Fabian Figaro

Michael Holroyd

  • Shaw’s Music. Vol. I: 1876-1890 edited by Dan Laurence
    Bodley Head, 957 pp, £15.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 370 30247 8
  • Shaw’s Music. Vol. II: 1890-1893 by Dan Laurence
    Bodley Head, 985 pp, £15.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 370 30249 4
  • Shaw’s Music. Vol. III: 1893-1950 by Dan Laurence
    Bodley Head, 910 pp, £15.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 370 30248 6
  • Conducted Tour by Bernard Levin
    Cape, 240 pp, £7.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 224 01896 5

Second-hand book dealers will tell you that of all Bernard Shaw’s out-of-print works, the volumes of music criticism have been in most constant demand. It is therefore excellent news (except perhaps to second-hand book dealers) that the Bodley Head has now issued, in the same chunky format as the Collected Plays, these three volumes containing all Shaw’s writings on music.

The hero of this enterprise is that doyen of Shaw scholars, Dan Laurence. Unlike the seven volumes of plays (for which Mr Laurence acted only as editorial supervisor), Shaw’s Music carries the imprimatur of the full Laurence editorship that distinguishes the two volumes so far published of his edition of Shaw’s Collected Letters. Though otherwise tireless, Mr Laurence always stops short at the index, which in this case acts as a table of contents, covers 120 pages and has been compiled by a second hero, Mr Ralph Bateman.

Mr Laurence is primarily and most formidably a bibliographical scholar. His bibliography of Shaw is awaited by all those engaged in Shaw studies with something of the frenzy of telephone subscribers without directories. One of the chief features of Shaw’s Music is the 125,000 words that Mr Laurence has patiently and impeccably quarried out from old issues of the Hornet, the Dramatic Review, the Pall Mall Gazette and elsewhere – a task made no easier for him by the fact that they were mostly unsigned. No one who has the three volumes of Music in London 1890-94, the Corno di Bassetto volume of London Music in 1888-89, The Perfect Wagnerite and Mr Laurence’s now superseded edition of How to Become a Musical Critic can any longer feel they know all that Shaw has to offer in this field.

There are some disappointments. The price of £45 for the set would have shocked Shaw, who fought hard to lower the cost and increase the print run of his books. It looks as if the Bodley Head believes that these days there are all too few deaf stockbrokers – the audience that, Shaw boasted, he could hypnotise into reading his ‘pages on music’. Another disappointment is Mr Laurence’s Introduction, which turns out to be merely an updated version of the Introduction he wrote 20 years ago to How to Become a Musical Critic. Some of the alterations are minimal: ‘British’ becomes ‘English’; the ‘latest’ edition of Grove is now a ‘recent’ edition, and so on. Other changes seem to display a shift in Mr Laurence’s romantic emphases: Greer Garson arrives; Leonard Bernstein departs. More interesting is the partial reversal of Mr Laurence’s estimate of Shaw’s criticism of Brahms. In 1960 he quoted Shaw’s remark that ‘Brahms is just like Tennyson, an extraordinary musician, with the brains of a third-rate, village policeman’, as evidence of Shaw’s hostile misjudgment. In the revised Introduction this is omitted and Mr Laurence writes that ‘one might argue with considerable conviction that Shaw’s early estimate of Brahms was the correct one, for which his subsequent apology was unnecessary.’ Though this is slightly misleading (Shaw’s earliest impression of Brahms, after hearing the Piano Quartet in G Minor in 1876, was of ‘the genius of a master of whom we in this country know far too little’), it is a courageous change of mind.

A controversial aspect of Shaw’s Music is the decision to reprint all the articles Shaw ghosted for Vandeleur Lee in the Hornet when he first came to London in 1876. At the end of his life Shaw wrote that ‘the Hornet-Lee articles are buried in the newspaper files of the British Museum and perhaps in other libraries. They have never been republished and never will, I hope, as they are full of the vulgarest interpolations by other hands.’ Mr Laurence does not quote this, but suggests that Shaw’s claim that he had had his text mutilated was much exaggerated. He has therefore, against Shaw’s wishes, republished the lot, advising us to read with caution the praise of Sterndale Bennett and with disbelief one piece of anti-Wagnerism. His decision to do this seems partly to have rested on the fact that Shaw did not destroy these notices, which are now part of the Shaw Collection in the British Library. Though such reasoning seems to me wrong-headed, I feel certain that Mr Laurence’s decision is nevertheless the correct one and is justified by their quality.

