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How to Become a Musical Critic by George…

How to Become a Musical Critic (original 1960; edition 1960)

by George Bernard Shaw, Dan H. Laurence (Editor)

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Title:How to Become a Musical Critic
Authors:George Bernard Shaw
Other authors:Dan H. Laurence (Editor)
Info:Rupert Hart-Davis, Hardback, 1960. 8vo. xxiii+359 pp. Edited and with Introduction [xi-xxii] by Dan H. Laurence. Editor's Note [xxiii]. First published thus, 1960.
Collections:Bernard Shaw, Your library
Tags:Shaw Musical Criticism, Musical Criticism

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How to Become a Musical Critic by Bernard Shaw (1960)



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George Bernard Shaw

How to Become a Musical Critic

Rupert Hart-Davis, Hardback, 1960.

8vo. xxiii+359 pp. Edited and with Introduction [xi-xxii] by Dan H. Laurence. Editor's Note [xxiii].

First published, 1960.


Editor's Note

Prelude: How to Become a Musical Critic [Dec 1894, The Scottish Musical Monthly]

I. Musical Buzzings of a Ghost Apprentice (The Hornet, 1876–77)
[29 unsigned pieces, often with generic titles or none at all]
6 Dec 1876
13 Dec 1876
20 Dec 1876
3 Jan 1877
17 Jan 1877
7 Feb 1877
28 Feb 1877
7 Mar 1877 (“The Quicksands of Honest Criticism”)
7 Mar 1877 (“Musical Reviews”)
21 Mar 1877
28 Mar 1877
11 Apr 1877
18 Apr 1877
25 Apr 1877
2 May 1877
6 Jun 1877 (“The Wagner Festival”)
20 Jun 1877
27 Jun 1877 (“Wagner at Covent Garden Theatre”)
27 Jun 1877
27 Jun 1877 (“Vocalists of the Season: Signor Fancelli”)
4 Jul 1877 (“Vocalists of the Season: Mlle Albani”)
4 Jul 1877 (“The Handel Festival”)
1 Aug 1877
1 Aug 1877 (“Vocalists of the Season: Sir Michael Costa”)
8 Aug 1877
22 Aug 1877
22 Aug 1877 (“Vocalists of the Season: Mr Santley”)
5 Sep 1877 (“Vocalists of the Season: Mr Vernon Rigby”)
26 Sep 1877 (“A Typical “Popular” Vocalist”)

II. The Emergence of Bassetto (The 1880s)
Music for the People [10 & 17 Mar 1883, The Musical Review]
Herr Richter and His Blue Ribbon [8 Feb 1885, The Dramatic Review]
The Inferno at St James's Hall [15 Feb 1885, The Dramatic Review]
The Bach Bi-Centenary [28 Mar 1885, The Dramatic Review]
English Opera at Drury Lane [11 Apr 1885, The Dramatic Review]
Manon [16 May 1885, The Dramatic Review]
The Marriage of Figaro [6 June 1885, The Dramatic Review]
A Substitute for Strauss [27 Jun 1885, The Dramatic Review]
Art Corner [1885, Our Corner, extracts from a monthly series of musical notes]
Musical Instruments at the Inventions Exhibition [Aug 1885, Magazine of Music]
Singing, Past and Present [1 Aug 1885, The Dramatic Review]
Encores [24 Oct 1885, The Dramatic Review]
Fugue out of Fashion [Nov 1885, Magazine of Music]
Programs [Dec 1885, Magazine of Music]
Palmy Days at the Opera [Jan 1886, Magazine of Music]
Liszt [10 Apr 1886, The Dramatic Review; 2 Aug 1886 Pall Mall Gazette]
The Redemption at the Crystal Palace [8 May 1886, The Dramatic Review]
Memoirs of a Famous Fiddler [5 Jul 1886, Pall Mall Gazette]
A Book for Orators and Singers [26 Jul 1886, Pall Mall Gazette, review Morell Mackenzie’s Hygiene of the Vocal Organs]
Wagner on Orchestral Conducting [28 May 1887, Pall Mall Gazette, review of Wagner’s treatise On Conducting, translated by Edward Dannreuther]
The Don Giovanni Centenary [31 Oct 1887, Pall Mall Gazette]
Boito's Mefistofele [8 Jul 1888, The Star]
Such a Thumping of Pianos [10 Oct 1888, The Star]
Musical Mems: By The Star's Own Captious Critic [15 Feb 1889, The Star]
The Grieg Concert [21 Mar 1889, The Star]
The Philharmonic [24 May 1889, The Star]
Bayreuth and Back [13 Aug 1889, The Hawk]
The Opera Season [Sep 1889, Scottish Art Review]
Wagner in Bayreuth [Oct 1889, The English Illustrated Magazine]
Faust at the Albert Hall [31 Oct 1889, The Star]

