So, George Bernard Shaw, what’s your favourite song?

James McCarthy
Thursday, January 24, 2013

Introduction by Compton Mackenzie (December 1926)

I have gathered together what I am inclined to boast is one of the best symposiums of distinguished men and women any paper has ever offered to its readers. The subject of this symposium is 'My favourite song, my favourite composer, my favourite tune, and my favourite singer.' A sufficiently fatuous set of questions to invite people to answer, yet perhaps just because they were so fatuous they have produced some most delightful answers.

The first thing I have to say about this symposium is a word of very grateful thanks to the contributors both on behalf of our readers and for myself personally. You will see by Mr Bernard Shaw's reply what a risk one takes in issuing this kind of unwelcome invitation, and, of course, Mr Shaw is, as always, perfectly right. However, if the questions were foolish, nobody can accuse the answers of being so, and I must say that I agree with Miss Sybil Thorndyke that confession books are amusing, and like her I wish they were in favour once more. If literature and the stage predominate among the guests, that is because they produce the most good-natured victims of this sort of thing. I did not invite any member of the legal profession to contribute, because you can't very well ask a judge to admit that he has favourites, and you can't very well ask a KC, because he is liable at any moment to become a judge. The absence of any distinguished representatives of the Anglican Church and the Nonconformist bodies is due to their unwillingness to commit themselves, not to my failure to invite them. The comparative scarcity of musicians is also due to this, and I am particularly grateful to Sir Landon Ronald and Sir Richard Terry, because they really were abominable questions to address to a musician.

I feel I ought to register my own confession, partly because I should like to be sitting at the table with our guests, and partly on the same principle that the waiter always pours the first few drops of a bottle of wine into the host's glass. I think my favourite song is Schumann's 'Er der Herrlichste von Alles', which I regret to say nobody has yet recorded for an English catalogue. I cannot think why. My favourite tune is without doubt 'The Rhinemaiden's Song'. My favourite composer is without doubt Beethoven, and for my favourite singer I find myself sitting very delightfully between Miss Margaret Bannerman and Miss Madge Titheradge in naming Marguerite d'Alvarez and John McCormack. 


Symposium 1926

Margaret Bannerman (Actress)

My favourite song in all the world is Schubert's 'Serenade'. My favourite composer, Schumann. My favourite tune, 'Chopin' from Schumann's Carnaval. My enthusiasm for Marguerite d'Alvarez as a singer and artist is sincere. She is (to me) a great artist.


Max Beerbohm (Caricaturist, essayist, novelist)

I think my favourite song is 'Voi che sapete' [from Le nozze di Figaro]; and I would call Mozart my favourite composer (thus making a very chaste impression on your readers) but for the fact that on the Mozartian heights I have never felt quite so much at home and so happy as on heights less exalted. The tunes made by Meyer Lutz for the old Gaiety Burlesques, the tunes made later by Lionel Monckton and Paul Rubens for the Musical Comedies, and the tunes made by Herman Finck for the Revues, are what I have been and am most really and truly thankful for. Adelina Patti, though she was old when I was young, remains my favourite singer. I never heard such limpidity, or art so 'natural', as hers. Had she made any gramophone records of her voice, I should certainly buy a gramophone, and Jenny Lind would become my favourite singer.


Hilaire Belloc (Writer and poet)

For a song, the love song in Don Juan, Mozart's. For a composer, Mozart. For a tune, why, that of the song. For a singer, I can't judge; but the one I liked best was a man who sang tenor in the puppet show in Rome in 1921, the show called 'The Little Ones'; or else Mignon Nevada.


Lord Berners (Composer, novelist, painter)

My favourite song is 'The Last Rose of Summer'; my favourite composer, Bach; my favourite tune is the third of Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19, because it is so obscure that one is never likely to grow tired of it (which you must admit is as good a reason for preferring a tune as any other); and if by 'singer' you mean any kind of singer then the one I prefer is Little Tich. But, on the other hand, if you mean merely concert singers, please substitute Clara Butt.


GK Chesterton (Essayist, novelist, critic)

My taste in songs wavers among somewhat different examples; but I think it would probably be between the noble Scottish song, 'Caller Herrin'', which seems to me full of the Scottish sense of human dignity for the poor, and some specimen of the broader and more genial English spirit, such as the beautiful lyric that goes: 

'Father's got the sack from the waterworks / For smoking of his old cherry briar / He, said Foreman Joe, would bloody well have to go / As he'd probably set the waterworks on fire.'


Fay Compton (Actress – Compton Mackenzie's sister)

My favourite singer is Chaliapin; my favourite song, 'The Roadside Fire',Vaughan Williams's setting; my favourite composer is Chopin; and my favourite tune, well, I don't quite understand what you mean by tune, but if you mean hackneyed tunes, 'The Londonderry Air'.


