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in London 1890-94, the Corno di Bassetto volume of London Music in 1888-89, The Perfect Wagnerite and Mr Laurence’s now superseded edition of How to Become a Musical Critic can any longer feel they know all that Shaw has to offer in this field.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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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