III. The Well-Tempered Critic (The 1890s)
Concerts [3 Mar 1890, The Star]
Mr Henry Seiffert's Concert [7 Mar 1890, The Star]
Thorgrim [23 Apr 1890, The Star; 6 May 1890, The Hawk]
Carl Rosa Opera Company: Lohengrin [28 Apr 1890, The Star]
Modern Men: Hans Richter [28 Jun 1890, The Scots Observer]
Modern Men: Sir Arthur Sullivan [6 Sep 1890, The Scots Observer]
The Music Season in London [30 Nov 1891, Bradford Observer]
The Mozart Centenary [12 Dec 1891, The Illustrated London News]
Brahms, Beethoven, and The Barber of Bagdad [23 Dec 1891, The World]
The Superiority of Musical to Dramatic Critics [6 Jan 1892, The Players]
The Rossini Centenary [5 Mar 1892, The Illustrated London News]
The Religion of the Pianoforte [Feb 1894, The Fortnightly Review]
Beethoven's Eight Symphony [6 Nov 1895, The Daily Chronicle]
Bassetto at Bayreuth [22-25 Jul 1896, The Star]
What It Feels Like to be Successful [16 Jan 1897, The Star]

IV. Old Themes and New Music (The Twentieth Century)
Mutilated Opera [31 May 1904, The Times]
Sumptuary Regulations at the Opera [3 Jul 1905, The Times]
Strauss and His Elektra [Mar-Apr 1910, The Nation]
The Reminiscences of Quinquagenarian [6 Dec 1910, improvised address at the Musical Association, Shaw’s report printed in Proceedings, 37th Session, 1910–11]
Causerie on Handel in England [May 1913, Ainslee’s Magazine]
A Neglected Moral of the Wagner Centenary [31 May 1913, The New Statesman]
Gluck in Glastonbury [6 May 1916, The Nation, London]
Mozart with Mozart Left Out [28 Jul 1917, The Nation, London]
Scratch Opera [22 Jun 1918, The Nation, London]
The Future of British Music [19 & 26 Jul 1919, The Outlook, an address to the British Music Society]
Sir Edward Elgar [Jan 1920Music and Letters; Apr 1920, Harper’s Bazar; 9 Jun 1922The Daily News; 20 Dec 1932, The Times, London]
Handel's Messiah [14 Oct 1941The Times, London]
Radio Music [Jan 1947, The Musical Times]
Basso Continuo [25 Oct 1948, The Times, London]
Music Today [20 Apr 1950, Music Today, a questionnaire]

Coda: We Sing Better Than Our Grandparents [11 Nov 1950, Everybody’s Magazine]

Biographical Index
General Index

*In his ToC, Mr Laurence gives only the years in round brackets. I have taken the liberty to add the periodicals from his prefatory notes and change the brackets to square ones. I have retained the editor’s original years and brackets only for the four main parts of the book.


This exquisitely produced hardback has been my second encounter with the musical criticism of Bernard Shaw but the first one with a volume edited by the legendary Shavian scholar Dan H. Laurence. I use the adjective ''legendary'' deliberately and with good reason. I don't know about the confirmed Shavian buffs, but all Shavian neophytes must be deeply grateful to Mr Laurence for his Shavian dedication for decades which has resulted in his editing the definitive texts of the plays and their prefaces (currently available from Penguin Classics), Shaw's enormous correspondence and, quite to the point for this review, his complete musical criticism in three huge volumes titled simply Shaw's Music (1981, 2nd rev. edn. 1989). Mr Laurence is unfortunately no longer with us, but his monumental tribute to Bernard Shaw remains.

How to Become a Musical Critic was first published more than 20 years before the editor's definitive edition of Shaw's complete musical criticism. It certainly is an excellent introduction to the latter, definitely superior to the first one I read, Shaw on Music (ed. Eric Bentley, 1955, reprinted in 2000). To be fair, the volume edited by Mr Bentley is fine in its own way for it presents to the reader excellent selection, thematically organised, of Shaw's essays on music written between 1889 and 1935. Yet Mr Laurence has surpassed his colleague in every possible aspect. How to Become a Musical Critic is chronologically organised and its range is truly stupendous: 74 years! It is unbelievable, yet it's pure arithmetic: Shaw first wrote on music when he was a lad of 20; his last pieces came in 1950, the year of his death at the age of 94. Nor is Mr Laurence's selection less impressive in terms of musical history and genre variety. There is everything for everybody here: from oratorio to opera and from piano pieces to symphonies; from Bach and Handel to Elgar and Sullivan, with a good deal of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner in between. And this book also contains a very useful index indeed; something Mr Bentley's volume conspicuously lacks.

An important point to bear in mind is that the selection in How to Become a Musical Critic is by no means arbitrary. Indeed, it was supposed to supplement the four volumes published in the Standard Edition of Shaw's works – London Music in 1888–89 as Heard by Corno di Bassetto (1937) and Music in London 1890–94 (1932) which collect only (or almost only indeed!) his professional musical criticism for The Star and The World. Unbelievable as it may seem – what an energy that man had! – Shaw wrote numerous musical pieces for other periodicals, not only before and after his ''professional years'' but even during the period 1888–94. These are collected for the first time in this volume, as are pieces from The Star and The World which Shaw omitted from the above-mentioned four volumes. Most of the twentieth-century pieces are letters to editors or addresses made on various occasions. Yet, despite the miscellaneous nature of the selection, there is hardly a single piece without interest for the avid music lover; only in the very last one, written literally days before Shaw's death at the of 94, is there any slight sign of failing faculties, literary or mental.

