Friday, November 6, 2009


George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and moved to London in 1876. Growing up in an impoverished genteel Irish Protestant family with a drunken father, an opera singer for a mother and the Irish impresario George John Vandaleur Lee as a family friend, Shaw had been steeped in music. From his arrival in London until 1895, his major income came from music reviews. By 1890 he was the principal music critic for The World under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto.

Shaw wrote plays prolifically but except for the American run of The Devil's Disciple (1897) without success until 1904. (His second play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, might have succeeded but was banned during Victoria’s reign.) His major successes occurred rapidly in the Edwardian era: John Bull's Other Island in 1904, Man and Superman and Major Barbara both in 1905 and The Doctor's Dilemma in 1906. Pygmalion came in 1914 and was commercially successful. After that Bernard Shaw’s witty musical criticisms continued but in reduced volume. In July 1917 he remarked: “As I am only half a critic now, I act up to that character by going to only half an opera at a time.”

His insight into music was remarkable. Upon the centenary of Mozart’s death, he summarized: “Mozart came at the end of a development, not at the beginning of one … in art the highest success is to be the last of your race, not the first. Anybody, almost, can make a beginning: the difficulty is to make an end – to do what cannot be bettered.”

His style as a reviewer was vigorous, opinionated and frequently provocative. In March 1893 he remarked: “The concert began with Schubert’s unfinished symphony, which on this occasion ought to have been his uncommenced symphony.”

Shaw’s reviews praised Mozart, Gluck, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar, and heaped scorn on Mendelssohn, Brahms and all Slavic and Bohemian composers. He had a gift for operatic criticism. In 1894 he presciently stated: “Italian opera has been born again … Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini and Verdi … Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals.”

Unlike today, when symphony concerts primarily feature the great works of dead masters, nineteenth-century concerts and operas were largely of new music. The established Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Wagner and the under-forty Elgar and Strauss were all live composers introducing new symphonic works. The critics of England and Germany divided into two camps: those believing Johannes Brahms to be the successor to Beethoven and Richard Wagner to be a vainglorious fool, and those believing that Brahms was trivial and Wagner was the apotheosis of the romantic era. Shaw came down vigorously on the side of Wagner.


Some of his most entertaining comments bear on this contretemps. In an 1888 review of a performance of a Brahms piano concerto, he wrote: “Brahms’s music is at bottom only a prodigiously elaborated compound of incoherent reminiscences, and it is quite possible … to struggle with his music for an hour at a stretch without giving such an insight … as half a dozen bars of a sonata by Mozart.” Much later, in 1936, Shaw recognized that it was unnecessary to be anti-Brahms in order to be pro-Wagner. He footnoted that review in an anthology: “The above hasty (not to say silly) description of Brahms’s music will, I hope, be a warning to critics who know too much. … I had not yet got hold of the idiosyncratic Brahms. I apologize.”

In 1894, Shaw explained why it was incorrect to analyze Ring of the Nibelungen as an opera: “Wagner abandoned operatic composition altogether, and took to writing dramatic poems, and using all the resources of orchestral harmony and vocal tone to give them the utmost reality and intensity of expression, thereby producing … ‘music-drama,’ which is no more ‘reformed opera’ than a cathedral is a reformed stone quarry.” In 1898, Shaw published The Perfect Wagnerite, one of the classics of music criticism. The book contains commentary on both the musically revolutionary Ring and the politically revolutionary Richard Wagner (exiled for a time for his actions and sentiments).

Shaw himself was politically outspoken as a pacifist. In a 1919 article regarding the future of British music, he details the blow to the fine arts that was dealt by compulsory military service in the Great War of 1914-1918. “Consider what the state of music would have been if Sebastian Bach had been engaged in the Thirty Years War?” he asked.

The rest is history: accolades for his drama (the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature) and vilification for his socialism and pacifism. Yet these two aspects of George Bernard Shaw’s character were inextricably entwined. We could not have had one without the other.

Wagner (Clementine Stockar-Escher, 1853)
Brahms (Carl Jagemann c. 1860)
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #458
November 6, 2009


  1. Shaw's point still holds. One can only imagine how many doctors, scientists, teachers, poets, composers, artists, parents, mentors, friends and encouragers have gone down before their time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And among all the children slaughtered there, would one of them have grown up to be a Rumi? How many Peacemakers are gone before we knew them?

  2. "his uncommenced symphony"...hahahahaha...I love it! It is good to have a sense of humor and good wit when discussing one's opinions about musical performances.