Shaw and the Don: G. Bernard Shaw’s Reception of Mozart’s Don Giovanni

Shaw and the Don: George Bernard Shaw’s Reception of Mozart’s Don Giovanni

By Dr. Gareth Cox

George Bernard Shaw by Sir Emery Walker quarter-plate glass negative, 1888 (NPG x19645) © National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons License

George Bernard Shaw
by Sir Emery Walker

quarter-plate glass negative, 1888
(NPG x19645)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Creative Commons License

This is the text of a talk given to the Limerick Philosophical Society in 1993. It was illustrated with many musical examples from Don Giovanni [these are indicated in the text with their relevant bar numbers]. It deals generally with Shaw’s lifelong fascination with the music of Mozart and in particular with the influence on his work of one of Mozart’s greatest operas, Don Giovanni. Scholars, both philologists and dramaturgists alike, have long recognized the importance of structural aspects of Mozart’s music on Shaw’s dramas. Shaw himself felt that a certain knowledge of Mozart was a necessary prerequisite for an understanding of his works and in a letter to the American actress Molly Tompkins he wrote, “I don’t know whether you are a musician, but if not, then you don’t know Mozart, and if you don’t know Mozart, you will never understand my technique”. [Tompkins, 11]

The two major cultural figures of Mozart and Shaw appear at first glance to be an unlikely pairing: One an eighteenth-century composer of music mainly for the aristocracy; the other a twentieth-century socialist. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in 1756, represents the apogee of the Viennese Classical style and composed works in practically all musical genres including such unforgettable operas as The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, and of course, Don Giovanni. George Bernard Shaw was born exactly a hundred years later than Mozart in 1856. He enjoyed an enormous reputation as a prolific dramatist through such plays as Joan of Arc, Pygmalion, Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House and Man and Superman. He was active in the Fabian Society advocating democratic socialism and was well-known as a social and political iconoclast. He enjoyed world-wide fame, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, was offered a knighthood which he declined, and refused the Order of Merit stating in typically brusque Shavian fashion that he had already awarded it to himself.

Shaw was also music critic until 1876 of the London papers, The Hornet, The Star, and The World. Although he knew a great deal about music, he confessed that he did not know as much as one would suppose from his articles but, as he said, “in the kingdom of the deaf the one-eared is king” [Shaw, II, 808] and he never ceased using his position of influence as music critic to encourage the public to demand better standards and the musicians to produce them. As William Irvine states, “Shaw was by no means content to tell composers how to compose, musicians how to play, stage managers how to produce, and audiences how to feel. He also told financiers of music how to venture and manage, and the government how to legislate with reference to musical problems. In his critical pages the English, a placid and political people, discovered with amazement that music was a burning political issue, and might at any moment explode into social revolution”. [Irvine, 324] He wrote under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto as he felt that he had no name worth signing: G.B.S. meant nothing to the public at the time and he chose Corno di Bassetto because a) he felt it sounded like a European title and b) because nobody knew what a Corno di Bassetto actually was. [Shaw, I, 30] He was later to say though that, “if I had ever heard a note of it [then] I should not have selected it for a character which I intended to be sparkling. The devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle”. [Ibid., 31] These subjective, trenchant and inimitably Shavian reviews reveal a portrait of musical life in London during the late Victorian Era and beyond and were collected and published by the Shaw scholar Dan Lawrence in three volumes in 1981 under the title Shaw’s Music.