Except fine selection and scrupulous scholarship, Mr Laurence is the author of a truly magnificent introduction. It is indeed the perfect introduction, entirely concerned with the very subject of the book and, notwithstanding the limited space, containing an exhaustive discussion written in lucid and amusing style. It is obvious that Mr Laurence knows his subject inside out for he provides, to begin with, a conclusive evidence for that, namely a fascinating list of characters and stage directions showing how often Shaw's passion for music surfaces in his fiction or drama. Probably the most impressive of this examples is the protagonist in Love Among the Artists, one of Shaw's early novels, who is a ''modern-composer genius of Beethovenesque intensity.'' Mr Laurence also makes a splendid historical overview of Shaw's career as a musical critic, professional or not, since his early 20s until his middle 90s. It makes a thoroughly absorbing read and I will reluctantly limit myself with three major points here which must be mentioned simply because they are often badly neglected.

Firstly, Bernard Shaw was extremely knowledgeable about music and this was no accident. Shaw's mother was a professional singer and his father played the trombone, though on an amateur level; one of his aunts played the cello, another was skilful with the harp, and his uncle played the ophicleide. In fact, Bernard Shaw grew up constantly surrounded by music; his insatiable curiosity, fabulous energy and awesome intelligence did the rest. Of course Shaw never studied music formally but, then again, he never studied play–writing either, or any writing at all indeed. We would do well to remember, though, that he was intimately familiar with enormous amount of music since his childhood, he had very sharp ears, for he could apparently hear a half-tone difference with ease, and his whole personality was saturated with music since he could remember himself. Indeed, not only did Shaw have a fine baritone voice, and even entertained an adolescent notion to become a professional singer, but until the end of his long life he kept a shelf of orchestral scores and continued to play on his Bechstein and sing works like Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov or Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.

Secondly, Bernard Shaw did make some gross mistakes in his evaluation, but they were comparatively few in comparison with his correct predictions. He may have overestimated Gounod, undervalued Berlioz and misjudged Brahms, but he also passionately defended Bach, Handel, Mozart and Wagner who at the time were far from the pedestals they are set on today, in England at any rate. As I intend show a little below, for all his scathing criticism, Shaw also was amazingly perceptive about Franz Liszt.

Thirdly, when he came to write his first professional reviews in 1889, Bernard Shaw had already had more than a decade of experience in the field; his first tentative notes appeared in 1876 (the year of the world premiere of Wagner's Ring in Bayreuth!) and since 1883 (the year of Wagner's death!) he was writing steadily for different periodicals until he finally came to accept the official position of music critic for The Star. Indeed, before becoming a professional critic and inventing his famous pseudonym Corno di Bassetto, for some half a year in the end of 1888 and the beginning of 1889, Shaw acted as a second-string critic; not before February 15th did his first review under his new nickname appear. His tenure for The World started in May 1890, barely a week after Corno di Bassetto had call it a day in The Star. As for Shaw's earliest pieces in The Hornet, this is a story within the story. It was the legendary Vanderleur Lee, his mother's lover and something of a conductor himself, who arranged the elaborate deception. As Mr Laurence amusingly tells it:

The employment [...] came as the result of a deception played upon the non-related Captain Donald Shaw, editor of The Hornet, a satirical weekly. Vanderleur Lee, whose virtues apparently did not include moral scruple, palmed himself off on editor Shaw as a musical critic and privately arranged for his prodigy to pen the notices. It was a mutually advantageous arrangement, for both attended the concerts and the operatic performances on complimentary tickets, and the Shaw household benefited from the additional income while Lee enjoyed the dubious distinction of being thought a journalist by his acquaintances and pupils.

The deception lasted for nearly a year – from 29 November 1876 to 26 September 1877 – and this only drawback was that Shaw didn't have the opportunity to correct the proofs of his materials. He later complained that the editor had mutilated his writings and even inserted ''puffs'' here and there. But Mr Laurence takes Shaw at his word and makes a strong case that he was probably wrong in thinking so. The few instances of praise in these pieces have a ring of sincerity and, moreover, they are largely confirmed by Shaw's later criticism; the only suspicious element is his compliments for the completely forgotten today overture to Parisina by Sterndale Bennett (28 March 1877). Apart from this instance, there exists one Wagner article with a strong flavour of ''anti-Wagnerism'' which has been proven not have been written by Shaw at all and for this reason it is not included in the volume. His contributions were of course unsigned and, as Mr Laurence tells us, their authorship had to be confirmed by external sources such as Shaw's correspondence, diaries and especially a large cutting-book which contained his ''critical crimes'' from those times but which Shaw kept for three quarters of a century, until his death after which they were published for a first time in book form. Again Mr Laurence's scholarship is highly appreciated, yet in this case it is somewhat superfluous: a brief glance over these pieces is quite enough to be convinced that they might have been written only by Bernard Shaw.