Gladys Cooper (Actress – nominated for three Academy Awards)

I am so sorry I cannot do what you ask, hecause I haven't got a favourite song! But if you had asked me my favourite opera I could have answered you. 

So I did ask her, and Miss Cooper wrote that Madama Butterfly was her favourite opera.


Noël Coward (Playwright, composer, singer, actor, director)

My favourite song is 'L'heure exquise' (Reynaldo Hahn). My fayourite composer is George Gershwin. My favourite tune is 'Mountain Greenery',  by Laurenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. My favourite singer is Yvonne Printemps. 

I am doing this during a rehearsal, so it may sound rather peculiar.


Walter de la Mare (Novelist, poet, children's author)

Yours would be a difficult catechism even for an expert, so you can imagine what it must be for a mere amateur. 

In spite of many efforts, I cannot decide on my 'favourite' song. But if, at pain of being jazzed to death, I was compelled to come to a conclusion, I think I should find myself at the last still hesitating between a song of the 'folk' kind and one of Brahms's or Schubert's. Among the records I know, one of the most successful, I think, is Hahn's' L'heure exquise'; but my range is limited. I suppose a list of records of quiet 'parlour' renderings of good songs long since appeared in Gramophone, and by 'quiet' I mean, chiefly, not of operatic technique. 

For 'composer,' though 'favourite' sounds both a feeble and arrogant term in relation to such a name, my choice would be Bach, and for 'tune' the aria' 'Have mercy upon me, O Lord,' from the St Matthew Passion. After him, I think, Mozart; but after the apex, difficulty of choice increases like the width of a pyramid. 

Singers are even more difficult to choose between – by one, that is, who is nothing of an expert. So, much as I admire and delight in many singers, may mine be an abstraction? He or she would be an artist with a voice so delicately and sagaciously trained that at hearing of it one would not suppose that it had been trained at all. It would be a voice as responsive to the 'meaning' of the mind and the imagination making use of it as a beautiful face is; and so lovely in itself that you would hardly be able to distinguish between it and its music – because the form (the singing) and the content (the thing sung) would be so perfectly at poise and at peace together. This sounds exceedingly vague as well as hopelessly negative, but it is the nearest I can get.


Norman Douglas (Writer, novelist)

Impossible for me to tell you the name of my favourite song, tune, composer, etc, for the simple reason that I don't go in for favourites – not in the department of music, at least. 

Sometimes I like one of them best, sometimes another; it all depends upon the state of my mind, the state of my stomach, and endless other contingencies. 

Feed me properly, and I can stand anything.

Now if you had asked me the name of my favourite toothpaste...


Gilbert Frankau (Novelist)

My favourite song is 'Melisande at the Well'; my favourite composer, Wagner; my favourite tune, 'The Marseillaise'; and the singer I most admire, Melba. On the whole, though, I find silence more stimulating to thought than music.


John Galsworthy (Novelist, playwright)

I'm not a good hand at symposiums, but since it's you who asks, here goes: 

My favourite song (well sung), 'Che farò', from Gluck's Orfeo

My favourite composers, Bach and Chopin dead heat, with Gluck beaten half a length, Stravinsky beaten off, and Wagner left at the post. 

My favourite tune depends on my mood and varies from 'The Marseillaise' to 'The Bens of Jura.' 

My favourite singer? At the moment, I would rather hear Chaliapin sing the 'Volga Boat Song' than anyone else sing any other song.


Ian Hamilton (British army general)

You are quite right – I hate, from the bottom of my heart, a symposium. Still, as an old Gallipoli comrade, here you are: 

Favourite song: Whatever my best girl sings.

Favourite composer: Mozart – by long chalks.

Favourite tune: 'The Dinner Call'. Known in the army as 'Officers' wives get puddings and pies, but soldiers' wives get skilly.' 

Favourite singer: My old friend, Nellie Melba.


TM Healy (Politician – first Governer-General of the Irish Free State)

Your letter reached me in a time of tragedy, when the mind is not attuned to the questions you submit. I will, therefore, shortly give you my opinion. 

It is that Scotch folk-song is the best as regards words; and that Irish melody is tho best as regards airs. I think 'Old Robin Gray' one of the most powerful of ballads. As regards Irish songs, I think, in spite of the modern contempt cultivated for Moore, that he will never be surpassed. True, he had to stretch on the rack Gaelic music to English words – of which Bunting complained so bitterly. 

What can beat such lines as begin with: 'Oh, who would not welcome that moment returning / When passion first gave a new life to our frame / And the soul, like the wood that grows precious in burning / Gave forth all its sweets at love's exquisite flame.'

NB – I am now over 71!


