals. He was often invited to lead the festival by a vicar seeking to introduce the English Hymnal in a parish. But hauling the boxes around was a burden. Shaw had a smaller book prepared, the British Hymn Festival Book, which could be shipped to the venue in advance.
Another part of Shaw’s earlier festival baggage would be a cross-cut saw, an axe, and a set of iron wedges. “Looking back, this seems to me to have been excessive.” Shaw’s hobbies included cutting down trees. I suspect that the size of the baggage was not the only reason that this faded from the programme.
Little Cornard: a favourite retreat
In 1916, Shaw and his wife Joan spent their honeymoon in Little Cornard, near Sudbury, in a house lent by a friend – though Shaw interrupted the honeymoon to go to a three-day conference on church music in Aberystwyth.
Partly due to poor eyesight, Shaw was unable to fight during the First World War. Instead, he hired himself out as a farm labourer in Bramford, where Joan’s parents lived. He hoped the farm work would make him useful, and taking part in hay harvests became, like the horse-riding, a habit for a good many years afterwards, in Little Cornard and other places.
In 1919, the rector of Little Cornard, William Bankes-Williams, got up a society to produce plays for which Shaw had supplied the music. Shaw’s rather unusual career had taken in both church and theatre, and this society had a wealth of material to choose from. Its first show was Fools and Fairies, a school adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And Little Cornard gave its name to Shaw’s most famous hymn tune.
According to ‘The greater light’ – a compendium of the life and works of Martin Shaw (ed. Stephen Connock and Isobel Montgomery Campbell, Albion, 2018), the tune first appears in the fourth edition of Additional tunes and settings in use at St Mary’s Primrose Hill, published around 1920.
A 1975 centenary appreciation of Martin Shaw, by the church music guru Erik Routley, notes that ‘Little Cornard’ “badly needs a text fit to sing”. Shaw apparently wrote it for the hymn ‘Hills of the north, rejoice!‘ by Charles Oakley (1832–1865), and the words from the 1860s have not aged well. Their view of the world’s regions as passive, empty candidates for blessing doesn’t work any more.
If you click through to the hymnary.org entry you’ll first encounter the revised words that the editors of English Praise – a supplement to the English Hymnal – put together in 1975. You’ll see a further link that will let you compare those words with Oakley’s original text.
Revisions continue; additionally, if you took your exploration further, you’ll have seen twelve more English-language hymns, unrelated to this one, that compilers of hymn-books have linked with the tune. Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era suggests ‘Little Cornard’ for use with his metrical version of the Easter anthems (a compilation of texts from the letters of St Paul). It works rather well there.
Little Cornard values its heritage
The parish church of All Saints in Little Cornard is conscious of its link with the tune and acknowledges this on its web site. Churchwarden Brenda Pentney told me they are looking forward to the arrival of a new incumbent in August, and to picking up, after their interregnum, on things that matter to them as a congregation. The Revd Daniel Whiffen will be licensed at St Mary, Bures, on 22 August.
And who’s that riding up on horseback, with a box of hymn-books coming on behind him?