These early pieces for The Hornet are truly remarkable. When I reflect that they were written by a lad of twenty or twenty-one, my incredulity is stretched almost to the point of disbelief. The style is somewhat crude and immature compared with Shaw's later writings, but his biting sarcasm and colossal abilities to put everything in the funniest possible way are here all right. Some of these short notices are also of immense historical interest, such as the one from 6 June 1877 which contains a very important description of Richard Wagner as conductor. Yes, Shaw really was there when the great composer visited London and conducted the Philharmonic in Albert Hall. Far more important thing that emerges from these reviews is the obvious fact that even then – 20/21 years old, if I may remind you – Shaw already had an acute powers of observation and could judge musical excellence with stupendous assurance for his age; his remarks, for example, about Wagner's peculiar fluctuations of tempo can probably be found in every book on conducting written during the twentieth century for it is today generally recognised that a whole conducting tradition stems from that manner. Fascinatingly, even at that tender age Shaw already was the proverbial iconoclast and could criticise mercilessly, but with a good deal of common sense, both the politics behind a performance and such a tricky subject as program music:

In the present century of universal progress, no art, perhaps, has attained to such subtly-varied developments as that of advertising. We used to hear that an outlay of some thousands in advertisements would ensure a return of cent. per cent. This, however, is now a vulgar and old-fashioned principle; and of late years the far more ingenious method of bringing one's wares into notoriety at the expense of the public has been brought nearly to perfection, especially by the music trade, abetted by the less independent singers of the day. Thus, a few of the leading firms have started musical journals in order to secure an impartial review for each work published by them, and a just exposure of the demerits of such trash as rival establishments may attempt to impose on the public. A more immediately remunerative plan is the institution of dreary entertainments known as ''ballad concerts.'' It is well known that the best way to sell a song is to have it sung.

Excepting such brief suggestions as Beethoven prefixed to the movements of a very few of his works, or the fanciful titles which Schumann gave to his pianoforte pieces, detailed programs seem to be a complete mistake. They may impart a certain interest to a composition for those who are incapable of appreciating abstract music, but they do so at the expense of the dignity of an art whose true province is foreign to the illustration of commonplace and material detail. In the present case, however, the program is emotional rather than incidental, and Signor Bazzini's overture, if not strikingly original, is sufficiently entertaining to justify its introduction by Mr Manns.

The first of these excerpts refers to a variation of a shameful practice that was named ''payola'' in American musical circles during the twentieth century, namely the so called – in Shaw's time – ''ballad-concert system'' which simply means a concert organised by publishers in order to promote their publications by performances. Shaw lashed out at the practice with a vengeance, as did he at bad staging and ugly scenery, vulgar audiences, inadequate rehearsal time, mutilation of classic works, and many others. As for the flowery rhetoric of strictly descriptive programs to musical works, seldom has Shaw's criticism been more sensible. He often quotes contemporary programs and I don't know whether to laugh or to cry at the astounding nonsense they usually contain. For music is not a descriptive art, or at least there should be no attempts to be turned into one. Yet Shaw was wise enough to recognise that such programs may do some good for people for whom music is too abstract; but it's a ''good'' dearly bought at the expense of the art's essence. What's more, when the program is purely emotional, that is nothing more than a hint for the listener's imagination, it may even be valuable.

To finish with these deliciously hilarious early pieces, I cannot resist quoting several examples of classic Shavian sarcasm. They can certainly stand a comparison with the mature Shaw at his best. Here is an excerpt from a review of a book with the lovely title Observations on the Physical Education of the Vocal Organs by one Arthur Barraclough:

Mr Barraclough's special knowledge of voice production may be estimated by his references to singers as ''vocal athletes,'' to ''force of blast” as a condition to vocalization, and to physical exhaustion as a necessary consequence of singing which must be provided for, on the principle of training a prizefighter. He mentions that ''the vocal ligaments are brought together,'' a fact which we would recommend him to test by the laryngoscope before issuing a second edition of his work.

Now I am coming back to what I merely hinted a little above: Shaw's longevity. It really is difficult to believe that this man lived until the emergence of rock'n'roll, yet he was there when Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Liszt were still alive; to say nothing of Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss, who all were younger than Shaw yet whom he outlived all. Indeed, Shaw was there when Liszt, then an old man of 74 with devastated health, made his celebrated visit to the Albion in the spring of 1886; few months later he wrote an obituary for him. When Shaw became a regular music critic for The Star, Tchaikovsky had yet to compose his Pathétique. Such astonishing life span is a phenomenon itself, but what truly makes it compelling and irresistible is the typically Shavian blend of industry, intelligence, irreverence and illumination. He never stopped writing, especially about music. Nor did he ever regard even his musical columns with excessive flippancy. Iconoclast to the bone, burning with curiously intellectual passion, Shaw was fearless almost to the point of irrationality. He never shied away from blunt telling of the truth as he saw it or severe criticism of sacred cows when he was sure they deserved it. To call Shaw opinionated is of course true, but it also is a majestic understatement. Only calling him dull or crass may beat that.

