Abaddon magazine

Music magazine

Friday, December 9, 2022

Review: Džordž Bernard Šo – O muzici

Publisher: Službeni glasnik

Year: 2017

Original title: George Bernard Shaw – Shaw’s music; the complete musical criticism of Bernard Shaw

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not educated enough to know who Mr. Shaw was prior to exploring this book and its author. I was completely unfamiliar with his literary or stage work. Not that it mattered all that much to me, since I got the book simply because it offers a glimpse into his work as a music critic. One of the very first ones, for that matter. Simply put, I got curious. I’m used to reading all sorts of music publications for the past couple of decades. I’m acquainted with the work of many music critics and do follow some. Some I even look up to in my aspirations to get better at what I do. But this is a completely different matter.

Mr. Shaw was basically what we nowadays call a reporter from various musical events. In a time before record players, Mr. Shaw was an enthusiast seeking live performances of contemporary artists and orchestras out of pure love of music. And out of that love came his criticism. Now that I think of it, the word “love” might just be a bit of a stretch. I’ll much rather call it passion for music as a form of art. Otherwise, I would have way too much trouble explaining his words and thoughts, as portrayed in this collection of his music reviews.

Then again, the explanation I might give could be construed as excessive and unnecessary. Mr. Shaw gave his own thoughts on the subject of music criticism (and criticism, in art or otherwise, in general) in a bunch of generalised articles that make for the opening chapter of “O muzici” (“About music”). Simply and aptly titled “About criticism”, the chapter includes his writings from the final decade of nineteenth century, containing Mr. Shaw’s views on the subject of criticism and critics alike. One sentence in particular, among many that should be tattooed on every reviewer’s forehead, springs out as a monumental rule. Paraphrasing, it states that a music critic cannot expect friendship among musicians. Though the sentence easily transgresses further than music itself, it rings in my ears to this very day. Mr. Shaw not only declares the need for absolute, unrelenting honesty, needed for one to write about artistic performances, but addresses the social aspect of art and artists themselves.

The acceptance of criticism is a blistering pestilence of today’s art world and Mr. Shaw, in this manner, shows that it’s not a new found disease embedded in popular culture, but a question of deeper sociological issues stemming deep within the human psyche. Ego running blindly, in other words.

What’s interesting in that regard is the fact that Mr. Shaw was also quite politically active and a known socialist at the time when socialism was a relative novelty that inspired fear into the standing systems worldwide. With that in mind, some of his viewpoints in this book read quite differently than simple articles pertaining a single event. Take special notice of the chapter about Wagner, where it is the most obvious, especially when you take into consideration Wagner’s own views on politics.

Then again, Mr. Shaw is so obviously British, which comes out in his views on French and Italian composers. However, do not jump to a conclusion that we’re dealing with a traditional British chauvinist. He is the most critical towards his countrymen, often claiming their own country’s stagnancy and backwardness in regard to artistic development. Still, he cannot escape the classical English disdain towards those on the continent. Luckily enough, he adorns his reports with a healthy dose of that oh-so-recognizable British humour, which grants the book’s front cover with the line: “The funniest music critic again facing Serbian readership”.

Granted, his humorous side often falls apart in the face of harshness of his tone. Going back to that one line I mentioned above, about distastefulness of friendship between musicians and music critics, Mr. Shaw could’ve been a bit gentler. Granted, he does make a strong point with that very statement. One which I myself find quite inspiring and true, but his reviews are often rude beyond certain boundaries. No wonder then that his friendships seemed an impossibility. On the flip side, his praise was also, at times, intemperate and excessive. That’s why I called him passionate, as only with that much passion and devotion could you utter such words, particularly in the age when being a gentleman was still (and perhaps for the last time in human history) an important part of one’s status in society.

What could be interesting is reading the backlash of those fierce criticisms, though they are not included in this volume. Then again, most of the material used in this book was published prior to Mr. Shaw’s uprising to one of the most famed playwrights and dramatists in Britain. In the few texts from the later era, he does seem a bit less tempered. Though it’s just a small sample and I could be wrong here.

From a reviewer’s perspective, the verbal assaults at the performers, as presented here, do not sit well with me. Yet, I do have to admit Mr. Shaw was well-versed in the subject matter. Even if he could’ve picked his words more carefully in a lot of his work, he adequately explains his views, with theoretical and, sometimes, practical knowledge.

Of course, Mr. Shaw focused on what was available at the time, classical music, opera and ballet, so his knowledge of music theory is less than useless for a rock journalist. From my own perspective, the most significant piece of this book lies in the accentuated opening chapter and aspects of Mr. Shaw’s writings that are not strictly tied to musical prowess. The social, demographical and emotional side of music. In those regards, the situation, regretfully, has yet to change. A century and a half since Mr. Shaw presented his critics and a couple of light-years of artistic evolution have led us to the very same spot where we left off.

Which just gets me thinking… Was George Bernard Shaw on to something when he so aggressively turned against subpar performances? What do we get by being lenient to mediocrity? Food for thought, especially if you’re a twenty first century rock reviewer. Next time I’ll try with the simple question: What would George Bernard Shaw write?