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Unpleasant Operas or French Music Drama as Heard by Corno Di Bassetto

Opéras désagréables ou la musique de scène française selon Corno Di Bassetto
Eduardo Valls Oyarzun


Le statut de George Bernard Shaw comme critique d’opéra — un poste qu’il occupa sous le nom de plume de « Corno Di Bassetto » dans différents journaux tels que The Star et The World — fut quelque peu négligé par les canons du journalisme de la dernière période victorienne. Néanmoins, sa critique des spectacles d’opéra des années 1880-1890 se distingue complètement en tant que discours moderne précoce le plus influent sur le théâtre musical du milieu britannique. Dans le sillage de son enthousiasme précoce pour Wagner — un trait qui imprègne ses textes sur la musique à la fin des années 1800, mais qui déclinera au tournant du siècle — la critique d’opéra de Shaw suggère une nouvelle théorie du drame musical que l’auteur applique méthodiquement à diverses traditions de l’opéra. Pour autant, cette théorie change radicalement lorsque Shaw écrit sur des auteurs français, de Léo Delibes à Jules Massenet et de Georges Bizet à Charles Gounod. Cet essai montre comment la vision du genre de Shaw change après qu’il a développé la théorie de la Force de la vie, qui, à son tour, contraint le lecteur à reconsidérer l’approche de Shaw de l’opéra traditionnel français dans les années 1880-1890. L’étude des évaluations de Shaw de la musique de scène française nous permettra de mesurer sa véritable influence sur la critique d’opéra.

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Notes de l’auteur

This article was supported by the research project ‘Pensamiento y Representación Literaria y Artística Digital Ante la Crisis de Europa y el Mediterráneo’, PR26/16-6B-2, Santander-Complutense.

Texte intégral

1George Bernard Shaw prided himself on practicing an extremely subjective, passionate type of criticism. For the late-Victorian, early-Edwardian playwright, critic, and man of art and letters, music reviewing and criticism was not so much an exercise of public service as a mode of giving way to various personal frustrations. ‘Reviewing’, wrote Shaw in 1890, ‘has one advantage over suicide; in suicide, you take it out of yourself: in reviewing, you take it out of other people’ (Shaw 1937, 283). It is not so much that personal overtones punctuate Shaw’s music reviews as that emotions comprise the chief drive of Shaw’s early criticism: ‘When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word: it is passion; . . .  the true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance and will only be appeased by good performances’ (Shaw 1955, 4; emphasis added).

2‘Bernard Shaw served two terms as a regular music critic: 1888 to 1890 on The Star and 1890 to 1894 on The World’ (Bentley, i). The former pieces were collected forty-five years later in the volume London Music in 188889 as Heard by Corno di Bassetto (1937), to wit, the literary persona Shaw devised for writing his early reviews. Di Bassetto’s reviews cover a wide array of themes and subjects, ranging from comments on music drama (opera, incidental music and vaudeville), abstract music (symphonies, chamber music, etc.) and ballet, to a thorough critique of cultural life and small, yet poignant pieces of (largely untrustworthy) autobiography. For the purpose of this article, the main value of the volume lies in the insightful glimpses of Di Bassetto’s critical theory the book reveals. At first glance, Di Bassetto’s (Shaw’s) utterly subjective, somewhat whimsical take on criticism seems to obfuscate rather than clarify his early conception of opera and drama. However, it is precisely Di Bassetto’s passionate concept of the art of reviewing that chiefly informs his critical theory. ‘It is the capacity’, Shaw wrote in hindsight, assessing the figure of Di Bassetto, ‘for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic’ (Shaw 1955, 4). The idea, however, is problematic. The extremely subjective, idiosyncratic trait of Di Bassetto’s discourse defers the capacity for judgement to a primordial notion of individuality in keeping with the zeitgeist of the end of the century but also points to a more complex idea of the subject as a political entity that pervades Di Bassetto’s—and Shaw’s—early writings. Indeed, in relocating the aesthetic experience to the subject of decadence, Di Bassetto adds an ideological dimension to art that has to be addressed.

3Di Bassetto passionately upholds the idea that art should have political purpose or, at least, that it must have political meaning. In keeping with Shaw’s eccentric conception of social democracy (Valls Oyarzun 50-52), Di Bassetto defends that ‘Opera must be brought into much closer relation to the life of the people’ (Shaw 1937, 174). In addition, music reviewing and criticism should respond accordingly. The Star proved to be up to Di Bassetto’s challenge, as its ‘readership was not fastidious’ (Holroyd 231); that is, it never targeted the members of ‘the Royal Society of Literature or the Musical Association’ (Holroyd 231). Shaw, conversely, set to write for the benefit of a wider audience, informed by lower, disinherited classes and individuals who were poorly trained—if at all—in music theory: ‘Why is it that when Dr Blank writes about music nobody but a professional musician can understand him; whereas the man-in-the-street, if fond of art and capable of music, can understand the writings of Mendelssohn, Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, or any of the composers?’ (Shaw 1955, 8). Shaw’s stance presumes the political dimension by distinguishing the ability to enjoy music from the commodified slant of Victorian middle-class culture. Shaw’s comments imply that the masses, too, can relate to opera and music drama by simply defining a critical realm that proves capable enough of enacting the individual experience of Everyman. By keeping opera (and music drama in general, for Shaw makes a point of distinguishing both) within a sphere of commodified bourgeois aesthetics in which representation affects the musical/dramatic text as much as this affects the notion of representation, the Victorian middle class has managed to project a solid, tight, almost esoteric cultural meaning onto music drama on the whole, hence the writings of critics and reviewers such as ‘Dr Blank’ and the like. Shaw’s later claim that Di Bassetto felt compelled to put ‘vulgarity’ into practice in his early reviews and criticism (Shaw 1955, 11) reveals that Di Bassetto’s style hints at the same political dimension but from a radically different perspective. Indeed, Shaw decries the aforementioned commodified cultural meaning, but that does not disprove the intellectual dimension that prompts it. In contrast, it enhances it.

4Katherine Newey takes a similar approach when tackling Shaw’s drama of ideas. For Shaw, Newey suggests, there are two types of drama discourse: one, legitimate, the other, illegitimate. Shaw’s bleak critique of capitalism in ‘the Shaw drama’ (Newey 129) informs a legitimate dramatic discourse insofar as plays such as Widower’s Houses (1892), Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893) or The Philanderer (1895), i.e., the Plays Unpleasant, incorporate the lower classes into a new cultural meaning of theatre that slices right through the middle of commodified melodrama. True, but ‘the ‘Shaw drama’ proceeded from without. It was an intellectual movement and a movement of intellectuals’ (Newey 129) whereby cultural meaning is duly managed by the same class that poses as champion of both the lower classes and, of course, women.

Lyn Pykett has described melodrama in fiction as the ‘irruption into the narration of that feeling . . .  which is repressed in the narrative’. In the heightened and transgressive plots of sensation drama and the problem play, this feeling is quite literally staged, made manifest in a set of gestures, vocal usages and physical poses, which show the female body and mind under stress. (Newey 132)

5This phenomenon simply queries and calls for a deeper analysis of Shaw’s narrow idea of melodrama (Moody 121-ff). The disparagement of feeling in melodrama performed by Shaw’s plays of ideas seems problematic at best. For Shaw, passion, feeling and emotion comprise the meaning of individuality. A conflict of interest arises when individuality is taken over by larger social forces. Accordingly, Shaw despises sentiment on the grounds of its standard value, that is, on the grounds of a specific political meaning allotted to individual feeling. However, Shaw’s problem plays seem to work along the same lines as melodrama. Shaw invests his drama with political meaning, too, with an ‘idea’ (Pharand 41), namely, a bleak critique on capitalism, but meaning nonetheless, whereas he never seems to object to the process in which meaning is exacted.

6According to Newey, ‘the division between the legitimate and the illegitimate, enacted aesthetically, socially and economically, together with the condemnation of the illegitimate in public critical discourse, is the principal faultline of the Victorian theatre’, (Newey 123) and I should add of Victorian opera, too, for Di Bassetto’s critique of commodified music drama seems to enforce the same paradox. For Di Bassetto, the legitimacy of music drama discourse depends solely on the ways and modes in which the opera complies with the ‘right’ political meaning.

  • 1 The term ‘Life Force’ makes its debut in Man and Superman (1903), but Shaw had been developing the (...)

7Di Bassetto’s intentions become apparent years later, when Shaw disposes of his former fictional persona to take over his own critical duties. Shaw preferred individual feeling as long as it hinted at not so much an improvement of society as at the realization of a new society based on individuality. This new society is but the logical, teleological and inevitable consequence of Life Force1 (Man and Superman 155). This is no surprise, as politics for Shaw almost precedes Life, or rather, politics, as an expression of power, reveals the essence of Life Force on the whole. Thus, Life (power), not feeling, eventually takes over the matter at hand to sort it out properly:

The only faith which any reasonable disciple can gain from The Ring is not in love, but in life itself as a tireless power which is continually driving onward and upward—not, please observe, being beckoned or drawn by Das ewig Weibliche or any other external sentimentality, but growing from within, by its own inexplicable energy, into ever higher and higher forms of organization, the strengths and the needs of which are continually superseding the institutions which were made to fit our former requirements. (Shaw 1986, 277)

8Notice how sentimentality finds its way into Shaw’s critique. This apparently cancels out any individualistic trait in ‘higher and higher forms of organization’, but nothing stays farther from truth. Shaw emphasizes ‘external’ sentimentality (the title of the section in The Perfect Wagnerite (1898) the passage belongs to is, quite revealingly, ‘Not Love, but Life’) as a means to signify the sentimentality of melodrama, that very commodified feeling he so detests when writing as Di Bassetto. Once again, but now in a major critical essay (The Perfect Wagnerite), Shaw resorts to individuality to forfeit the commonality of Victorian middle-class culture, as well as to call for a society that transcends class distinction and allows individual subjects to fulfil their own nature as such (Valls Oyarzun 75‒80). ‘The notion of a community of heroes, introduced in this very Shavian commentary on Wagner [i.e., The Perfect Wagnerite], was the prototype of that republic of free, thoughtful and superior brains which in 1903 was to call the democracy of supermen’ (Griffith 60). According to Shaw, this is not so much a political plan as the logical consequence of life (Shaw 1986, 270-ff). By stressing power—in the form of politics—in his evolutionary conception of life, Shaw suggests that life manifests itself in different forms, not in the least artistically. However, all these manifestations (including art) should lead up to the same new social organization. Indeed, art (and, particularly, opera) should serve a social purpose, as long as it is ‘the republic of supermen’ (Griffith 60). Thereupon, art should help society to set the conditions for the improvement of the individual—and the individual alone (Griffith 60‒62). Then again, if art (opera is the matter at hand) manifests life, it should then proceed accordingly, that is, re-enacting a proper organic experience of life itself. I will return to this issue promptly. Suffice to say that this accounts for the existence of both a legitimate and an illegitimate dramatic discourse. For Di Bassetto, illegitimate operas stress the artificiality of the form; the opulence of manner versus feeling—whose essence, for Di Bassetto, remains a mystery to this day—and, last but not least, the emptiness of style, which several critics have linked with pure aestheticism (Bertolini 52; Pharand 41; Valency 183), versus an organic approach to form.

9No group of composers has suffered Di Bassetto’s whip harder than the French, on account of their unrestrained dramatic mode, supposed artificiality and lack of life-enhancing values. ‘Shaw [was] a staunch advocate of a more “natural” and restrained form of acting’ (Duckett 82) and dismissed the aestheticism of late-nineteenth century French composers for its mannerism and vacuity, its ‘Gallic glitter and grandiosity’ (Valency 184):

In The Perfect Wagnerite . . . . Shaw (drawing no doubt upon Wagner’s own 1851 book Opera and Drama) argues that Mozart and Beethoven laid the foundations of music that dramatically expresses human emotion—as opposed to absolute, decorative music that merely constructs a pleasing sound-pattern.  . .  This is what Shaw saw himself as doing fifty years later to the theatre of the late nineteenth century: adding thought and producing music-drama.  . .  Shaw, working from the side of theatre rather than music, continues Wagner’s campaign to create a genuine music-drama, and both composers defend this art-form against the degradation that emanates from Paris. (Wisenthal 287; emphasis added).

10Before The Perfect Wagnerite, Di Bassetto’s alliance with Wagner worked along the same lines, but in a systematic way. The critic despised both melodrama and ‘unnatural art’—as in formal, not organic—alike (Duckett 82), and perceived both problems in a wide array of French composers. In a summary of his trip to Paris in late March 1890, Di Bassetto qualifies the French opera in harsh derogatory terms:

11 April 1890 Paris is what it has always been: a pedant-ridden failure in everything that it pretends to lead. Mozart found it so more than a hundred years ago: Wagner found it so half a century ago: Corno di Bassetto regrets to say that he finds it so today. In music, it prides itself on its Opera, which is about twenty years behind Covent Garden; and Covent Garden, as everybody knows, is thirty years behind time. (Shaw 1937, 345)