Mozart’s music did not enjoy the same enormous popularity during the late nineteenth century as it does today. In London the most important musical events were the great Choir Festivals at which works by Bach, Handel, and particularly Mendelssohn were presented in performances with gigantic forces of singers. There was an over-exaggerated sense of the importance of Italian opera and many English composers actually had to have their operas first performed in Italian translations in order to be taken seriously (the first performance of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer was sung in Italian translation); in fact Wagner was rarely heard at all, and as Shaw wrote in 1890, “a man who has seen Die Walküre on the stage is a much greater curiosity than one who has explored the Congo”. [Ibid., 924] Indeed, most of the concert-goers only wanted to hear the popular operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Shaw was famous for his championing of both Wagner and Mozart: In 1891, the year of the Mozart Centenary, Shaw wrote in an article in The Illustrated London News that “at present his music is hardly known in England except to those who study it in private. Public performances of it are few and far between, and, until Richter conducted the E flat Symphony here, nobody could have gathered from the vapid, hasty, trivial readings which were customary in our concert rooms that Mozart, judged by 18th century standards, had any serious claim to his old-fashioned reputation”. [Shaw, II, 488] The Centenary was celebrated nonetheless, although Shaw was scathing about how journalists were prepared to cover it with “likenesses of Mozart at all ages; view of Salzburg; portrait of Marie Antoinette […] to whom he proposed marriage at an early age” etc. [Ibid., 478] He pitied the unfortunate singers, players and conductors most because they would have to actually make the public hear the wonders which the newspapers were describing so lavishly. Of the performance of Mozart’s music he writes that “nothing but the finest execution – beautiful, expressive, and intelligent – will serve […] whilst, at the same time, your work is so obvious, that everyone thinks it must be easy, and puts you down remorselessly as a duffer for botching it”. [Ibid., 482f.] He goes on to say that “there was no way of getting out of the centenary: something had to be done. Accordingly, the Crystal Palace committed itself to the Jupiter Symphony and the Requiem; and the Albert Hall, by way of varying the entertainment, announced the Requiem and the Jupiter Symphony”. [Ibid., 483]

The main part of this talk will deal with Shaw’s reception of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Firstly though, for those who either do not know the opera or need a refresher, I offer a brief synopsis of the important parts of the work, omitting the sub-plots, and playing you a few musical excerpts.

Don Giovanni is based on the story of the legendary Spanish nobleman and philanderer Don Juan as immortalised by Molière and Byron. The opera takes place in Seville in the eighteenth century and was first performed in Prague in 1787. The libretto was by Lorenzo da Ponte.

Mus. Ex.: Overture. The nobleman Don Giovanni is attempting to seduce Donna Anna the daughter of Don Pedro (the Commendatore of Seville). Don Giovanni, according to Leporello his manservant, has had many conquests and lists them off: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany etc, but 1003 in Spain, so far. Don Pedro enters and challenges Don Giovanni to a duel, but is killed. Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio vow to avenge her father’s death. Giovanni continues his philandering with other women and gets into various scrapes, for example with the peasant girl Zerlina for whom Mozart wrote one of his most famous duets: Mus. Ex.: “Là ci darem la mano”. Later Don Giovanni is recognized by Donna Anna as being her father’s killer and she proclaims her love for Don Ottavio in a beautiful aria: Mus. Ex.: “Non Mi Dir” The opera gets quite complicated in typically Mozartian fashion with various changes of identities. During one of these escapades in a graveyard, Giovanni is addressed by the statue of the dead Commendatore whereupon he laughingly invites him to supper. Later at supper the statue appears dramatically: Mus. Ex.: “Statue Music”: Finale, bars 379-62. The Commendatore orders Don Giovanni to repent of his ways, but Giovanni, blasé as ever, refuses and is dragged down to hell by devils.

Shaw has stated in his writings that the piece by Mozart that influenced him most was the opera Don Giovanni. He began his self-tuition, not with Czerny’s five-finger exercises, but with the overture to Don Giovanni as he wanted to start with something he knew well enough so that he would at least know whether the notes were right or wrong. [Shaw, I, 55] Later he was to say that he considered learning Don Giovanni so early was the most important part of his musical education. [Shaw, II, 482] He described it as the greatest of all operas and he mentions it the most frequently in his writings. He castigated a performance of it in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1887 describing it as “little more than a rehearsal of the orchestral parts” [Shaw, I, 509] and in 1891 in The World in an article entitled “A Non-Mozartian Don”, he criticised the acting ability of the then world-famous baritone, Viktor Maurel who was not sufficiently terrified by the entrance of the statue during his meal, but rather reacted very much as “if his uncle had dropped in unexpectedly in the middle of a bachelor’s supper party”. [Shaw, II, 339]

Shaw first used the Don Juan story in a novel entitled The Unsocial Socialist in 1883 but, four years later in 1887, a hundred years after the first performance of Don Giovanni in Prague, Shaw wrote a short story, Don Giovanni Explains. In this he relates the story from a Shavian point of view. The action takes place on a train as a young attractive girl is on her way home from a performance of Don Giovanni. In the girl’s description of the performance, one can hear all the frustration of Shaw who often had to endure third-rate productions of the opera:

The Don was a conceited Frenchman, with a toneless, dark nasal voice, and such a tremolo that he never held a note steady long enough to let us hear whether it was in tune or not. Leporello was a podgy, vulgar Italian buffo who quacked instead of singing. The tenor, a reedy creature, left out Dalla sua pace because he couldn’t trust himself to get through it. The parts of Masetto and the Commendatore were doubled, I think, by the call-boy […] The orchestra was reinforced by local amateurs, the brass parts being played on things from the band of the 10th Hussars. Everybody was delighted; and when I said I wasn’t, they said, “Oh! you’re so critical and so hard to please. Don’t you think you’d enjoy yourself far more if you were not so particular.” The idea of throwing away music like Mozart’s on such idiots! When the call-boy and the Frenchman sank into a pit of red fire to the blaring of the 10th Hussars and the quacking of the podgy creature under the table, I got up to go…. [Shaw, 1934, 170f.]

A man appears opposite the girl in the carriage and explains that he is the ghost of Don Giovanni. She asks him, why as a ghost he is travelling by train when he could project himself from place to place if he so wished, but he replies that, having eternity at his disposal, he is in no hurry. He explains that his reputation as a philanderer has always been exaggerated and misunderstood, whereas he was always pursued by women and forced into love affairs. Actually he was only looking for tranquillity and leisure for study. He relates how his relationship with Donna Elvira developed and explains the “true story” of what happened on that fateful night at Donna Anna’s house, namely that he went to visit her because she was engaged to a friend of his. In the twilight, she mistook him for a friend and embraced him, the alarm was raised, and the Commendatore, without waiting for an explanation tried to kill him. He retaliated and ran his sword through her father in self-defence. The story continues with Don Giovanni explaining the opera from his point of view and he eventually leaves through the glass and wood of the carriage bidding her farewell with the words, “We shall meet again, within eternity”. [Ibid., 190] He does indeed appear again, namely in the drama Man and Superman.

Shaw was challenged by the critic Arthur Bingham Walkley to write a new version of the Don Juan mythos. This he did only with grave misgivings. In a letter to Walkley he asked “have they not Molière and Mozart, upon whose art no human hand can improve?” [Shaw, 1903, 13] Nevertheless, in 1903 Shaw published what was to become one of his best-known works, the drama Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy, a four-act play with a dream-interlude interpolated as the third act. It is a comical love story, the plot consisting of the flight of the protagonist John Tanner from his ward, Ann Whitefield and his eventual capitulation and marriage to her. The third act, the dream interlude, constitutes a continuation of the Don Giovanni story. It begins where the opera ends, namely when Don Giovanni descends into hell, and it is sometimes performed separately under the title of Don Juan in Hell. The main characters in the play are presented as dead characters from the opera: Ann Whitefield as Donna Anna, Ramsden her father, as Don Pedro the Commendatore, Mendoza, the bandit who captures Tanner, as the Devil, and Tanner himself as Don Juan. John Tanner, a prosperous and loquacious intellectual, author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook printed at the back of the play (containing the famous quote on Education “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches” [Ibid., 253]), is a reluctant guardian of Ann Whitefield. He sees Ann as an unscrupulous young woman who always gets her own way. Octavius (Don Ottavio) is in love with Ann and proposes a couple of times to her, but she is only interested in Tanner. Tanner flees to Spain to escape her and is attacked by bandits near Granada. The beginning of Act III (the dream interlude) takes place in the bandit’s camp in the Sierra Nevada. Tanner dreams and descends into Hell:

Stillness settles on the Sierra and the darkness deepens […] Instead of the Sierra there is nothing: omnipresent nothing. No sky, no peaks, no light, no sound, no time nor space, utter void. Then somewhere the beginning of a pallor, and with it a faint throbbing buzz as of a ghostly violoncello palpitating on the same note endlessly. A couple of ghostly violins presently take advantage of this bass Mus. Ex.: Overture, bars 31ff. and therewith the pallor reveals a man in the void, an incorporeal but visible man, seated, absurdly enough, on nothing. For a moment he raises his head as the music passes him by. Then, with a heavy sigh, he drops in utter dejection; and the violins, discouraged, retrace their melody in despair and at last give it up, extinguished by wailings from uncanny wind instruments, thus: Mus. Ex.: Overture, bars 40ff. It is all very odd. One recognizes the Mozartian strain; and on this hint, and by the aid of certain sparkles of violet light in the pallor, the man’s costume explains itself as that of a Spanish nobleman of the XV-XVI century. Don Juan, of course; but where? why? how? […] Another pallor in the void, this time not violet, but a disagreeable smoky yellow. With it, the whisper of a ghostly clarinet turning this tune into infinite sadness: Mus. Ex.: “Non mi dir”, bars 1ff. The yellowish pallor moves: there is an old crone wandering in the void, bent and toothless; draped, as well as one can guess, in the coarse brown frock of some religious order. She wanders and wanders in her slow hopeless way, much as a wasp flies in its rapid busy way, until she blunders against the thing she seeks: companionship. [Ibid., 123ff]

