The Organ

Reminiscence and Recollection: Watkins Shaw, 1911-1996

Richard Lyne: Reminiscence and Recollection: Watkins Shaw, 1911-1996
Published on behalf of the Church Music Society by Margaret Silver, Banks Music Publications, The Old Forge, Sand Hutton, York, YO41 1LB

I only met Harold Watkins Shaw (HWS) once, but the encounter is remembered well – and fondly. It was on a visit to the Royal College of Music where I needed to check a reference in a manuscript music catalogue that the RCM possessed. HWS took a double interest: in my research (the Latin church music of Robert Parsons – died 1570); and me. Upon hearing my Yorkshire accent, he enquired as to my origins. He warmed to me visibly as he learned that I cam from the very same city as he did: Bradford, West Yorkshire. This gem of a booklet is full of similar anecdotes and reminiscences – all comprising warm memories of a wonderful scholar, teacher, librarian – and gentleman.

The first half of this slight monograph is given over to HWS’s own memoirs: and what a wonderful writing style he has! The description of his early years reveals a world long gone, both in terms of the privations – and the joys – of upper working class life during and after the First World War, and of church music in a suburban parish in the north of England in the 1920s. I hope that this particular part of Shaw’s own recollections is widely read, for I suspect that there will be few similar descriptions ever penned. Think of it: an ordinary parish choir able to perform full choral services on a regular basis, accompanied on the organ by someone who had studied in Germany and performed in front of Brahms! The choir was perhaps not so exceptional then, but Charles Stott, organist and choirmaster at All Saints, Little Horton, Bradford, was clearly an exceptional man. There are those who were taught by him in the 1950s who still remember Stott.

The later parts of the booklet have a similar gritty quality, though the writing is always smooth and superbly crafted – a lesson in biographical description. We hear of the success and the struggle of Oxford; life as a teacher and, eventually, HWS’s work at the RCM as Keeper of the Parry Room Library. There is surprisingly little about his scholarship – perhaps as a result of his own modesty – but the list of his output at the end of the booklet shows what a significant impact Watkins Shaw had in the world of musicology – and not just because of his seminal edition of Handel’s Messiah.

The second part of the publication is a series of recollections of HWS from many eminent musicologists, performers, former students and library staff: David Willcocks, Donald Burrows, Roy Massey, Celia Clarke, Brian Harvey, Peter Horton, Roy Massey, Henry Sandon, Pam Thompson and David Wulstan. A number of photographs, from different periods in Shaw’s life, are included. All the reminiscences speak of HWS with warmth and affection. In some way he touched all their lives – and those of many more – for the better, both personally and professionally. His is a wonderful story. I commend this booklet which, modest in tone and format though it may be, reveals a great and generous life, lived well and with great richness for the common good.