The Lighter Side: The Critic and the Pianist

Photo: Wikimedia Commons George Bernard Shaw c. 1900.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
George Bernard Shaw c. 1900.

Donald V. Mehus
New York

Now that we are in the midst of the winter concert season, this might be an apt time to cite a pungent remark by a prominent music critic of an earlier time concerning one of the most famous pianists of his day.

The critic in question was none other than the multi-faceted Irish-Anglo writer, the celebrated wit and dramatist, George Bernard Shaw. With his extensive musical background from earliest childhood onward, GBS served for some six years (1888-1894) as a full-time, refreshingly outspoken, and deeply perceptive London music critic. The pianist on whom Shaw, in this instance, aimed his pointed pen was the vigorous young Polish pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Shaw served as a music critic just before he began, in 1894, to make his mark as a serio-comic playwright. It was in fact not as a dramatist but as as a music critic that GBS first began to achieve wide recognition. Shaw’s music criticism, collected into three volumes numbering an astonishing total of some 2,700 pages, is often quite fascinating to read still today. The text (excluding prefaces) of GBS’s over fifty plays, by comparison, comprises some 3,300 pages.

Shaw made still other major marks in the field of drama, first as a drama critic, and then as the author of his influential critical study of the stage works of our own Norwegian author, Henrik Ibsen, whom Shaw greatly admired. Shaw’s study, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, is still read assiduously today, especially in college and graduate literature programs.

Photo: Library of Congress Paderewski early in his career.

Photo: Library of Congress
Paderewski early in his career.

While Shaw’s plays continue to hold the stage still today, his music criticism is little read now, to our considerable loss. Why is it so little known? First of all, serious music criticism of any kind is little read today, and certainly not much commentary on the tonal art of so long ago. Still, Shaw’s music criticism has been warmly praised by expert and layman alike. One authority even went so far as to opine that Shaw was “probably the best music critic who ever lived.” Many of those who have read much of Shaw’s efforts in this field seem inclined to agree. Read this work and see what you think!

The fiery young Polish pianist, Paderewski, who was not averse to flailing away on the piano in high spirits, was reviewed by Shaw for one of his London concerts in the 1890s. Shaw, who was not particularly enamored by the Polish artist’s bold keyboard technique, arrived late to this particular concert. The critic was already familiar enough with this musician’s method to write this about him:

“By the time I reached Paderewski’s concert, his concerto was over, the audience in wild enthusiasm, and the piano a wreck. Regarded as an immensely spirited young harmonious blacksmith who puts a concerto on the piano as upon an anvil, hammers it out with the enjoyment and swing and strength of the proceedings, Paderewski is at least exhilarating; and his hammer play is not without variety, some of it being feathery, if not delicate. But his touch, light or heavy, is the touch that hurts; and the glory of his playing is the glory that attends murder on a large scale, when impetuously done.”

This article originally appeared in the March 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.