Sheila Kaye-Smith (Novelist)

It is very painful to me to make any disclosures as to my musical taste, as it is so utterly bad that I feel the revelations will merely hold me up to your readers' contempt. My favourite song is, I am afraid, always the song of the moment as expressed in musical comedy or revue, until I have heard it too often, when the next favourite takes its place. My favourite composer is Mozart, which is perhaps a little better. My favourite tune is the 'Volga Boatmen's Song.' My favourite singer is Galli-Curci – on the gramophone. I am afraid I have not heard her in the flesh.


Margaret Kennedy (Novelist, playwright)

I have no favourite song or tune; at least my list alters about once a month. But I have given you my choice at the time of writing:

Song: 'Fischer's Liebesglück' (Schubert). Composer: Mozart. Tune: 'Lindenbaum' (Schubert). Singer: Chaliapin; Elizabeth Schumann.


Sir Ray Lankester (Zoologist – former director of the Natural History Museum, London)

If you had asked me how tall I am or how much I weigh I could have looked into the matter and told you; but to let you know what is my favourite song is not so easy. I can distinguish 'God save the Weasel' from 'Pop goes the Queen', and can recall, if left quietly alone, about one hundred songs with or without words. But as to a favourite it is sometimes one and sometimes another, according to circumstances. Some people when asked this question would try to recall the title of the most high-brow song in order to declare for it, whilst others would pull your leg and choose some music-hall invention of the moment. I, trying to be truthful, find that what is my favourite at one moment is not so at another. I know all Schubert's songs, and many melodies embedded in sonatas and operas, many national hymns (ancient and modern), marches and dances. Some of these are my favourite in turn – as I hear them. Why should I have a permanently established favourite song any more than a favourite landscape or a favourite food or favourite girl? I take them all in turn, and could (but will not) discourse of the beauties and merits of each as they come before me. I am sitting alone in my study after lunch (six ridiculously small paper-like oysters costing 6 1/2d each!). Well, I first of all call up 'The Men of Harlech,' a gorgeous and thrilling song without words, and then to compare with it I ask for the Radetzky March, and then the 'Marseillaise'. I then sink half-asleep into one of Tosti's Venetian reveries and then to 'Alle Berge Zipfel Ruhn in dunkler Nacht'. And then a mysterious gondola-song of Mendelssohn's, coming from the far distance over the lagoon. And then some of Schubert's Winterreise and the Walter's 'Lied' from the Meistersinger of Wagner, and so by way of the duets of Faust and Marguerite to the old familiar 'Last Rose of Summer' and the ever sweet 'Annie Laurie'. Then, after a pause of silence and darkness, I am on the seashore and the long gentle waves are heaving slowly as the moon spreads her beams from one to another, and I hear the most wonderful of all songs, the Moonlight Sonata, by the greatest wizard of all. Give me that and a skilful succession of Beethoven's poems, rightly spaced and in a vast unbounded scene of sea and rocks and forests, and I shall either find my favourite and swoon – or swoon at once! Though Beethoven is the greatest of all, I put Schubert as the most astonishing and delightful and prolific and diversified of song-writers. 

I used to think Caruso to be absolutely supreme as a singer for the gramophone, and none so clear and true as he.


Sir John Lavery (Painter)

How dreadful. I don't like music. When I was quite young I was told that music and poetry were essential to the painter, and that he could not possibly be an artist if he did not revel in both. Well, I tried hard for years without success, all the time pretending that I loved and understood them, till I married Hazel – late in life – when I confessed to her the deception I had been practising by having concerts in my studio, attending all sorts of musical festivals, and all the time being bored to tears. 

She gave the show away, since when I have had the moral courage to make the above statement.


DH Lawrence (Novelist, poet, playwright, critic, painter)

My favourite song is, I think, 'Kishmul's Galley', from the Hebridean Songs, and my favourite composer, if one must be so selective, Mozart; and singer, a Red Indian singing to the drum, which sounds pretty stupid.


WJ Locke (Novelist, playwright)

You appeal to a man by no means unmusical who, however, has passed his life outside the sphere of music as the word is now understood of the cognoscenti. But it means a bit more to me than I can express by mentioning my favourite anything. 

My favourite song? I have heard thousands of beautiful songs. When the world was young, and my place in that world was the gallery of the Albert Hall, I heard Christine Nillson sing 'The Sands of Dee', and after, it seems a hundred years, the elfin notes still haunt my ears. Dame Clara Butt, in my own house on New Year's Eve, a year or so ago, sang 'The Swanee River', and made me weep like a cow. 

