A letter from George Bernard Shaw

As part of their campaign to prevent the continued downsizing of theatre orchestras in the 1920s, the Musicians’ Union’s Glasgow Branch Secretary, Walter Murdock, wrote to the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, for “any possible assistance he could give us in our efforts to maintain orchestras at their full strength.”

What specific event triggered the approach is undocumented, but Shaw wrote extensively about music in his early career as a journalist (W.H. Auden called him ‘the best music critic that ever lived’) and his socialist beliefs were were well known.

If this made him appear a natural ally for the Union, his response, which was published in the Monthly Report of the Musicians’ Union on the 14th August 1924, was a mixture of bemusement, support for working musicians and a pragmatic admission that, as a playwright, there was nothing he could do about the size of orchestras.

George-Bernard-ShawHere is his full response:

Dear Sir

In reply to your letter of 25th June I can only say what you evidently know I must say; which is, that it is impossible for a playwright to impose any conditions on a theatre manager, except that he shall give adequate representations of his plays. The Manager may not be able to afford a band at all; in some plays Military Bands are specified; but the circumstances may not permit anything better than an absurd gramophone. As you may imagine, the Playwright would far rather have a first-rate Band; but the only result of insistence on that would be that there would be no performance at all, and even the musicians who play for the Gramophone Company would be thrown out of employment.

In the case you mention, in which a solo pianist and solo violinist were substituted for the usual theatre band, what would you have had me say? – the experiment was quite legitimate; if the public was pleased, there is nothing more to be said. I have often protested against the cutting down of the Band, and have been regarded as a crank for suggesting a couple of Horns, in addition to the one Cornet an one Trombone, doing all the brass work, by playing parts that were not written for them. Even at the Coliseum, during the War, I found an American Organ playing the wood wind parts; and you may hear in almost every Theatre now, a Piano throwing half a dozen Bandsmen out of employment; if you forbid the Piano, you may get a classical String Quartette with no Wind at all. The Bands of 17, which you suggest as a standard for the Theatre, spend their time playing Music written for from 32 to 75 executants. I have seen a Commissionaire lending a hand with the percussion in a version of Tschaikowsky’s 1812, an Overture written for a big Orchestra and a Military Band combined; the Country Council Bands play it as best they can with about one-third the proper number of instruments. If you allow all these things to be done, you seem to be throwing Musicians out of work; but, if you insist on the full complement, you don’t make work for the unemployed; you just prevent the works being performed at all and make unemployment worse.

I should like to have a Band of at least twenty at every Cinema, instead of the solitary Pianist, or Pianist-cum-Organist, many of them do with; but to make this compulsory would shut up many Cinemas and throw the Pianists on the streets.

All you can do is to insist that the Musicians who are actually employed shall have a decent living wage; and if you can do nothing more than this, how can I do more?; I have never lost an opportunity of declaring, as against those who want the Continental plan of no Music in the Theatres, that the music which is customary in English theatres is a valuable attraction, and that it is bade economy to dispense with it, or to stint it in quality or variety of Instruments. But I can speak only as a Citizen: I cannot coerce as a Playwright.

I don’t ask the Musicians’ Union to take care of me; and they must not ask me to take care of them, partly because I cannot and partly because they are jolly well able to take care of themselves, if they stick to their Union.


G. Bernard Shaw