George Bernard Shaw

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

George Bernard Shaw – (George Bernard Shaw by Sir (John) Bernard Partridge watercolour, circa 1925 )

 George Bernard Shaw’s alter ego as a music critic, was corno di bassetto, (bassett horn). This polymath genius’s influence on music, over 70 years of writing about it, was such that, had he not written another word save that about music, his importance would still be noted.

 Arnold Schoenberg was moved to express his admiration in the form of a canon.

 [[Arnold Schoenberg]  To Amandeo de Filippi, May 1949: ‘The Canon for Bernard Shaw was made on the occasion of his 70th birthday when his German admirers, amongst whom I counted myself, sent him a birthday present with such contributions. Bernard Shaw was much too original to answer to such a present.’

  Shaw had little truck with amateurism:

 ‘Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned.’

 …but was equally concerned to remind his readers that there was a time for all kinds of music; even reminding Beethoven himself of that:

 ‘…I remember that British Colonel who called on Beethoven when the elderly composer was working at his posthumous quartets, and offered him a commission for a work in the style of his jejeune septet. Beethoven drove the Colonel out his house with objuration. I think that was uncivil. There is a time for the septet, and a time for the posthumous quartets.’ London, May 26th 1905

 A committed Wagnerite, Shaw was not shy of expressing his very informed opinion of composers that he felt did not come up to his, or even their own, standards. Writing on Brahms in 1881 he observed:

 (June 1881)-The World: ‘I will not deny that there was a sort of broken thread of vocal tone running through the sound-fabric; but for the most part, it was a horrible tissue of puffing and wheezing and groaning and shrieking and spluttering and grunting and generally making every sort of noise that is incidental to bad singing, severe exertion, and mortal fear of losing one’s place. It was really worse than the influenza.’

 Talking to Anaïs Nin, herself the daughter of the composer, Joaqin Nin, he reminded her that art, literature and music had to find a way of coexisting with the everyday;

 [Nin] ‘Diary. January 1st 1921: “Life is not all plays and poems.” G.B.Shaw’

 The young composer Michael Tippett was determined to beard the ageing Shaw for position on homosexuality, but found himself neatly sidestepped:

 [Tippett] ‘I wrote to Bernard Shaw to obtain his views on homosexuality, but his secretary replied with a postcard: “Mr Shaw has asked me to say that h has no knowledge of this matter, and that since it has nothing to do with the great march of evolution, it is irrelevant’. That grandiose statement for a while made me determined to prove him wrong; for perhaps even Shaw was afraid of it.’

 Shaw, a keen amateur pianist, managed to convince Harriet Cohen to play duets with him on at least one occasion. In 1928, he wrote to Cohen:

 ‘I think I shall come and take piano lessons. Why is it that after fumbling over the keyboard for 57 years I can play anything except a scale? You may love me to distraction in perfect safety: at 72, I walk the plains of heaven and you can nothing to me an angel.’ (8th February 1928)

 Like Edward Elgar, he was profoundly moved by the arrival of the young Jascha Heifetz in London, in 1920. His fan letter to the young virtuoso has acquired mythical status amongst musicians!

 My Dear Heifetz/Your recital has filled my wife and I with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly./G. Bernard Shaw


 Arnold Schoenberg-Letters, Ed. Erwin Stein, Faber and Faber, London, 1964, P. 272

 Man and superman (act 3) 1903

 The Book of Prefaces, Alasdair Gray, Bloomsbury, London,  2002, P.622

The Mirror of Music, Percy Scholes, Volume 2, Novello and Co, OUP, London/Oxford, 1944, P.751, Pp.430-1

The Early Diary of Anais Nin, Volume 2, 1920-3, HBJ, New York, 1992, P.116

Those twentieth century blues, Michael Tippett, Pimlico, London 1994, P.53

 Music and Men, The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen, Helen Fry, The History Press, Gloucester, 2009, P.166

Letter George Bernard Shaw, 5th May 1920