11The reason for Shaw’s trip to Paris was to attend the premiere of Camille Saint-Säens and Paul Meurice’s Ascanio (21 March 1890), which he deems as ‘secondhand Gounod, secondhand Meyerbeer and secondhand Verdi’ (Shaw 1937, 345). However, Di Bassetto made the best of his trip and attended a ‘revival’ of Jules Barbier’s Jeanne D’Arc (1878), featuring Sarah Bernhardt ‘in the title part’ (Shaw 1937, 346) and incidental music by Charles Gounod. Shaw dismisses the play as ‘trashy melodrama’ (Shaw 1937, 346), despises Madame Bernhardt for her phoney take on the character (Shaw 1937, 346) and pans Gounod’s score on account of its being a mechanical self-parody of her former style (Shaw 1937, 346-347). Di Basseto’s harsh comments (mechanical imitation, phoniness, parody) on the French opera and music drama scenery (‘a pedant-ridden failure’) puts ‘the degradation that emanates from Paris’ (Wisenthal 287) in contrast with the golden standard of the organic form. Shaw suggests that opera in France has become a sort of cultural token of mechanistic commodified drama. The almost industrial imitation of richer, more nuanced, passion-laden music dramas, past and present, put on display by French opera scenery suggests that the affectation of the copy has somewhat taken over the feeling and excitement of the original. The original, of course, is music drama as an organic growth, a ‘higher form’ of life:

When the critics were full of the ‘construction’ of plays, I steadfastly maintained that a work of art is a growth, and not a construction. When the Scribes and Sardous turned out neat and showy cradles, the critics said, ‘How exquisitely constructed’ I said, ‘Where’s the baby?’ Of course, there never was any baby. (Shaw 1937, 255)

12The pattern of criticism on the basis of well-made plays being ‘but compilations consisting of a series of stage effects devised ad hoc’ (Shaw 1955, 106) repeats regularly, almost routinely when Di Bassetto reviews French composers and music dramatists. Librettists such as Victorien Sardou and Eugène Scribe, as I have already shown, earned Di Bassetto’s scathing disrespect because of their otherwise very productive craftsmanship. An 1888 rendition of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé (1880) was disparaged in a comic, almost sardonic review (Holroyd 231), and when the Italian soprano Adelina Patti appeared in Convent Garden, early in 1889, to perform—among other numbers—a set of highlights of Lakmé, Shaw dismissed Delibes nonchalantly by simply branding the excerpts of the opera as ‘pretty nonsense’ (Shaw 1937, 53).

13Georges Bizet suffered considerably less than Delibes under Di Bassetto’s scrutiny but did not escape criticism completely. Shaw acknowledged the dramatic value of Carmen (1875) (Pharand 33) and praised his ‘love music’ for having ‘that touch of divine rapture which a young poet’s love music should have’ (Shaw 1937, 122‒23). Conversely, in a review of the 1889 Covent Garden production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863), Di Bassetto tiptoes over the quality of Bizet’s music by calling it ‘effective and workmanlike enough’, only to add that ‘a dozen composers could have done it to order as well as Bizet’ (Shaw 1937, 121). Furthermore, if Bizet succeeds in writing ‘enchanting duets’ (Shaw 1937, 123) that might save the day for the composer, the entire opera fails—as was the case with Les Pêcheurs de Perles in Covent Garden—on account of massively expensive productions that set limits to the poetry involved in the drama (Shaw 1937, 121). Likewise, the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer (German, indeed, but a key figure in the success of the Grand Opéra in Paris nonetheless) feature several enduring moments of true, remarkable genius and grandeur. Initially, Shaw admires him for the individualistic trait involved in at least some of his dramatic music (Pharand 29‒30) but fails to recognize any merit whatsoever in Eugène Scribe’s (Meyerbeer’s dramatist partner) libretti. Shaw deemed Meyerbeer ‘rich in every quality of a great composer except musical fertility’ (Shaw 1937, 307) but came to write in a vulgar era (Pharand 30); so much so that he could not escape its topical commonality, if only because, like Bizet, his music was never performed properly (Pharand 31).

  • 2 Only one composer resists the comparison with Wagner, to wit, Hector Berlioz. Shaw even goes as far (...)

14Shaw acknowledges a few merits in Jules Massenet’s works (Shaw 1937, 105), most notably in the operas of the mid-1880s (Hérodiade, Manon and Le Cid), in which Shaw observed ‘energy and passion’ (Pharand 32). However, of course, Di Bassetto does not fail to mention that ‘they were far inferior in their artistic importance to the works of Wagner’ (Shaw 1937, 105). The name of Wagner surfaces time and again as code for the golden standard of the organic form (or ‘the work of art as a growth’, that is, a manifestation and experience of life). One way or other, Di Bassetto always manages to bring up Wagner in the discussion, and even though almost every French composer2 has to endure the comparison, the greatest victim of Wagner’s foreboding presence is, more often than not, Charles Gounod.