The Hornet pages do not have the brio of ‘Corno di Bassetto’ of the Star or G.B.S. of the World. They are careful, correct, a little laborious sometimes and severe, reflecting perhaps the humiliating conditions of what Shaw felt to be a dishonest collaboration. Yet the confidence and maturity of the 20-year-old Shaw is extraordinary. He is not afraid, on a first hearing, to dismiss Sir Frederic Cowen’s new opera Pauline as possessing ‘little originality’ and displaying ‘an utter absence of dramatic faculty’. Carl Rosa’s leader is accused of having played flat ‘from beginning to end’; Herr Behrens is spotted frequently substituting ‘semiquaver passages for the triplets’ and betraying his ignorance of English by selecting the middle of a phrase as a suitable opportunity to take breath. Shaw castigates the timidity of other music critics twice or three times his age ‘who can only judge one performance by reference to another’ and shows off his own independence most fiercely when attacking ‘the extremely low degree of excellence exhibited in operatic performances in England’. Here and there are flashes of the later Shaw. He describes William Carter’s cantata, Placida, as ‘eminently inoffensive. It constantly refreshes the listener with reminiscences of familiar masters.’ A little later, Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser holds the audience seated ‘despite the loss of the express at 5.15 entailed by waiting’. Gradually, over almost a year on the Hornet, these instances of Shavian wit and spirit increase. ‘Some glees were contributed by the London Vocal Union. These gentlemen, despite an occasional tendency to get out of tune and glare reproachfully at one another, acquitted themselves very fairly.’ ‘Madame Goddard played fantasias on English and Scotch airs, and fascinated her hearers with a strikingly unpleasant imitation of the bagpipe.’ ‘Signor Rota, as Enrico, proved himself a master of the art of shouting.’ ‘There is a lady [in the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s opera Santa Chiara] in whom “pride of rank transcendeth”, who is poisoned by her husband. She dies temporarily, after the manner of Juliet, is canonised, and appears subsequently as a saint, after which her husband stabs himself in order to permit the tenor to marry her.’ ‘The military drum and cymbals, never very welcome, are particularly objectionable at Her Majesty’s, the instruments used being utterly destitute of tone. It would be cheaper, and equally effectual, for Sir Michael to employ a stage carpenter to bang the orchestra door at a prearranged signal.’ ‘Why is it that the Master of Ravenswood, whenever he appears on the stage in the opera, proceeds to fling his cloak and hat on the ground with a melodramatic air? It is ridiculous in the first act, impolite in the second, and only justified by the prospect of suicide in the third.’

These were the sort of comments, heralding the New Journalism of the 1880s, that finished the Hornet. So at any rate Shaw liked to think. In fact, they led to the end of his own connection with the paper. ‘I stipulated for your production and not that of a Substitute,’ the editor wrote to Vandeleur Lee. ‘I can’t insert the class of writing I have read the last 2 weeks ... Please would you send word to your man to send no more copy.’

Most of the hitherto uncollected criticism in Shaw’s Music belongs to the years 1876-1888. Shaw seems to have reached his fully precocious style in the spring of 1885, shortly before his 30th birthday. Earlier that year he had begun contributing unsigned notices to the Dramatic Review. On 24 April he attended the first performance of Nadeshda, a romantic opera in four acts by Arthur Goring Thomas:

it appears that this Nadeshda is regarded by her neighbours as somewhat fanciful, but gifted with an excellent disposition and considerable personal attractiveness. She presently appears, laden with flowers. Ostap intimates that he has something particular to say to her if she will allow him. She holds out no hope to him of a satisfactory reply to his communication, and begs him to think no more of her. He expresses his determination to knife the whole universe first, then withdraws. Then Nadeshda, left alone, anticipates Wordsworth in an impassioned address to the beauties of nature, more particularly to a river which has been for a long time the sole confidant of her vague aspirations. The distant voices of her companions recall her to commonsense, and she disappears; but not before she has conveyed quite definitely, if a little periphrastically, that she is in want of a lover.

In his ‘reassessment’ of Shaw, Colin Wilson wrote that ‘he was a bad music critic because he was possessed by ideas that prevented him from listening to the music.’ Certainly Shaw used Wagner, as he had used Whistler in his art criticism and Ibsen in his ‘Dramatic Opinions’, for political and philosophical purposes: he made them embodiments of realism against the philistine and conservative forces of the idealists. But at many of the operas, concerts and recitals he attended it was the music, Shaw claimed, that prevented him from listening. His series of articles in the Star and the World gives us a wonderfully vivid and convincing picture of the musical climate in Late Victorian times – the performances appallingly under-rehearsed, the academic composers borrowing so much and assimilating so little. Shaw’s humour, which is seldom malign, acts as a consolation for the lack of musical content. He turns to literary and dramatic criticism, as with Nadeshda, when he is offered by way of music ‘blatant nonsense’.

Music had been a necessity to Shaw since childhood. ‘Only a musician’s appreciation has any gratification for me,’ he told Neville Cardus. Getting to know the great body of music from Bach to Sibelius was ‘far more educative’, he said, than being dragged through dead languages. From Mozart, ‘the master of masters’, he believed he had learnt how to say profound things in a lively way. Ernest Newman, with whom Shaw crossed swords over Wagner and Richard Strauss (their long fencing matches, with a rather cavalier regard for copyright, are reproduced in Shaw’s Music), wrote of his criticisms as being ‘by far the most brilliant things that musical journalism has ever produced in this country ... [and] in a style that, for pace, for directness, for point, for wit and humour, for variety of colour, makes the best that is being written by the musical critics of today [1932] look third-rate’. Newman also claimed that Shaw was ‘astonishingly right’ with regard to performers, such as Paderewski, who were just appearing, and made few mistakes over composers – overrating Gluck was perhaps one of them.

