Nobel Prize winner George Bernhard Shaw is best known for his contributions to the theatrical arts. However, long before he ever began writing Arms and the Man or Pygmalion, while he was still struggling to support himself financially with a literary career, he worked as a music critic in London. During this lesser-known period of his life, Shaw wrote a copious number of essays and criticisms on the musical world of London in the late 19th century (three volumes worth, in fact, which are currently available for purchase from certain booksellers). He even wrote a book entitled The Perfect Wagnerite. Such were his contributions to this field that W.H. Auden said he was “probably the best music critic who ever lived.”
Shaw wrote musical criticism for The Star from 1888 to 1889 under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto. This was a joke of Shaw’s, as “corno di bassetto” is the Italian name for the English basset horn. He later said that he chose this nom de plume because, “it sounded like a foreign title, and nobody knew what a corno di bassetto was” (it is, in fact, a rather bizarrely-shaped woodwind instrument which has since been replaced by the bass clarinet). Perhaps in part due to his choice of pseudonym, many readers of The Star thought that Shaw’s articles were written facetiously, and they assumed that he knew absolutely nothing about music.
Considering Shaw’s musically-inclined family, it is not surprising that he turned to music as a subject for his writing. His mother was an amateur singer in Dublin, and eventually became both assistant and prima donna for her voice teacher G. J. Lee. Shaw was never instructed formally in music, but when his mother and sister followed Lee to London with the hopes that his sibling might become a professional singer, he was forced to make his own music. He taught himself to play the piano and read scores, and he convinced musician friend to teach him the basics of music theory and counterpoint. Eventually Shaw joined his mother and sister in London, where he (with some difficulty) began his literary career and played so much Wagner that he caused his mother, who performed primarily Italian music, to cry regularly.
Shaw’s criticisms were written with his customary wit and cutting humor, and they certainly make for an entertaining read. In fact, Shaw strove to make his articles entertaining and understandable for the layman, saying, “I purposely vulgarized musical criticism, which was refined and academic to the point of being unreadable and often nonsensical.” So, whether you’re a fan of George Bernard Shaw, classical music, or, ideally, both, his musical criticisms are well worth reading.
(Photo of George Bernard Shaw from the Nobel Foundation)
(Photo of corni di bassetti courtesy of Joan. From the Museum of Musical Instruments, Berlin)