How George Bernard Shaw Learned to Play the Piano

It may be surprising to learn that the famous Irish dramatist, sociologist, vegetarian, etc., was also widely famed at one time as a music critic.

Like Bisson, Parker, Rupert Hughes, Boito and several other successful dramatists who were previously musicians, Shaw always valued his musical experiences. He was often criticized for being a critic without a musical education. As a matter of fact he had a very good musical training, but was almost entirely self-taught. To his accusers he took delight in pointing out that neither Wagner nor Berlioz were proficient pianists, but were nevertheless fine musicians.

Some years ago Shaw wrote an instructive article upon “The Religion of the Piano.” This appeared in a leading German publication and the following is a translation. No doubt Mr. Shaw would be very much amused to read this re-Englishing of his thoughts, since his own English is known to be inimitably individual.

The article content is as follows:

I learned the A, B, C, of notation through an elementary instruction book. I was able to comprehend the keyboard through a drawing. Then I started right in without exercises, Plaidy, Czerny or anything else, to study Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

It took fully ten minutes before I could place my fingers in the right position for the first chord of the overture. Finally, however, it sounded right and the pleasure I received from listening to my own playing of the chord paid for all the pains it had cost me.

After a few months I managed to acquire a technic sufficient for my needs. It was, of course, purely of my own invention as the following illustration of my fingering of the scale of C will illustrate. Instead of using customary fingering by putting my thumb under the third finger:

1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5

I stumbled upon the following:

1 2 3 4 5 4 5 4

This had the advantage of fitting all of the diatonic and chromatic scales, and clumsy as it is, I often find myself going back to it when I am not thinking. Liszt and Chopin were also said to have enjoyed this fingering upon occasion in certain places but of course they did not stumble upon it as I did.

I soon acquired a formidable ability to blunder through all kinds of piano arrangements and scores. As a reward for my efforts I found that I was learning Victor Hugo and Schiller through Donizetti, Verdi and Beethoven; the Bible through Handel; Goethe through Schumann, Beaumarchais and Moliere through Mozart and Merimee through Bizet. In addition to this I found in Berlioz an unknown interpretation of a work by Edgar Allen Poe.