Amongst the holdings of Gonville and Caius College library is a little known collection of archival material relating to three sometime Caian composers: Charles Wood (1866-1926), Geoffrey Shaw (1879-1943), and Patrick Hadley (1899-1973). A recent project to draw up a listing of the collection has revealed some interesting stories, none more so than that of the origin of the anthem, “My beloved spake”, which is revealed in a number of letters from its composer Patrick Hadley to its dedicatee, Ursula Grotrian.Chief among the small number of papers and correspondence in the Hadley collection is a letter from a Mrs Ursula Watson, nee Grotrian, dated February 1974, in which she comments on a series of five letters which she encloses as a donation to the college, along with the original manuscript of Hadley’s “My beloved spake”. The occasion was a sad one: the donation was made on the day of Hadley’s memorial service, which took place in the chapel at Gonville and Caius College (where Hadley had been a fellow) on the 16th of February 1974, following his death late in 1973, and at which the anthem was sung by the college choir.
Mrs Watson’s connection with Hadley dated from her attendance at his musical appreciation classes whilst a student at the Royal College of Music in the mid-1930s. In early April 1936 it seems that she wrote to Hadley, asking him to recommend some music for her forthcoming wedding. In the first of the five letters we see Hadley’s response: that he might, if she liked, “try to knock off something if [she] would choose [him] some suitable words”. Grotrian promptly chose verses from the Song of Songs (Hadley thanked her for reminding him of it – “I had forgotten its strangely moving beauty”) and within a week Hadley had composed an anthem, “My beloved spake”, and despatched a manuscript of the new work with a second letter to Grotrian.Three subsequent letters give further insight into both the composition process and Hadley’s sense of humour. In his third letter Hadley, a first world war veteran who returned from the front with injuries necessitating the partial amputation of his right leg, asks Grotrian to make some “minor adjustments” to the score, mostly the organ part, which he confesses to have found difficult to compose, “being all but totally ignorant of the ways of the organ (it would have been useless for me ever to have taken it up after the war, at any rate until they insert foot muscles in wooden legs!)”.
Ursula Grotrian was evidently delighted with the anthem, which became affectionately known between herself and Hadley as “Spook”. In 1986 (twelve years after Hadley’s death) she and her husband Martin invited the college choir to their home in Great Chishill, to perform it on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary. It remains one of Hadley’s best known and most performed compositions.
Just a few short letters provide a fascinating insight into the genesis of an important work and the mind of its composer. Similarly, among the papers of Wood and Shaw, which are by no means large collections, there is much of interest (for example, manuscript drafts and sketches of later published works). One wonders how many similarly small archival collections are waiting in the cupboards or store rooms of libraries and archives throughout the land, with important stories to tell? Very many, is likely to be the answer. A sad thought perhaps, but their rediscovery is an exciting prospect.
A recording of “My beloved spake” can be heard on the website of the Winchester College Chapel Choir. Enquiries about the Wood, Shaw or Hadley collections should be directed to the College Librarian, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge