Observations on G B Shaw as a music critic

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Just when the subjects of musical criticism and musical appreciation have nauseated most earnest lovers of music, there have appeared two books talking of musical criticism in a more refreshing way than is usual. Michael Calvocoressi’s Musical Criticism is the credo of one of the most accomplished men of letters in Europe today and the other book is the first of three volumes of criticism contributed by George Bernard Shaw to The World during the years 1890-1894. Now, according to all the laws of pedagogy and respected opinion, Shaw should be equally ignorant of music and the drama. In truth, his insight into music often surprises, though this is overclouded by impertinence concealed in fine writing.

Yet, strange to say I was fascinated by his plays, which I read during the long winter evenings of wartime varied by incursions to Ibsen, Hauptmann. Sudermann, Synge, Arnold Bennett and Granville Barker1. How then I longed to see Shaw’s plays performed! Incidentally. his satirical novel entitled ‘ Love among the Artists ought to be read by all music-ians, because it concerns them and is so delightfully whimsical and amusing.

Shaw’s Music in London, the book now before me, reflects the generating station of the mind that was to be revealed in the satire and cleverness of the plays. One may regret that such a man should tave been lost to music; but, knowing his plays. I am sure that musical criticism was too small a field for his genius. In the same way, the fields of real politics and practical sociology are too vast for the man of words, however smart they may seem. There is always something pulling Shaw down: while protesting much, he typifies the class that sacrifices nothing, but gains much from ridicule turned on those who create rather than destroy. Allowing that he represents, or did represent, the ardent Wagnerite of forty years ago, I find it hard to understand his antipathy to Brahms. Every time a Brahms work was produced, or a ‘Mus.Doc. oratorio in buff covers’ came to his desk, Shaw saw red and at once produced some very good ‘copy.’ But Brahms’s music is an ever growing power in the land.

Shaw’s art is largely that of satire: it excites. Some of his plays will live: and even this book may in the next century be consulted as a curiosity, just in the same way as we take down and read about a sojourn in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century. What Show said in 1894 is no wiser than the criticism of other men: the giants and wild beasts, the dullards and dolts, are his recognisable ‘properties.’ His writings of forty years ago were printed in a feeble ‘society’ weekly (The World) and in an evening paper much addicted to sport (The Star): so it is more than probable that no musician of the time ever read a word he wrote. I admit the possibility of Elgar having read Shaw, and this from the fact that some long time ago he described him as the most brilliant music critic of the age, though this encomium may have followed a reading of Shaw’s ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’2.

  1. The unfamiliar name here is that of Heinrich Sudermann (1857-1928), a once-fashionable German novelist and dramatist whose Heimat was a star vehicle for actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell. Brian's range of reference will provide fertile pastures for influence-hunters regarding the libretto of The tigers on which Shaw at least had an effect. ↩︎

  2. Brian (who had not been in personal contact with Elgar for many years) seems unaware of the then close friendship between Elgar and Shaw. ↩︎

Musical opinion, July 1932, p. 826