One of the most beautiful things about Mr Laurence's selections is the extraordinary number of composers on whom Shaw exercised his mind and his pen. This is somewhat stark contrast with the choices of Mr Bentley where one finds but seldom anything about Liszt, Strauss, Brahms or Grieg, to name but a few. I will say something only about the first one here. For the extensive quotations I make no apology.

Since it is always a great pleasure to disagree with Bernard Shaw, I wish to speak of Franz Liszt now. Rather often Shaw seems so overwhelmingly godlike, omniscient and omnipresent, if not infallible as well, that it is a relief to be assured by his bashing of Liszt that in some aspects he was very much a man of his own time. It is also a very curious attitude for ''The Perfect Wagnerite''. No other composer of the nineteenth century, at least among those whose names have survived, was closer musically to Wagner than Liszt was. Both shared, for one thing, building large-scale works based on the infinite variation of a very few themes and, for another, both wrote some of the most harmonically advanced music for their times; and this perfectly superficial summary does not even consider the unique and mutually profitable friendship between them, perhaps the most remarkable friendship among composers of such magnitude. If one loves Wagner, it is difficult to imagine how one would not, if not love, at least appreciate Liszt. But it's possible of course. Besides, before one dares to accuse Shaw in painful lack of perspicacity, one should consider the historical background. During the 1880s and 1890s, when Shaw was most active as music critic, Wagner was all the rage in Europe and his music dramas, since the 1876 world premiere of the Ring, were enjoying fabulous popularity that has never been repeated since. Meanwhile, Liszt languished in almost total obscurity, his music being seldom performed by a handful of devoted admirers; the-greatest-pianist-in-the-world shadow from his hectic youth never left him, nor his name after his death, thus completely preventing most people from taking him seriously as a composer.

Considering the above, it is a miracle that there are four pieces almost entirely dedicated to Liszt: two reviews of concerts with (mostly) his music, one report of Liszt's visit to England and one obituary. Let me start with the reviews. In 1876, Shaw attended in Crystal Palace a performance of Mazeppa, one of Liszt's most notorious symphonic poems, which apparently was its English premiere, and in 1885 he had the misfortune to hear live the Dante Symphony in St James's Hall. As always, Shaw didn't mince words (the following quotes also offer an excellent opportunity to appreciate the remarkable refinement of his later writing style compared to one of his first attempts in the field of musical criticism):

[The Hornet, 20 December 1876:]
The first portion is an allegro agitato, of which we are told: ''This remarkable movement illustrates the three days' flight of the wild steed, and the almost indescribable anguish and despair of its human victim, as related in first fourteen verses of the poem.'' It opens with a sudden clash of cymbals, at which the section of the audience which is not familiar with the eccentricities of higher development bursts out laughing. The sequel consists of rapid triplets, with a good deal of piccolo, drum, and cymbal, relieved by an effective melody for the brass: the whole producing effect sufficiently entertaining, and at times very amusing, but not even remotely approaching the sublime. [...] After a brief andante of advanced commonplace, the ''symphonic poem'' concludes with allegro marziale, in the constant modulations and stirring marches of which we see, not ''glory and greatness achieved through suffering and adversity,'' but the favorite effects of the clever pianoforte transcriber achieved on a large scale through the resources of orchestra. Opinions respecting the work as a whole must depend altogether on the standard from which it is judged. If we consider it as a fantastic caprice designed to illustrate the more grotesque external incidents of the story, it deserves some admiration for its piquancy and skilful scoring. But if we apply the broad gauge, which the composer himself challenges, and look for a picture of complicated emotion, and a display of the powers of music much as we find in the symphonies of the great masters, we unhesitatingly condemn it as false art, due to the conception, not of a true musician, but of a charlatan.
[A supercilious youth!]