In fact, Shaw was strongest on dramatic music. He knew the operatic repertory extremely well (particularly Italian opera) and was an excellent judge of vocal technique. His hatred of oratorios and requiems arose partly from his historical sense: too many contemporary composers, he believed, simply imitated Handel and Mendelssohn. In the summer of 1885, he wrote:

Our really serious music is no longer recognised as religious, whilst our professedly religious music ... is only remarkable as naive blasphemy, wonderfully elaborated, and convinced of its own piety. Doubtless, many of the public are pleased, much as they would be if, on going to church, they found sensational novels bound up in their Bible covers, and were surprised to find Scripture so amusing. The critics are much of the same opinion: Mendelssohn is still their idol; and it was Mendelssohn who popularised the pious romancing which is now called sacred music; in other words, the Bible with the thought left out. M. Gounod proved his capacity in this direction by giving us Faust with all Goethe’s thought left out, and, the result having been so successful (and, it must be confessed, so irresistibly charming), it is natural that he should turn his attention to the Bible, which is worshipped in England so devoutly by people who never open it, that a composer has but to pick a subject, or even a name, from it, to ensure a half-gagged criticism and the gravest attention for his work, however, trivial ... If Handel were alive today, his Messiah would wear another guise, which would probably not be recognisable by the Birmingham committee as a sacred one, and which would certainly not be explicitly religious.

It was this academic knowledge of musical history, curious in one who so wittily dismissed academic musical criticism, that apparently enabled Shaw to dismiss Schubert as not having ‘added anything’ to Mozart and Beethoven ‘except sugar’. But behind this lay a deeper aversion. Shaw claimed that his method of judging music was to do with his ears what he did with his eyes when he stared. But to intimate, reflective, inward-looking or melancholy music he literally could not bear listening. He was a poor judge of most chamber music because it tended to conflict with his moral commitment to optimism and the 24-hours-a-day cheerfulness with which the public personality of G.B.S. had been orchestrated. So the future author of Back to Methuselah is able, at the age of 20, to describe as ‘decidedly too long’ Schubert’s String Quintet in C, the whole point of which is the remorselessness with which heartbreak is unflinchingly charted. And at the age of 42, for almost identical reasons, he disposes of Schubert’s Quartet in D minor, ‘Death and the Maiden’, as something that did not greatly matter: ‘by the time they came to the variations on Death and the Maiden, I was reconciled to Death and indifferent to the Maiden.’

At the opening of the first Malvern Festival in 1929, Elgar accused Shaw of knowing much more about music than he himself did – to which Shaw retaliated by saying that ‘though rather a conceited man, I am quite sincerely and genuinely humble in the presence of Sir Edward Elgar. I recognise a greater art than my own, and a greater man than I can ever hope to be.’ A similar point is made in the Preface to Mrs Warren’s Profession, where Shaw wrote that ‘the drama of pure feeling is no longer in the hands of the playwright: it has been conquered by the musician, after whose enchantments all the verbal arts seem cold and tame ... there is, flatly, no future now for any drama without music except the drama of thought.’ For all his extraordinary gifts, it was this separation of thought from feeling that made Shaw sense his diminished stature when set against people he really admired: Elgar and Einstein; William Morris and Rodin. ‘I abandon romance to the musician,’ G.B.S. declared. But it was his knowledge that what he had really abandoned was part of his emotional life that, in another moment of humility, made him sign one of his letters ‘Shaw Limited’.

Shaw’s volumes of music criticism were Bernard Levin’s Bible. ‘I read them until I knew huge chunks of them by heart,’ he writes, ‘and can recite much of them still.’ He makes the same division as Shaw between thought and feeling, describing music as ‘a holiday for the mind’ and arguing that we ‘cannot take in any artistic experience through the mind, and music least of all.’ Though they have similar temperaments, the two Bernards followed different courses. Shaw was a writing-machine who, having tuned the Shavian instrument to speech, wrote dialogue and experimented with the ‘drama of thought’. Levin is a talking-machine who uses his typewriter to pour his talk onto paper. His diary of sight-seeing and sound-hearing, covering a dozen music festivals in seven and a half months last year, has all the virtues of his conversation. It is a genial record of someone easily pleased, instinctively generous and touchingly grateful. The sentences are wildly peripatetic and his philosophy, by Shavian standards, shockingly self-indulgent. He has equipped himself with all the apparatus of happiness: the glass of wine (champagne); the reference library of verse and prose; the loaf of garlic bread; and Thou at the end of a telephone line. Flying from one festival to the next, he bathes himself in sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. But after each ‘holiday for the mind’, he is overcome with a pessimism so dark ‘that self-ending seems the only appropriate response.’ So he drinks more of what Shaw called the ‘brandy of the damned’ and lets in the great emotions vicariously, fantastically and (he hopes) safely: like Ulysses, bound to the mast and rowed by his unhearing crew for ever round the siren island.