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 …

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