[The Dramatic Review, 15 February 1885:]
When, in order that allowance may be made for my personal bias, I declare at once that I do not like this symphony, I consider that I am expressing myself very moderately indeed; and were I to act strictly upon critical precedents, I should proceed to prove that to my own satisfaction that the form of the symphony is wrong, the progressions forbidden, the decay of modern music largely attributable to its influence, and the total result lamentably different to what might have been expected had it occurred to Mozart to set the Divine Comedy to music. But as all these remarks would be equally appropriate to much modern music of which I am very fond, I will forgo them, and content myself with thanking Mr Bache for the opportunity of making up my mind that the Dante Symphony, though doubtless a treat to composer's disciples, is not suited to my constitution. I shall justify as best I can my opinion that the work is shallowly conceived and detestably expressed; and the reader, if curious on the subject, can study the very different view advanced by Richard Pohl in his book about Franz Liszt, and judge between us. The shortest way would undoubtedly be to go and hear the symphony played; but this, with my experience of Mr Bache's concert fresh in my recollection, I distinctly decline to advise any sober person to attempt.
Putting Dante and the pretensions of the composer to illustrate him out of the question, and regarding the work merely as an example of the resources of the orchestra, the symphony seems to me useless even from a student's point of view. Qualities of tone which have never been made effective except when used very sparingly are resorted to almost continuously. Combinations that have been used with delightful results elsewhere occur only to fall flat upon ears tortured beyond the desire of any orchestral combination except a few bars rest. Though in many places ethereal sweetness and smoothness have been so elaborately planned that a glance at the score raises pleasant expectations, the effect proves to be only a paper one; or perhaps the players are too far demoralized by the violence and strain of the context to do justice to the pretty platitudes which the composer has sought to worry, by mere stress of orchestration, into melody and beauty.
He outdoes Berlioz in bidding for the diabolical by noise and fury; but he quite misses the strange nightmare sensation, the smell of brimstone, as Schumann called it, which characterized Berlioz's exploits in the infernal field. Pre-eminence in the infernal is, perhaps, hardly worth disputing; but one must compare Liszt with a composer against whom he is perceptibly measurable. To compare his works with those of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, or even with the occasional savage aberrations of Wagner and Beethoven, would dwarf him too absurdly.

Bernard Shaw is most probably the only writer who ever lived from whom I would accept so scathing a criticism of works so close to my heart, not just with equanimity, but with a smile.

Now, it is a well-known truth that a poor performance of Liszt's Dante Symphony may well make it sound like the soundtrack of a third-rate horror movie. It is far from inconceivable that this is exactly what Bernard Shaw heard; and if he could, had he been alive today, hear the recording of Staatskapelle Dresden with Guiseppe Sinopoli, he might have changed his mind. But it is also true that the music is far from easy to digest even today; it's difficult to imagine what even an educated nineteenth-century audience made out of it. The case of Mazeppa is somewhat similar. It has been described numerous times as monstrously vulgar and tasteless, a kind of cheap show-off for stupendously loud orchestra; and that's exactly how it sounds when is performed incompetently, which is often by the way. But Shaw definitely was right to demolish the inane rhetoric of the program, with its most harmful tendency to reduce a perfectly self-sufficient symphonic work to mere incidental music to the poems of Byron and Hugo. That Liszt bothered with such nonsense is inconceivable. Far more probable is that he used the great poets as an inspiration and with his music tried to convey, not whips and galloping horses, but stormy passions and the soul's earnings – and such that are much too definite to put into words. Shaw needn't be ashamed that he couldn't recognise this at 20. Much more mature critics and scholars, writing many generations after him, have failed miserably, too.

Yet, for all his dislike of Liszt's works, most of them at least, Shaw actually had, perhaps almost against his will, a considerable affection for the man. He was decidedly happy to see him on English land as he was appreciative about Liszt's future stature as a composer after his death. Most amazingly, Shaw made a number of perceptive observations which time has proven to be prophetic as well: Liszt's earnestness and his desire to be taken seriously as a composer, to name but two. These may seem commonplace today but in the end of Liszt's life such notions were hardly universally recognised, if not positively revolutionary. Shaw – at least in his later pieces – was one of the very few who were perfectly convinced in Liszt's integrity as a composer and artless charm as a man. That's saying a great deal:

[The Dramatic Review, 10 April 1886:]
Of Liszt's merit's as a composer, those who heard his St Elisabeth in St James's Hall last Tuesday have, no doubt, their own opinion. To some of us his devotion to serious composition seems as hopeless a struggle against natural incapacity as was Benjamin Haydon's determination to be a great painter. To others the Dante symphony and the symphonic poems are masterpieces slowly but surely making their way to full recognition. Mr Bache has pressed the latter opinion hard upon us, and has backed it heavily. The present is not the time to insist with any grace on the former view. Fortunately, much of Liszt's music is admired on all hands. Sceptics who think it no more than brilliant, inspiriting, amusing, applaud as loudly as believers who revere it as significant, profound, and destined to endure with the works of Bach and Mozart. So, since we all enjoy it from one point of view or the other, we can very well unite in making as pleasant as possible the sojourn among us of an artist who has come clean-handed out of the press of three generations of frenzied nineteenth-century scrambles for pelf, and of whom even hostile critics say no worse than that he has failed only by aiming too high.

[Though Shaw leaves no doubt in which camp he resides, the passage is unusually ambiguous for him. Indeed, one may argue that he did overestimate Liszt's popularity at the time. It may be recalled that Walter Bache was one of the most devoted pupils and admirers of Liszt. For many years he organised – at his own expense – concerts in London entirely dedicated to Liszt in which he appeared as pianist and conductor.]

