Musical Notes: Critic Anonymous

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Critic Anonymous

Just before Christmas, I found two precious jewels: a dazzling diamond and a radiant ruby. I was in my local town centre and there they were, quite close to each other, in plain view for anyone to see but apparently ignored by all, on a shelf in one of the town's (many) charity shops. I was in there doing my Christmas shopping. No, not really, I joke; I'd gone in initially to top up my stock of Christmas cards – honest! I thought I might as well browse around a bit while I was there, and to my surprise there were these gems, in among a sizeable collection of much lesser stones. Closer inspection revealed the exciting truth that they could be mine in exchange for only a few coins of the realm. The exchange was made and the jewels are now in my possession.

My 'jewels' are in fact books. The ruby was Charles Osbourne's excellent volume Verdi: A Life in the Theatre, but the diamond was Volume 1 of the 3-volume set entitled Shaw's Music, comprising the complete musical criticism of George Bernard Shaw. Volume 1 covers his writing from 1876-90. While this is only one volume of the three, it is by far the most interesting to me as it shows Shaw honing his skills as a writer – also I have as a separate book Shaw's commentaries on Richard Wagner's operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, published as The Perfect Wagnerite, which is included in the other volumes.

When we think of Shaw's literary output today, it is the plays, novels and Socialist political pamphlets that come to mind, but when Shaw first started writing it was as a music critic. The period covered by Volume 1 of Shaw's Music is the time before Shaw's familiar monogram G.B.S. which he placed at the foot of later work. This volume finishes with those submissions that carried Shaw's whimsical first by-line 'Corno di Basseto'.

Prior to 'Corno di Basseto', all Shaw's musical criticisms had been anonymous, so anonymous in fact that not even the Editor of the satirical weekly The Hornet in which Shaw's first reviews appeared knew his critic's true identity. This was the result of a deception perpetrated on the Editor by Shaw's mother's singing teacher, George John (Vandeleur) Lee. Lee passed himself off on the Editor as a musical critic and then arranged for Shaw to avail himself of the complimentary tickets to almost all of London's musical events and to write them up for The Hornet. The deception lasted for 10 months before the Editor got wind of it, whereon Shaw and The Hornet parted company. There was a fallow period between September 1877 and February 1885, when Shaw's musical 'reviews' appeared only twice in The Saturday Musical Review, and once in The Court Journal, the latter occasion again courtesy of a slight of hand by Vandeleur Lee. Thereafter he wrote for The Dramatic Review (1885-86), Our Corner (1885-86), The Pall Mall Gazette (1885-88), The World (1886-94), and The Star (1888-90). It was during his time at The Star, when he succeeded E Belfort Bax – the uncle of the composer Arnold Bax – as that paper's critic that he invented the nom de plume 'Corno di Basseto'1.

Shaw arrived in London from Dublin in 1876 with all the credentials for a music critic: coming from a family in which music played an integral part, his knowledge was truly prodigious, although he had no skill as a performer himself; an absolute sense of 'good' and 'bad' performance practice, especially in recognising musical laziness; great skills as a satirist and, of course, a wicked sense of humour.

From the start he pulled no punches. In his very first article, reviewing a new opera by Frederic H Cowen, Pauline, based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's play, The Lady of Lyons, Shaw wrote:

...the fact remains that the music of Pauline possesses little originality, and displays an utter absence of dramatic faculty. The moment the composer quits the aria cantabile form...he betrays weakness, which sometimes verges on absurdity.

Pauline is now long-forgotten as an opera, so Shaw's critical faculty was accurate at its first outing.

A month later, immediately after Christmas, he attended a performance of Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall:

The performance, on the whole, was unsatisfactory in the extreme. The conductor throughout seemed to be actuated by one motive: that of getting through his work as quickly as possible...In order to conduct such a work as the Messiah successfully, a faculty for controlling large masses is required; and this Mr Barnby2 apparently does not possess.

Audiences were not immune from Shaw's acid tongue:

In order that the Kyrie [the opening section of Bach's Mass in B minor] might be heard without interruption, the audience were invited to be seated at ten minutes before eight, an arrangement which the majority signified their appreciation of by arriving punctually at ten minutes past.

Beware praise!

Madame Nilsson3 is beyond doubt the most gifted of our leading soprani. This position she has made good, not withstanding the most serious technical deficiencies, by force of her inborn dramatic instinct and the charm of a voice whose beauty asserts itself in spite of a most destructive method of production...

Not only singers, but even, or perhaps especially, Shaw's fellow critics were brought into the spotlight for a beating:

At present a great deal of audacity, a little affectation, some judicious puffing, and sufficient lung power to make a noise at brief intervals for three hours or so complete the list of acquirements necessary for a primo tenore... The critics will fall into raptures...and the public will follow the critics...Critics are only human, and they will attribute their anguish whilst listening to the tenor to anything sooner than his defects. If they can see no excellences, they will invent some.

Don't get the impression that Shaw's criticisms were all negative; on the contrary, where appropriate he could give praise in equal measure:

The orchestra was throughout extremely good. Great praise is due to Mr Cusins4, whose conducting and personal influence on the band shew his musicianly interest and appreciation of his work.

—review of the Philharmonic concert of 28 May, 1877

There are a number of us today who would give our eye teeth to have been present at some of the concerts and performances Shaw is writing about:

26 April, 1876: the first complete performance in England of Bach's Mass in B minor, by the Bach Choir, conducted by Otto Goldschmidt – this actually pre-dated Shaw's musical journalism by six months, but he would most certainly have reviewed it had it been a year later.
Madame [Clara] Schumann played Beethoven's Adieux sonata. If any words could do justice to the poetic expression and beauty of touch which distinguishes Madame Schumann's art...

—26 February, 1877, one of the weekly Popular Concerts held at St James's Hall.
Her [Friedrike von Sadler-Grün] rendering of Brangäne's ominous warning in the Tristan und Isolde conveyed the spirit of the verse to perfection, and her performance of Senta's music in Der Fliegende Holländer [The Flying Dutchman] has fixed for us a high standard for future reference.

—a Wagner Festival of six concerts was held at the Royal Albert Hall between 7-19 May 1877, conducted by Richard Wagner and assisted by Hans Richter.
At the Philharmonic last Wednesday [22 April] a new symphony by Antonin Dvorak5 was conducted by the composer...It consists of the usual four movements...all full of varied and charming episodes...and all worked out with an imaginative ingenuity very welcome at present...

The Dramatic Review, 25 April, 1885

I trust you will all keep my treasures secret. Till next time, happy listening.

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1Bax had written his reviews under the pseudonym 'Musigena'.2Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-96), conductor of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society.3Christine Nilsson (1843-1921), Swedish soprano.4William George Cusins (1833-93), conductor of the Philharmonic Society from 1867, and Master of the Queen's Musick from 1870.5This was the symphony in D minor Op.70 that we now know as the Seventh.

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