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Dr. Shaw’s Music Lessons

Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Criticism

edited by Dan H. Laurence
Dodd, Mead, Volume III, 910 pp., $150 (the set)

The progress of the race makes it more and more apparent that the middleclass musical critic is the most ridiculous of human institutions. I do not take my function seriously, because it is impossible for an intelligent man to do so; and I am an eminently intelligent man.

—Corno di Bassetto

It has been more than a hundred years since the twenty-year-old George Bernard Shaw attended a performance of a barely tolerable opera, Pauline. He accompanied George John Vandeleur Lee—his mother’s voice teacher and surrogate husband—and wrote a long, picayune, and tedious account of the proceedings. Lee passed it on to the editor of The Hornet under his own name.

But it was still an auspicious beginning. During the following decades, Shaw kept going to concerts, at first with Lee, then alone. His music criticism continued for a year or so after that 1876 debut, intermittently appeared during the mid-Eighties, and became a weekly feature of the London musical scene between 1888 and 1894. Now every word that Shaw wrote about music, from the first review to the questionnaire he answered before his death in 1950, is contained in the 2,854 pages of the three red-bound, overpriced, boxed volumes Shaw’s Music, including over 125,000 words never before collected.

There are, unfortunately, artificial titles given each review, there are no tables of contents, and there is sparse annotation of the text; but the editor, Dan H. Laurence, has performed a service to both Shaw and the contemporary reader. Included are not only reviews, but The Perfect Wagnerite, the essay “How to Become a Musical Critic,” a page from Shaw’s musical setting of verses by Shelley, Shaw’s critical show-downs with Ernest Newman in 1910 and 1914, a report he wrote on Salvation Army bands in 1906, and an index that refers to Goethe, Goetz, and the Royal College of Music.

But aside from what it tells us about Shaw, Shaw’s Music is a reminder that not much has changed since his first review. If the unavoidable stretches of tedium, the detailed trivia, and the brilliant glints of Shaw’s swordplay do not distract us, Shaw’s Music provides a lively portrait of our own time.

For Shaw’s music is our music. Though most of Shaw’s criticism was written between 1888 and 1894, the New York critic today might as well be gadding about Shaw’s London, keeping an ear out for the best performances, rushing out of concerts and grabbing a taxi to meet a late-night deadline, racing to another symphony or piano recital—and griping about the musical scene.

The contemporary critic might copiously quote his predecessor: “The performances to which we are accustomed…seem to move in a narrow circle from weak incompetence or coarse violence to the perfection of lifeless finish.” He might also complain of the abundant music “festivals”: “The aims of the Festival givers necessarily are, firstly, commercial; secondly, phenomenal; and lastly, artistic.” And he might groan along with Shaw about the “dreary, deadly subscription-night Traviatas and Trovatores,” or the “conservatism” of the Philharmonic Society. He would hear much the same music—Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Wagner and Handel, Brahms and Rossini, Carmen and Faust.

Of course, there are a few differences. Opera performances are not interrupted, as Patti’s were, by encore renditions of “Home Sweet Home.” More music is played from memory. The British mania for oratorios has died down. We cannot complain about neglect of Mozart. Concerts no longer last for three hours. And we are spared the mediocre new music of Shaw’s day.

But these are minor matters. We are still living in a nineteenth-century musical culture. At the time Shaw was writing, it was beginning to congeal into its present state. Shaw’s vitality is only a reminder of how stalwart, stodgy, and stagnant our own musical life has become. This makes Shaw’s Music more than just a collection of criticism by one of the most perceptive, strong-willed critics in English; Shaw’s passions, his tastes, and his failings resound in contemporary ears, providing lessons, offering warnings.

Laurence places Shaw’s 1935 autobiographical essay at the front of this otherwise chronological collection; it reveals how Shaw’s musical passions were bound up with the man who sat beside him at that first concert—Vandeleur Lee, the author of The Voice: Its Artistic Production, Development, and Preservation, and sometime director of Dublin’s “Amateur Musical Society.” All his education, Shaw writes, all his appreciation for beauty, “I owed to the meteoric impact of Lee with his music, his method, his impetuous enterprise and his magnetism.”

Lee, it seems, taught Shaw’s mother about the voice and about music, saving the “thoroughly disgusted and disillusioned woman.” She “embraced” Lee’s “musical faith” so passionately that Lee moved into the Shaw household in 1866, overshadowing Shaw’s father, who had a “drinking neurosis.” Shaw insisted that the ménage à trois was innocently musical, not carnal. But Lee left Dublin for London in 1873 to further his musical career and Shaw’s mother followed. Later, Shaw deserted his father for Lee as well.

