It seems a grand waste of time to second guess a great artist. Indeed, it is the height of folly to stand over that dead artist’s shoulder, and say, “He should have painted such and such a picture, or composed such and such a symphony.”
I snarl that Goethe did this with the great Michaelangelo. For Goethe, who was throughout his life a great arts scholar and wannabe painter, wrote that the Florentine sculptor had wasted his precious time looking for perfect blocks of marble in the quarries outside Florence.
My reaction comes from looking at the relative accomplishments of both men. Goethe, while significant as a scientist and supreme as a lyric poet, wrote quite unsatisfactory plays and novels. Michaelangelo, on the other hand, set the High Renaissance on fire with his sculptures, paintings, buildings and poems. Which of these artists, I rhetorically ask, wasted his time the more?
Yet I am as guilty as Goethe in second-guessing, and I am quite willing to do this with my favorite modern playwright, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw came from an Irish musical family. His mother was a voice instructor and amateur singer. His sister Lucy became an opera singer, and appeared in the original Gilbert and Sullivan choruses.
If Goethe was a wannabe painter, Shaw was a wannabe painter and opera singer. He went on to become probably the greatest of all music critics, for he was certainly the most literate and best informed. His contributions were significant. While the London public in the late 1800s clamored for the oratorios of Handel and Mendelsohn, Shaw trumpeted the operas of Mozart and Wagner.
When Shaw gained success as a playwright, and indeed became the most successful British playwright since Shakespeare, the inevitable question came: Will he write an opera? Shaw spent years, even decades, wrestling with this question. He had prolonged discussions with Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini and Sir Edward Elgar over possible operas. They all came to nothing.
The majority of such discussions were with Elgar, the best English-born composer since Henry Purcell. Shaw and Elgar were close friends. Shaw pushed the B.B.C. into commissioning Elgar’s final symphony, which remained unfinished at his death. When Sir Barry Jackson established the Shaw Festival at Malvern in 1929, Shaw had the Festival provide concerts of Elgar’s music alongside productions of his own plays.
Yet great artists understand their weaknesses as much as their strengths, and Shaw, for all his P.R. boasting, knew his. In a 1915 letter, Shaw disclosed that he had had discussions with his collaborator, the actor-director Harley Granville Barker over the years about a possible adaptation of THE BEGGAR’S OPERA. Shaw knew he lacked the specific ability to write lyrics. It would be for the playwright-lyricist Brecht to successfully adapt that 1728 ballad opera.
Nevertheless, the matter does not end there, at least in my mind. In 1940 the film version of Shaw’s play MAJOR BARBARA was released. Shaw had written the screenplay. In one scene of the screenplay the manufacturer Undershaft was to entertain his guests by showing a televised concert of Arturo Toscanini conducting a large orchestra and chorus.
For whatever reason, be it budget or the great conductor’s unavailability, the scene was never filmed. Yet it was remarkably conceived in a number of aspects. One, of course, was the use of television in a 1939 screenplay. The second was the desired involvement of Toscanini.
But the third involved the work to be performed. For this piece Shaw has written a text to music by the opera composer Rossini. And here lies our big COULD HAVE HAPPENED. For whatever Shaw’s poetry lacked in subtlety, his text was quite appropriate and effective. And although Edward Elgar was not dramatically equipped to compose an opera, he was successful in composing oratorios.
Perhaps, I suggest, Shaw and Elgar could have collaborated on a cantata for Malvern. A cantata would have been well within the reach of both artists.
But this is all smoke in whimsy. In the end we are left with what these two men actually created. And that is considerable.