Sunday, February 24, 2008

GBS on Music

I'm not sure how many know that Bernard Shaw wrote music criticism, initially under the pen name of Corno di Bassetto and later under his own name, but they a treat to read.

Shaw had little formal training in music; he seems to have taught himself to read, but he evidently had a keen ear and knew exactly what he liked in the way of music. This together with a formidable command of the English language makes him a brilliant critic.

The reviews are of concerts between 1888 and about 1895 or so, and are a little dated in the sense that the names of most performers are unknown hence we have no conception of how big a reputation he was skewering-which is half the fun in reading intelligent criticism, but the musical insights are still penetrating and the writing superb.

Here is a sample (I have added a few links to some of the names/terms for anyone who needs a bit more background information):

20 September 1888

James Henry Mapleson
, alias Enrico Mariani, commonly and unaccountably spoken of as Colonel Mapleson, one time professional viola player, later operatic vocalist, and finally for twenty-seven years London impresario at Drury Lane and Her Majesty's Theatre, has written the Mapleson Memoirs. They are very amusing, especially to readers who, like the Colonel himself, have no suspicion that his record covers a period of hopeless decay. The financial record is depressing enough; but that is nothing new in the history of Italian Opera in England, since all the impresarios,, from Handel to Laporte and Lumley, lost money and lived, as far as one can make out, chiefly on the splendour of the scale on which they got into debt. Nevertheless, they kept the institution afoot in the good old style, with absurd high-falutin' prospectuses, expensive ballets, rapacious star singers and star dancers, and unscrupulous performances in which the last thing thought of was the fulfillment of the composer's intentions. What was wanted, after Lumley's retirement, was a manager with with sufficient artistic sensibility to perceive that these abuses, which Wagner and Berlioz had quite sufficiently exposed, must be done away with if the opera house is to hold its own against the ordinary theatre. Unfortunately, Colonel Mapleson's most indulgent friends can hardly claim for him any such musical and dramatic conscience. The period between the disappearance of Mario and the advent of Jean de Reszke is hardly to be recalled without a shudder, in spite of Christine Nilsson, and such fine artists as De Murska, Trebelli, Santley, and Agnesi. Costa maintained rigid discipline in the orchestra; and Titiens's geniality, her grand air, the remains of her great voice, and even her immense corpulence covered for a time her essential obsolescence as an artiste; but the prevailing want of life, purpose, sincerity, and concerted artistic effort would have destroyed a circus, much less the Opera; and the enterprise went from bad to worse, until it finally collapsed from utter rottenness.

Colonel Mapleson's negative contributions to this result may have been considerable. His positive contribution was the selection of such a line of tenors, all straight from La Scala, and all guaranteed beforehand to replace and eclipse Mario Giuglini, as we may fervently hope never to hear again. Colonel Mapleson hopes to take the field again next season; and no one can help wishing that his perseverance may be rewarded with success. But if he proceeds on his old plan, or for want of plan, he will only add another failure to his list. If he has learnt at last that the lyric stage cannot lag a century behind the ordinary theatre; that the days of scratch performances are over; that Donizetti is dead; that Wagner is the most popular composer of the day; that the Costa conception of of orchestral conducting has been succeeded by the Richter conception; and that people will not pay to see heroes and gentlemen impersonated by tenors who are not distinguishable in manners, appearance, voice, or talent from the average vendor of penny ices, then, and not otherwise, he may succeed. It is only fair to add, by the way, that Colonel Mapleson is by no means the only impresario who has hitherto failed to take this lesson to heart.

For anyone interested in buying a book look at this:

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