15Shaw ‘whips’ Gounod incessantly (Pharand 35), to the point that one could almost divine a personal, seemingly maniac obsession of Corno Di Bassetto against Gounod; or at least that Gounod serves as a sort of scapegoat (or ‘whipping boy’ (Shaw 1986, 280)) to redeem all anti-wagnerite sins. The very few compliments Shaw devotes to the composer usually put his work in relation, however obliquely, to that of Wagner’s. While discussing a performance of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (1867), Shaw states:

Many persons went about asking why Romeo had never been a success before. The question implied too much; for, after all, the opera has had its measure of success in the past. Further, it is quite true that the work is monotonous in its mood. One greatly misses the relief which Mephistopheles gives to Faust. No doubt when you first fall under the spell of the heavenly melody, of the exquisite orchestral web of sound colours, of the unfailing dignity and delicacy of accent and rhythm, you certainly do feel inclined to ask whether the people who disparaged the work were deaf. Not until you have had your fill of these, and have realized that there is nothing more coming, do you begin to look at your watch. (Shaw 1937, 142‒43)

16Di Bassetto’s praise for the ‘exquisite orchestral web of sound colours’ and the ‘unfailing dignity and delicacy of accent and rhythm’ (Shaw 1937, 142) brings home, yet again, the organic form as a sort of golden standard. The early part of Roméo et Juliette fulfils Shaw’s expectations of music being a ‘growth’ that stresses the ‘dignity’ of Art and drama as a form of Life. The rest of the opera, conversely, fails to live up to the same standard. The dullness of mood once again recalls the wrong type of drama according to Shaw/Di Bassetto, the mechanical ‘construction’ that flattens the opera and deprives it of passion, excitement and feeling. Gounod becomes the perfect target for Shaw’s disparaging comments insofar as his music, ‘inferior to Berlioz’s’ (Pharand 39), more often than not defies the Wagnerian approach. ‘Shaw’s attitude toward Gounod, as well as his overall antipathy to all music he considered frivolous or meaningless’ (Pharand 41) derives from the critic’s anxiety of ideas (Pharand 41; Valency 184); ‘without [ideas], music [ceased] to have utility and fell within the category of art for art’s sake’ (Pharand 41; Valency 184). Here, idea and meaning fall into the same category: ‘The poet tries to make words serve his purpose by arranging them musically but is hampered by the certainty of becoming absurd if he does not make his musically arranged words mean something to the intellect as to the feeling’ (Shaw 1955, 66); and point, too, to the same conception of Life Force as power that hovers over Shaw’s music drama theory.

17The notion of Life Force, that is, the idea of Life as power aptly reveals the rationale behind Shaw’s drama theory, to wit, that drama should perform Life insofar as it (i.e., drama) serves the very purpose of the Life Force. Shaw suggests this theory of music drama in a more systematic—albeit somewhat contrived (Wellek 428) way—in The Perfect Wagnerite. Shaw’s second major essay unravels the meaning of Der Ring des Nibelungen as a sort of allegory that mirrors the way in which nineteenth-century politics re-enact the idea of Life as power. When Shaw contends that the allegory plays out as a performance of the grand design of Life, the critic hints at a system of thought that works in terms akin to symbolism, that is, a representation of reality that aspires to become reality itself. Let me digress a little.

  • 3 The clash between Wagnerites and Anti-wagnerites simply waned down and disappeared into oblivion, f (...)

18Wagnerism and Symbolism share common aesthetic principles and motives (Wilson 30), and the intensity of passion both movements aroused in their followers lies closer to that of a cult. ‘The wars of religion were not more bloodthirsty than the discussions of Wagnerites and Anti-wagnerites’ (Shaw 1937, 30), Shaw claimed while reviewing the phenomenon some forty years after its otherwise peaceful outcome3. To Shaw—and to many others before him—the notion of Wagnerism implied a zealous desire to overcome the limits of the spoken word, the embodiment of reason and the ultimate ideal of enlightenment. While Symbolism took—or tried to take—poetry to the boundaries of music, not in the least because of its supposedly privileged links to emotion, thus overcoming the rational apprehension of language and its nature as sound (Wilson 29-31), Wagnerism worked along the same lines, but starting from the other side of the spectrum, i.e., the realm of sound, precisely the same aesthetic land of plenty symbolists were set to conquer. However, this is not enough for a composer. Wagner’s use of spoken language involves the same epistemological issues the symbolist poet and the decadent artist had already perceived in the actual aesthetic performance of reason, namely the weakness of verbal representation of Life and reality as a continuous flux of becoming; the inability for the spoken word to fully grasp the experience of emotion; the elusive and deceptive relation between word and meaning, and so on. Wagnerism, like Symbolism, had to face those issues. Now, while symbolism attempted to revamp poetry by actually writing verbal music, thus taking it closer to the aesthetic ideal of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (Valls Oyarzun 34), Wagner sets to achieve a similar goal by effectively translating the actual principles of Total Art (music, language, theatre and visuals) into Myth:

Now, if the gods and heroes of such mythological dramas as Wagner writes are to communicate also in words, there is no greater danger than that this spoken language will awaken the theoretical man in us and thereby heave us over into the other, non-mythical sphere: so that in the end we should not through the employment of words have understood more clearly what is taking place before us but, on the contrary, have failed to understand it at all. That is why Wagner has forced language back to a primordial state in which it hardly yet thinks in concepts and in which it is itself still poetry, image and feeling. (Nietzsche 1997, 236)

19The benefits of taking language (i.e., Reason fleshed out) to the sphere of Myth lie in the fact that ‘myth is not founded on a thought, as the children of an artificial culture believe, it is itself a mode of thinking’ (Nietzsche 1997, 236); indeed, ‘it communicates an idea of the world, but as a succession of events, actions and sufferings. Der Ring des Nibelungen is a tremendous system of thought without the conceptual form of thought’ (Nietzsche 1997, 236). Wagner’s music drama, in actuality, benefits from a combined mode of representing the world whereby music, language, theatrics and visuals merge into myth. This, however, showcases a ‘mode of thinking’, or ‘thought without the conceptual form of thought’, rather than a ‘repetition of cases by virtue of [a dialectical] closure’ (Deleuze 93) of meaning, that is, a betrayal of the experience (Deleuze 376) embodied in Life, or Art for that matter.

20The process of innovation and artistic renewal carried out by symbolists and Wagnerites alike share, too, a common set of foundations, in whose ideological grounds lie the basic principles of their aesthetic(ist) drive. As I have already shown, Wagner builds his mythos from a ‘primordial state’ of language that materializes in ‘poetry, image and feeling’ (Nietzsche 1997, 236), and, by the same token, in symbol. The language of myth does not qualify as music, but both stem from the same ground,

The pleasure produced by the tragic myth has the same origin as the pleasurable perception of dissonance in music. The Dionisyac [sic], with its primal pleasure experienced even in pain, is the common womb of music and the tragic myth. (Nietzsche 1993, 115)

21The common genealogy of myth and music requires a new mode of thinking that actually transcends thinking, thus changing the focus of art from the notion of concept to experience. Both music and myth call for the ‘[Dyonisian] intoxication’ (Nietzsche 1993, 14) of life, the awakening of passions as well as emotions, and a thorough reassessment of the bodily affections beyond the falsified idea of meaning as reality. In this context, Art and Life, in a sort of Wildean turn, become the same thing.

22Perhaps inadvertently, Shaw champions the same take on Wagnerism by substituting the notion of meaning for performance:

There is only one way of dramatizing an idea; and that is by putting on the stage a human being possessed by that idea, yet none the less a human being with all the human impulses which make him akin and therefore interesting to us. (Shaw 1986, 247)

23Shaw’s proposal echoes the common structuralist assumptions on meaning, which in turn disallows the Wagnerite creed on Art as a form of Life. However, the very notion of performativity demands the query and revision of this assumption. It is not character, but a full-fledged individual (‘with all the human impulses’) who embodies the idea as a tenet of his own uniqueness. For Shaw, this is a matter of performing Life rather than playing out a specific discourse laden with a specific meaning. The former works insofar as it singles out the individual experience of reality (thus making it ‘interesting to us’); the latter simply lays out a closed systematic ethos as unwatchable, as it is ‘unreadable’ (Shaw 1986, 246) when lacking dramatic drive. A comprehensive experience of Life cannot do without the actual performance of it, as opposed to a somewhat bare representation of ideas about Life. In short, Shaw advocates the reenactment of the very principles of Life. These principles lead up necessarily to the construction of meaning and thereupon subordinate it to the individual experience of the audience.

24And herein lies the heart of the matter. If a comprehensive experience of Life cannot do without its performance, then all manifestations of life, no matter how sentimental, vacuous, artificial, affected, workmanlike or ‘constructed’ they may be, must necessarily partake of the same principle. Up to the 1890s, Di Bassetto (in his reviews) and then Shaw himself (albeit from a more systematic standpoint) argued that music drama should have meaning, i.e., ideas. Music drama must embody these ideas to actually perform the power embedded in the Life Force. By 1903, Shaw had already baulked at the possibility that all forms of Life, as well as their representations, might serve a function in the power strategy of Life itself. This, obviously, compels him to revise his theory on music drama. In passing, the critic manages to rescue those ‘who were standing in the way of Wagner’ (Shaw 1937, 29), that is, the French composers.