[Pall Mall Gazette, 2 August 1886:]
He first played here at the Philharmonic Concerts in 1827. Fifteen years later he gave us another trial out of which we did not come with perfect credit. That was, perhaps, he stayed away fortyfour years before he came again, as an old man, half priest, half musician, stirred up all the hero-worship in our little world of music and all the lionizing of our big world of fashion. That little world will grieve awhile to learn that his third absence must be the longest of all. The big world will probably feel none the worse for having had something to talk about at breakfast this morning. Between it and the dead artist there was little genuine love lost. He cared so little for even dazzling it that he adopted the profession of pianist with repugnance, and abandoned it for that of conductor and composer as soon as he could afford to.

[My emphasis. Many decades after Shaw many people continue to rant that Liszt adopted the glittering career of piano virtuoso because he wanted fame and decorations; and of course he settled in Weimar, not to dedicate himself to conducting and especially composition, but to indulge in scandalous relationship with Princess Caroline and think of himself as the leader of a new movement.]

It was as a composer that Liszt wished to stand high in the esteem of his contemporaries, or – failing their appreciation – of posterity. Many musicians of good credit think that he judged himself rightly. Mr Bache, for instance, has given us concert after concert of his favourite master's works with a devotion that has extorted applause from audiences for the most part quite convinced that Liszt and Mr Bache were mistaken. Wagner, who spoke very highly of Liszt as a conductor, declared that his playing of Beethoven's greater sonatas was essentially an act of composition as well as of interpretation; he did not, however, commit himself on the subject of the Dante symphony or Mazeppa.

[Well, actually Wagner did write a very important "Open Letter on Liszt's Symphonic Poems" (Über Franz Liszt’s symphonische Dichtungen) which was published in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on 10 April 1857. In this seminal document Wagner defended Liszt as a friend and his concept of program music as first and foremost absolute music, the programs being merely a tentative suggestions for links with another arts in terms of inspiration and, possibly, appreciation. Wagner even hailed Liszt as more or less a creator of new genre which unites music with other arts inasmuch as pure feelings, not painting and descriptive effects, were concerned. He actually mentions the Dante symphony and he doesn't seem especially outraged by it. Wagner is also known to have declared his affection for Orpheus, one of Liszt's most beautiful poems which Shaw apparently never heard. At any rate he might have done his homework much better this time.]

[Yet Shaw did have a rather amazing for its time familiarity with Liszt's oeuvre; to say nothing of his more than conspicuous admiration for a self-confessed non-Lisztian.]

There is a consensus of opinion in favor of Liszt as a player. His songs, too, have affected many musicians deeply; and though they are generally familiar, their merit has not been at all emphatically questioned. His studies and transcriptions, if not wholly irreproachable in point of taste, shew an exhaustive knowledge of the pianoforte; and, unplayable as they are to people who attack a pianoforte with stiff wrists and clenched teeth, they are not dreaded by good pianists. The brilliancy and the impetuous fantasy of his Hungarian Rhapsodies are irresistible, as Herr Richter has proved again and again in St James's Hall. But his oratorios and symphonic poems – especially the latter – have not yet won the place which he claimed for them. A man can hardly be so impressionable as Liszt was and yet be sturdy enough to be original. He could conduct Lohengrin like Wagner's other self, and could play Beethoven as if the sonatas were of his own moulding; but as an original composer he was like a child, delighting in noise, speed, and stirring modulation, and indulging in such irritating excesses and repetitions of them, that decorous concert-goers find his Infernos, his battles, and his Mazeppa rides first amusing, then rather scandalous, and finally quite unbearable. A pleasanter idea of the man can be derived from the many eulogies, some of them mere schoolgirl raptures, others balanced verdicts of great composers and critics, which, whether the symphonic poems live or die, will preserve a niche for him in the history of music as a man who loved his art, despised money, attracted everybody worth knowing in the nineteenth century, lived through the worst of it, and got away from it at last with his hands unstained.

[My emphasis. I couldn't disagree more with Shaw's opinion of Liszt as a composer. All the same, I couldn't agree more with his description of the man. For sheer succinctness and power, Alan Walker himself couldn't have done it better. By the way, I still don't see the link between sturdiness and originality. As for the ''decorous concert-goers'', they had better stay on Handel-Bach diet and not mess themselves up with Lisztian passions.]

Compare these rather generous and sensible remarks with the abominable character assassination by Ernest Newman more than forty years later in The Man Liszt (1934); to say nothing of the spiteful rubbish written by Eduard Hanslick: the most overrated musical critic of all times, ardent Brahmsian, bitter anti-Wagnerian and Shaw's contemporary nemesis. Modern Lisztian scholarship has completely rejected the claims of vicious hacks like Newman and Hanslick, but it has confirmed most of the conclusions suggested by Shaw well over a century ago. In short, Bernard Shaw's criticism of Franz Liszt – as is so often the case – puts him in a class of his own. For all his reservations and active dislikes, Shaw could see a good deal of merit in Liszt too, and he was content to leave the ultimate decision to the future. This is what I call great criticism.