There follows a dialogue between Don Juan and this old woman. After the transformation of the old woman into a young, magnificently attired young woman, Don Giovanni of course recognizes the young Donna Anna. Suddenly, “two great chords rolling on syncopated waves of sound break forth. D minor and its dominant: a sound of dreadful joy to all musicians”. [Ibid., 131] Mus. Ex.: Finale, bars 433f. “Ha”, says Don Juan, “Mozart’s statue music. It is your father. From the void comes a living statue of white marble, designed to represent a majestic old man”. [Ibid., 131] It is, of course, Don Pedro, the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. He is usually to be found in heaven but drops by into hell from time to time because he finds heaven so boring. He is on the best possible terms with Don Juan and insists that he was the better swordsman and would have killed him but for his foot slipping (this excuse is also mentioned in the short story). The action continues in this parodic fashion with everyone reflecting on their previous lives. The devil enters (preceded by distorted statue chords) and a discussion ensues with a debate on democracy, morality, and the nature and respective virtues of heaven and hell. Dispelling the notion of heaven and hell as places of reward and retribution [Grene, 60], Don Juan complains that “hell is full of amateur musicians. Music is the brandy of the dammed”. [Shaw, 1903, 135]. For Shaw, a hedonistic approach to life leads to damnation; as the Shaw biographer, Michael Holroyd puts it, “Man’s quest for knowledge and understanding has set him off on the great adventure of transforming his environment and mastering the universe. He may not stop the world and go off on a perpetual holiday.” [Holroyd, 76]

The raison d’etre of this interlude, however, is to give Shaw the opportunity through dramatic rhetoric to debate teleological and mechanistic philosophies which strive to explain the development of mankind. He rejects a Darwinistic approach of natural selection in favour of a biological and intellectual evolution in which a creative Life-Force ultimately leads mankind by trial and error to the goal of a God-like Superman who will solve the world’s social and political problems. Don Juan (representing Shaw’s optimism) states that the Life-Force is “the force that ever strives to attain greater power of contemplating itself” [Shaw, 1903, 141] whereas the Devil (representing Shaw’s pessimism) replies that “the power which governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death […] because man measures his strength by his destructiveness: Man the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair, of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.” [Ibid., 144]. The Life-Force also influences the woman in her choice of partners for procreation (“a woman seeking a husband is the most unscrupulous of all the beasts of prey.” [Ibid., 156]) Mozart’s theme of seduction has been replaced by a debate on eugenics, in this case a synthesis of various philosophies ranging from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (Übermensch) to the later concept of the élan vital of Henri Bergson. (Shaw continued this theme in Back to Methuselah (1923), a play in which elements of The Magic Flute are introduced.) The scene ends with Donna Anna, having being told by the Devil that the Superman has not yet been created, crying that she believes in the Life to come, and goes to look for “A father – a father for the Superman”. [Ibid., 173] In Act IV, the rest of the party catches up with Tanner and they all proceed to Granada where Tanner eventually capitulates to the triumphant Ann. Tanner declares that “Ann looks happy, but she is only triumphant […] That is not happiness but the price for which the strong sell their happiness. What we have done this afternoon is to renounce happiness, renounce freedom, renounce tranquillity, above all, renounce the romantic possibilities of an unknown future, for the cares of a household and a family”. [Shaw, 1903, 208]

Shaw employs the Don Giovanni libretto “almost wholly for purposes of parody, comic relief [and] a series of running gags based on anticlimactic inversion of the characters and attitudes of the opera […] serv[e] as comic counterpoint to the Shavian dialectic.” [Grene, 59] But, the major dramaturgical problem that confronted Shaw in this interlude was how to sustain interest in a long interlude devoid of action (and indeed perhaps even unactable). He solved this by employing a series of literary solos, duets, trios and quartets analogous to the first act of the opera Don Giovanni: a duet/dialogue – Don Juan and Donna Anna; a trio – Don Juan, Donna Anna and the Commendatore; a quartet – all three and the devil interpolated with rhetorical monologues or solos.