  • 4 J. L. Wisenthal hints at a nationalistic issue to account for Shaw’s long-standing prickly demeanou (...)

25Arguably, Shaw should never have dismissed French music drama, at least not at the length he painstakingly deployed4. The unfavourable comparisons with Wagner—whether explicit or implicit is a matter of no importance—Shaw made the French composers endure should have been more carefully arranged at best, had the critic pondered the actual Wagnerian drive behind some of his victims:

This recalls the youthful group of musicians—les Jeunes—who had founded the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris in 1871 on the heels of national defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Musicians such as César Franck, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, and Saint-Saëns sought to remove themselves from the decadence of Second Empire France and the music with which this was associated, namely Offenbach’s operettas and the spectacles of the Opéra. Seeking an intellectual and moral revival in music, the Société . . . [found] inspiration above all in the grand opera of Wagner. (Duckett 49)

26Admittedly, Shaw might have found that the French were only Wagnerites at heart and never managed to execute the style of the German composer to the letter. However, had Bizet, Massenet or Gounod been imitators of Wagner, then they would have failed to comply with Di Bassetto’s principle of individual style being the key to a true expression of Life (remember that Shaw’s derogatory comments on Saint Saëns’s Ascanio and Gounod’s Jeanne D’Arc would stress the supposedly phoney, second-hand nature of both plays).

27A more tantalizing explanation arises if one is to consider that Shaw’s ‘main exposure to much nineteenth-century European drama [was] through operas that used plays by Schiller, and Dumas fils, for example, as sources for libretti’ (Wisenthal 284). In addition, this is precisely the issue. Shaw ‘thinks of drama in musical terms’ (Wisenthal 284; emphasis added) thanks to Wagner, as well as to dramatists such as Scribe, Victorien Sardou, composers such as Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Bizet, and, last but not least, Charles Gounod. They all contribute to Shaw’s depiction of (music) drama as much as Wagner does. Therefore, it is no wonder that Shaw revisits his take on French music drama when he faces the contradictions and paradoxes of his own critical theory. In 1935, Shaw writes:

You may be puzzled, too, to find that the very music I was brought up on: the pre-Wagner school of formal melody in separate numbers which seemed laid out to catch the encores that were then fashionable, was treated by me with contemptuous levity as something to be swept into the dustbin as soon as possible. The explanation is that these works were standing in the way of Wagner, who was then the furiously abused coming man in London. (Shaw 1937, 29; emphasis added)

  • 5 J. L. Wisenthal deems the reference as an intrusion of ‘the degradation that emanates from Paris’ ( (...)

28He might have failed to recognize the Wagnerian drive in French composers and most likely considered they were ‘standing in the way of Wagner’ (Shaw 1937, 29). However, once he had turned his Wagnerism into Shavianism (Valls Oyarzun 101‒11), that is, when he developed his own drama theory as part of a larger theory on Life Force, he could no longer overlook that they too contributed to his own visions on drama. ‘This means that I am no longer Corno di Bassetto. He was pre- and pro-Wagner.  . . . Therefore, I very greatly doubt whether poor old Bassetto is worth reading now’ (Shaw 1937, 31). Eventually, Shaw ended up admiring French composers such as Alfred Bruneau (Shaw 1908, 30), whose style stemmed from but absolutely overcame that of Wagner (insofar as Bruneau managed to forge an individual style of his own); he even managed to salvage Gounod by introducing a playful reference to the composer in Man and Superman (1903) (148), whose character, though still controversial5, can be interpreted as the syncretic acceptance of all forms of art, the same way the marriage of Tanner and Ann at the end of the play embodies the political covenant of social classes to exert the power of Life Force, the ‘Universal Laughter’ (Man and Superman 202) of drama. The case of Corno Di Bassetto against the French epitomizes to the letter this particular turn in the Shavian critique of music drama.

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1 The term ‘Life Force’ makes its debut in Man and Superman (1903), but Shaw had been developing the theory the term comprises at least since The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), even, arguably, since The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).

2 Only one composer resists the comparison with Wagner, to wit, Hector Berlioz. Shaw even goes as far as to claim that Berlioz’s style matches Wagner’s (Shaw 1955, 55). Michel Pharand notices several psychological affinities between Shaw and Berlioz—specifically about their childhood and the way both managed their father-son relationship—which might account for Shaw’s devotion to the French composer (Pharand 40).