Then, as Shaw tells it, in London, Lee began to deteriorate—he set up shop teaching gushing ladies how to sing like the great Patti in twelve easy lessons. Shaw turned out to be a better keeper of the musical flame. Having been taught about music by Lee, Shaw finally took Lee’s place, living alone with his mother until he was forty, by which time he had become a music critic of European reputation.

By that time too, the mid-1890s, he had become a renowned dramatist—the author of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Arms and the Man—and a failed novelist—the author of a half-dozen epics. He had also served as a drama critic, an art critic, a street-corner orator, and an important member of the Fabian socialist movement.

But music was one of his deepest passions—a passion as religious as his socialism. His mother’s marriage had, after all, “been cured by Lee’s music”; without music the ménage à trois might also be “unpleasantly misunderstood.” Shaw notes that even Pavlov, who “tormented and mutilated dogs most abominably,” might have been saved had he “been taught to sing by my mother.” Music saved him as well; it was, he said, the only power “religious enough to redeem me from the abomination of desolation.”

Much of Shaw’s other work constantly draws upon musical images. The plays are full of musicianly characters. Man and Superman is built around references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In 1939 Shaw said: “My method, my system, my tradition, is founded upon music. It is not founded upon literature at all. I was brought up on music.” When he marked his plays for performance he often used musical notation.

And when he wrote criticism, it was with a far from innocent conviction:

The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform.

Even meant with mock intensity, these were the words of a man for whom music was more than euphonious harmony. Shaw wrote:

Criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic.

This overwhelming personal involvement with the “religion” of music made him one of the best critics ever to write about it.

But such an overwrought dedication to music for personal reasons did not produce tiresome writing. Shaw wrote: “The critic who cannot interest the public in his real self has mistaken his trade,” and he created a persona for his “real self” in much of his mature criticism—Corno di Bassetto. The name, he regretfully noted, refers to “a wretched instrument” replaced by the bass clarinet. “Its peculiar watery melancholy and the total absence of any richness or passion in its tone, is just the thing for a funeral.” But each week in The Star, from February 1889 to May 1890, Shaw’s Bassetto was gleeful more than funereal—vulgar, self-congratulatory, ironic, vitriolic, witty. “The term ‘ass,”’ he wrote, “I take to be a compliment. Modesty, hard work, contentment with plain fare, development of ear, underestimation by the public: all these are the lot of the ass and the last of the Bassettos.”

Bassetto is a caricature of a critic, as much an exaggerated savior of music as Lee was for Shaw himself. By the time Bassetto had his say, the persona “G.B.S.” was ready to take his place for several more years of music reviewing. These personas, it turned out, helped to make Shaw subtle, rather than merely clever. He recognized that the critic was acquiring a role in musical life that was not limited to expression of opinion. By Shaw’s time music had begun to be what it is today—a product bartered in a complex market. The critic was caught up in the workings of that system every time his proclamations were turned into newsprint for the perusal of players and consumers.

By taking himself seriously yet caricaturing himself as an agent of illumination, vengeance, and publicity, Shaw ruthlessly satirized his role while still preserving it. Shaw’s work, in fact, marks the beginning of the modern period in music criticism. Criticism began in earnest in the nineteenth century when the public concert had come into its own, newspapers grew, and music became an art by and for the middle class. Once the art became autonomous and public, it could be argued about, politicized; factions could press their sides. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s championship of Beethoven, Schumann’s praise of Chopin—these were exercises in a new form. The professional critic also developed along with the commercial musical culture, becoming a part of the industry, with his own caste, manners, and language.

Then, according to Shaw, along came Bassetto. “I purposely vulgarized musical criticism,” he explained, “which was then refined and academic to the point of being unreadable and often nonsensical.” As the manners of Western musical life were beginning to settle into professionalism on one side and commercialism on the other, Shaw saw the need for a more potent force. The socialist even wanted to reach “deaf stockbrokers.” “I am always electioneering,” he said.

Shaw became an adversary of his culture. He ridiculed journalistic criticism, with its platitudes and praise, and called it “beginner’s work,” the result of being “on terms of private intimacy with all the artists and impresarios,” of having “obligations to them in the way of tickets and scraps of information,” of running “a little business in the libretto and analytical program line.”

A critic, Shaw wrote,

should not know anybody: his hand should be against every man, and every man’s hand against his. Artists insatiable by the richest and most frequent doses of praise; entrepreneurs greedy for advertisement; people without reputations who want to beg or buy them ready made; the rivals of the praised; the friends, relatives, partisans and patrons of the damned; all these have their grudges against the unlucky Minos in the stalls…

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