One could further debate the influence of Shaw on Mozart in that we cannot hear Mozart’s Don Giovanni objectively today without recalling Shaw’s continuation of it; Man and Superman has irretrievably influenced our reception of the opera because we are now aware of a possible sequel. However, I will instead conclude by reading you an abridged version of a letter that Shaw wrote to The Times in July 1905 after attending a performance of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden starring the great tenor, Enrico Caruso. Even though Shaw was not active as a music critic at this stage of his career, it did not deter him from expressing his opinions on the evening in general:

Sir, – The opera management at Covent garden regulates the dress of its male patrons. When is it going to do the same to the women? On Saturday night I went to the Opera. I wore the costume imposed on me by the regulations of the house […] Not only was I in evening dress by compulsion, but I voluntarily added many graces of conduct as to which the management made no stipulation whatever. I was in my seat in time for the first chord of the overture. I did not chatter during the music nor raise my voice when the opera was too loud for normal conversation. I did not get up and go out when the statue music began. My language was fairly moderate considering the number and nature of the improvements on Mozart volunteered by Signor Caruso, and the respectful ignorance of the dramatic parts of the score exhibited by the conductor and the stage manager – if there is such a functionary at Covent Garden. In short, my behaviour was exemplary. At 9 o’clock (the Opera began at 8 [o’clock]) a lady came in and sat down very conspicuously in my line of sight. She remained there until the beginning of the last act. I do not complain of her coming late and going early; on the contrary, I wish she had come later and gone earlier. For this lady, who had very black hair, had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly as if someone had killed it by stamping on its breast, and then nailed it to the lady’s temple, which was presumably of sufficient solidity to bear the operation. I am not, I hope, a morbidly squeamish person, but the spectacle sickened me. I presume that if I had presented myself at the doors with a dead snake around my neck, a collection of blackbeetles pinned to my shirtfront, and a grouse in my hair, I should have been refused admission. Why then is a woman to be allowed to commit such a public outrage? […] I suggest to the Covent Garden authorities that, if they feel bound to protect their subscribers against the danger of my shocking them with a blue tie, they are at least equally bound to protect me against the danger of a woman shocking me with a dead bird. [Shaw, III, 585ff.]


GRENE, Nicholas. Bernard Shaw: A Critical View. Macmillan , London, 1984.

HOLROYD, Michael. Bernard Shaw, Vol. II 1898-1918: The Pursuit of Power, Chatto & Windus, London, 1989.

HOLT, Charles, Lloyd. “Mozart, Shaw and Man and Superman”, The Shaw Review (9), 1966, 102-116.

IRVINE, William. “G. B. Shaw’s Musical Criticism”, The Music Quarterly, Vol. 32 (3), July, 1946, 319-332.

OSBORNE, Linda Payne. “Shaw and Mozart: Dramaturgy and the Life Force”, The Journal of Irish Literature (12), January, 1983, 96-110.

PARMENTER, Ross. “Shaw and Mozart”, The Shaw Bulletin (3), May, 1952, 3-5.

POLLAK, Paulina, Salz. “Master to the Masters: Mozart’s Influence on Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell”, The Shaw Review (8), 1988, 39-68.

SHAW, George, Bernard. Shaw’s Music, Vols. I-III, Dan Lawrence (Ed.), Bodley Head, London, 1981.

SHAW, George, Bernard. “Don Giovanni Explains”, The Black Girl in Search of God and Some Lesser Tales, London, 1934.

SHAW, George, Bernard. Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy, London, 1903 (Penguin Ed. 1946/1965).

TOMPKINS, Peter (Ed.). To a Young Actress: The Letters of Molly Tompkins, London, 1960.

WEINTRAUB, Stanley. “Genesis of a Play: Two Early Approaches to Man and Superman”, Shaw: Seven Critical Essays, Norman Rosenblood (Ed.), Toronto, 1971, 23-35.

WEST, E. J. “Disciple and Master: Shaw and Mozart”, The Shavian II (3), February, 1961, 16-23.

Copyright © 1998 Minerva. All Rights Reserved.

Gareth Cox is a member of the Music Department, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland.

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