3 The clash between Wagnerites and Anti-wagnerites simply waned down and disappeared into oblivion, for, as Shaw puts it, Wagner’s popularity made the ‘Anti-wagnerite movement ridiculous’ (Shaw 1972, 537).

4 J. L. Wisenthal hints at a nationalistic issue to account for Shaw’s long-standing prickly demeanour towards French music drama (304). The author does not state the reason clearly, but leaves room for several possible explanations. Shaw’s antagonism of the French was perhaps a byproduct of the Germanophile trait of his own character. Or perhaps, too, he had preferences for English musicians over French composers.

5 J. L. Wisenthal deems the reference as an intrusion of ‘the degradation that emanates from Paris’ (Wisenthal 287), ‘a mingling of musical styles’ whereby ‘Mozartian sublimities are adulterated with elements of French opera’ (Wisenthal 290). However, the rationale behind the play (i.e., the covenant between all forms of (social) life to exert evolution towards a higher form of organization) arguably debunks the interpretation. Richard Corballis (168-ff), for instance, contends that Gounod’s reference cannot be dismissed on the grounds of a simple joke.

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Eduardo Valls Oyarzun, « Unpleasant Operas or French Music Drama as Heard by Corno Di Bassetto », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 21 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3387

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Eduardo Valls Oyarzun

Eduardo Valls Oyarzun is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Complutense University, Madrid (Spain). His research interests focus on the English 19th–century fiction, the history of ideas (Nietzsche and the fin de siècle), Victorian studies, Modernism, British and American writers Joseph Conrad and Francis Scott Fitzgerald, and travel literature. He has also researched on Shakespeare and Elisabethan drama, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville as well as the cultural relationships between music and literature. He is currently a member of the research group ‘Literary Contexts of Modernity’, which deals with the genesis and development of ideology in modernity and postmodernity in the English‑speaking world. He has published a number of articles and chapters of books on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, and Francis Scott Fitzgerald as well as the relationship of Edgar Allan Poe with American Modernism (particularly T. S. Eliot). He has also devoted his time to translation, including Dylan como Poeta by Christopher Ricks (Langre, 2007), the essay El perfecto wagneriano by George Bernard Shaw (Alianza Editorial, 2011), and the book Resistencia en teoría (Verbum, 2011). The latter traces a panorama of avant‑garde propositions of present literary criticism. Moreover, he has delivered numerous lectures and speeches in universities such as Amsterdam, Leiden, Kent, Bard College (USA), Lublin and Jagiellonska (Poland), Lisboa, Complutense of Madrid, and Santiago de Compostela. He is a member of the Joseph Conrad International Society of London and the International Society for Travel Writing, which is based in Complutense University.
Eduardo Valls Oyarzun est maître de conférences en littérature anglaise à l’université Complutense de Madrid (Espagne). Ses travaux de recherche sont axés sur la fiction anglaise du dix-neuvième siècle, l’histoire des idées (Nietzsche et la fin de siècle), études victoriennes, le modernisme, les écrivains britannique et américain, Joseph Conrad et Francis Scott Fitzgerald, ainsi que la littérature de voyage. Il a également fait des recherches sur Shakespeare et le théâtre élisabéthain, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, et Herman Melville, de même que sur les liens culturels entre la musique et la littérature. Il fait actuellement partie du groupe de recherche « Contexte littéraire de la modernité », qui se penche sur la genèse et le développement à l’époque moderne et post-moderne dans le monde anglophone. Il a publié un grand nombre d’articles et de chapitres de livres sur l’influence de Friedrich Nietzsche sur Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, et Francis Scott Fitzgerald, ainsi que le rapport qu’entretenait Edgar Allan Poe avec le modernisme américain (en particulier T. S. Eliot). Il a par ailleurs consacré du temps à la traduction, notamment celle du livre Dylan como Poeta de Christopher Ricks (Langre, 2007), de l’essai El perfecto wagneriano de George Bernard Shaw (Alianza Editorial, 2011), et du livre Resistencia en teoría (Verbum, 2011). Ce dernier dresse un panorama des propositions avant-gardistes de la critique littéraire actuelle. Il a en outre donné de nombreuses conférences et participé à des colloques dans des universités comme à Amsterdam, Leiden, Kent, Bard College (USA), Lublin et Jagiellonska (Pologne), Lisbonne, la Complutense de Madrid, et Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. Il est membre de la Société internationale Joseph Conrad de Londres, ainsi que de la Société internationale des écrits de voyages, établie à l’université Complutense de Madrid.

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