There is something else that must be said here. It's a painful thing for every Lisztian to contemplate but to gloss over the fact that Shaw may have been right will not do. Even today, 200 years after his birth and 114 after his death, despite the enormous amount of scholarship in the field for the last half a century, Liszt still is far from recognised as equal to Mozart and Beethoven, or to Bach and Handel, or even to Wagner himself. He still is considered as a historical curiosity of certain experimental value but of little artistic merit: the greatest pianist of all times who tried to impress beyond his meagre abilities as a composer. Only a handful of his piano works are in the standard repertoire, and they are often atrociously performed as a kind of technical stunt to stun vacuous audiences; his songs have just begun to be noticed at all; there are but four complete recordings of his symphonic poems and none does them complete justice; his vast amount of church music still awaits proper recognition. Bernard Shaw finely said that it is on the basis, not of the man or of the pianist, fine as they were, but of the composer that Liszt's reputation must stand or fall. It seems that it is falling. It must be a grave fault in me that I consider this a most unfortunate event. May I be wrong.

On the rest of How to Become a Musical Critic I have very little to say, because, in fact, there is much too much to be said. Among the highlights certainly is Bassetto at Bayreuth, a relatively longish piece, a set of several pieces actually, in which Shaw describes vividly and amusingly his adventures in Bayreuth where in 1896 he was lucky enough to attend a complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The pieces are something like a general rehearsal for The Perfect Wagnerite (1898) and they make a terrific read; especially noteworthy are Shaw's criticisms of many a blunder on the Bayreuth stage in terms of acting and stage design. Another brutally amusing piece is Strauss and His Elektra. Again these are several pieces that chronicle a most absorbing newspaper debate between Bernard Shaw and Ernest Newman that started with a vicious review of the Strauss' opera by the latter. After what I've said of Newman above, nobody would be surprised to learn that I have relished every Shavian arrow that pierced his sinful flesh; Mr Laurence rose to the occasion splendidly, providing in square brackets short summary of all relevant points in Newman's original review and subsequent replies to Shaw. Last but not least, the two pieces on Edward Elgar make an engrossing read too, especially since this is one of the very few, if not the only one, example of pure partisanship on Shaw's side. (No, the case of Wagner is not. Shaw never really extolled him, as people who know not what they're talking about may tell you, but always judged the great composer with his typical critical acumen.) Since Elgar was his personal friend, this is of course quite understandable, and Shaw could have chosen a lot worse anyway. I am finishing with his delightful reference to Elgar's fine overture Cockaigne:

But if you say that Elgar's Cockaigne overture combines every classic quality of a concert overture with every lyrical and dramatic quality of the overture to Die Meistersinger, you are either uttering a platitude as safe as a compliment to Handel on the majesty of the "Hallelujah" Chorus, or else damning yourself to all critical posterity by uttering a gaffe that will make your grandson blush for you. Personally, I am prepared to take the risk. What do I care for my grandson? Give me Cockaigne.

I seldom recommend books. I don't think it's quite right to do that since reading is one of the most intensely personal activities a human being may engage in. Somerset Maugham once compared the freedom of the relationship between a reader and a book with that between a mystic and his God; needless to add, there is no place for a third party here. Yet recommendations are sometimes useful and illuminating, especially when somewhat specialised non-fiction is concerned – and in such cases I do make exceptions. Here is one. I have the audacity to strongly recommend to every serious classical music lover (with some basic knowledge of music history) the criticism of Bernard Shaw, and I dare recommend it complete. But since three mammoth volumes constitute considerable investment of time, to say nothing of money, one is perfectly right to demand a book which he can use to sample heavily Shaw's voluminous writing on music. And here I make another exception – second in this paragraph, quite astounding – for I cannot recommend highly enough both this volume edited by Mr Laurence as well as the one edited by Mr Bentley. The former, overall, is certainly the better one, but the latter is excellent too. Unfortunately, How to Become a Musical Critic is perfectly out of print these days, but second-hand copies are easily available and almost indecently cheap. If you love classical music and superb prose, I guarantee you are in for an exhilarating adventure.

P. S. Do not be deceived by duplications with the volume edited by Mr Bentley such as ''The Mozart Centenary'' or ''The Rossini Centenary''. The ''titles'', artificially given by the editors for the sake of convenience, are the same but the pieces are entirely different, if obviously written at the same time. Those in Mr Bentley's Shaw on Music come from the three volumes of his collected criticism in The World. Indeed, since his selection was first published in 1955, Mr Bentley probably didn't know about the existence of the other pieces for they appeared for the first time in book form five years later in How to Become of Musical Critic; neither of them, of course, had ever been published in The World.

P. P. S. One last note. As a special bonus to everything written by D.H.L. and G.B.S., you have in this book a fabulous photograph of Bernard Shaw as a frontispiece. It is one of those portraits from the 1890s that I find extremely compelling. One looks at those piercing eyes, surrounded by dark hair and beard, and one instantly senses, somewhere on the border between the conscious and the subconscious, that Bernard Shaw has zero tolerance to nonsense. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Mar 7, 2011 |
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