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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 22 (2001) 1-18

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Shaw's Musician:
Edward Elgar

Stanley Weintraub


In the first year of the new century, English composer Edward Elgar wrote music for a play by George Moore and W. B. Yeats, Diarmuid and Grania, produced at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin that October. In the next year, 1902, he entered a musical competition for an "Irish Symphony" by expanding on what he had written for the play. He did not win any prizes, and that ended his music for the theater. By then, Bernard Shaw had become one of Elgar's admirers, and a few years later Shaw responded to a suggestion from a London impresario, Colonel James H. Mapleson, that he write an opera libretto for the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns by turning the proposal upside down. "Unfortunately," Shaw joked, "I have a prior engagement with Richard Strauss, which is at present hung up by the fact that I want to write the music and he wants to write the libretto, and we both get on very slowly for want of practice. I wonder whether Elgar would turn his hand to opera?" 1

The implication was that if Elgar wrote the music, Shaw would furnish a libretto-the only time he made such an offer. The two would form a mutual admiration society. Shaw, who always wanted to write music, knew he had no talent in that direction and wrote only a few forgotten songs. Encouraging Elgar was his route to musical composition. Elgar, who would become the major British composer of his time, had read Shaw's "Corno di Bassetto" music columns in London newspapers in 1888-89, before Shaw had heard a note of Elgar's early music. "He was a musical critic and a good one," said Elgar later, "in those dull days when the two [Oxbridge] Universities and the Colleges of Music used to do nothing but sit around and accuse one another of the cardinal virtues." Later, once Shaw and Elgar became close, they would discuss setting one of Shaw's plays to music, but, Shaw recalled, "I think we agreed to my view that he could no nothing with a play except what his [symphonic poem] Falstaff did with Shakespeare's."

After Shaw's critic days were over, in 1900, he heard Elgar's symphonic "Enigma Variations" (of 1897) and his oratorio "A Dream of Gerontius." The [End Page 1] haunting "Enigma Variations," he recalled, "took away your breath. Whew! I knew we had got it at last." He would become a friend, enthusiast, and patron of Elgar, spurring on his creativity—an essential task, as Elgar was diffident and self-critical to the point of tearing up much of what he had composed. Shaw opened him up with wit and praise and entrée to a new cultural landscape. At first there seemed little likelihood of that. Elgar claimed to have admired Shaw's critical pieces, written when he was trying, in London, to reach beyond a purely provincial reputation, but his first known reaction to a Shaw play was less than enthusiastic. Writing to a friend, the stage set designer Arthur Troyte Griffith, after reading Man and Superman 2 in 1904, responded to it, predictably, as the conservative Roman Catholic that he was. "Bernard Shaw is hopelessly wrong," he objected, "as all these fellows are on fundamental things: amongst others they punch Xtianity & try to make it fit their civilization instead of making their civilization fit it. He is an amusing liar, but not much more & it is a somewhat curious p[oin]t that in the Don Juan [in Hell dream] scene he makes his characters 'live in the remembrance' (in figure, age, etc) just, or not just but very like [Cardinal] Newman in Gerontius. Extremes meet sometimes." 3

It is possible that extremes did meet here, and that Shaw got something out of the dream-vision of Gerontius, which speculated on evolution, extreme age, the loss of Eden, and salvation. Elgar's oratorio referred also to...