Under your apparent guilelessness, you really demand an essay; for, from the multitudinous musical associations of a longish life, how can one pick and choose? How can one declare a choice, say, between the plaint of the woodwind in Tristan, and the immortal waltz motif in Weber's Invitation? Between the Toreador music in Carmen and 'Le jardin sous la pluie' of Debussy?

A sensitive being is one of many moods. Suppose I were dying. What music would I like to hear, as my last consciousness was merging into infinite oblivion? I can imagine a mood in which the splendour of chords in Beethoven's 'Funeral March' would befit the majesty of my dissolution; but, on the other hand, I can readily imagine another mood in which I could ask nothing better than than Gounod's ' Marche Funebre d'une Marionette' should dance my spirit humoresquely across the dreaded frontier. 

And that, in a few words, mon cher oonfrère, is all I can say about it.


Father Martindale, SJ (Priest, author)

Alas, what a question! As if I had a favourite song. In a sense I have dozens. My real favourites would be the psalms and the great Latin hymns, 'Veni Sancte', 'Dies Irae', 'Caelestis Urbs', 'Vexilla Regis', and St Thomas's Eucharistic ones, and most of all the quite old ones; but also a number of Breton songs, and perhaps chiefly an Arab song that I heard in the gorge of El Kantara, in the Atlas mountains, which is more like Debussy's 'Petit Pasteur' than anything else. Also I think I prefer 'I Sing of a Maiden' to anything English of that period (15th century, isn't it?) and 'Angelus ad Virginem'; and then, a few modern things like 'Douglas Gordon' – in fact, Scotch songs by preference; but also 'Of all the tribe of Tegumai', and for perfectly different reasons, 'Tipperary'. How can one have a favourite song? As for tune, I think the song at the beginning of the third act of Tristan. I believe if I knew more of Cesar Franck I should like him as much as any; in my oId-fashioned ignorance, I prefer Wagner to any composer I do know, and especially the Meistersinger, but also each part of the Ring, and no less especially Tristan. I fear I know no singers especially.


W Somerset Maugham (Playwright, novelist, short-story writer)

What a devilish fellow you are to ask a harmless and respectable gentleman like myself to answer such questions; but here they are:

Favourite song: 'The Prize Song'.

Favourite composer: Wagner.

Favourite tune: 'The Fire Music'.

Favourite singer: Lotte Lehman.

Curses on your head.


Ivor Novello (Composer, singer, actor)

My favourite song is 'Morgen', by Richard Strauss; my favourite composer, Wagner; my favourite tune (l presume you mean of the modern variety), 'By the Lake' ; and the singer I most admire is Emmy Bettendorf, who you know records for Parlophone. I choose her not only for the exquisite quality of her voice, but for her astonishing versatility. She seems to be able to sing anything.


TP O'Connor (Politician, writer)

My favourite songs are 'Là ci darem' in Don Giovanni, Gounod's music to Hugo's serenade, and 'Drink to me only with thine eyes'. My favourite composer is Mozart. I never heard any singer I liked better than the departed Florence St John or the still living and active Marie Tempest. She is now a great actress, but I cannot help wishing that she had remained the great singer.


Sir Landon Ronald (Conductor, composer, pianist)

I can answer all your questions quite easily excepting the question of which is my favourite song. I love so many of Schumann, Strauss, Grieg, the Sea Songs of Edward Elgar, songs by Roger Quilter and Vaughan Williams, and many many others, that it is quite impossible for me to say that I have a favourite. (Perhaps I should add that I forgot to mention Schubert, Liszt, Wolf and Brahms.) 

My favourite composer is undoubtedly Wagner, and my favourite tune, without doubt, is the 'Marseillaise'.


Sir Charles Sackville-West (Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey)

My favourite song, Schubert's 'Du bist die Ruh'; my favourite composer, Wagner; my favourite tune, 'Liebestodt' ; my favourite singer, Lotte Lehmann.


George Montagu (Ninth Earl of Sandwich)

There is a song that I think I admire more than most, and that is 'Träume', by Wagner. 

I suppose the only way to think of one's favourite composer is to think of one we could least do without, and I must without hesitation say Bach. 

As for singers, I am really not au fait with modern singers, but certainly one I enjoyed most in my younger days was Mme Ternina on the operatic stage. If you will remember, her great parts were Sieglinde and Isolda. 

As to my favourite tune, this is even more difficult. I think, perhaps, I might give certainly as one, one of Bach's preludes, of which I can never remember the number, but I think it is 31. I have not got them here to refer to, but the one I mean is built up on a little phrase, and I always think it is one of the greatest short masterpieces ever written. 


George Bernard Shaw (Playwright, critic, novelist)

Says that only people in a deplorably elementary stage of musical culture have favourite tunes and so forth, and he considers the question a monstrous insult.


Frank Swinnerton (Novelist, critic, biographer)

One's loves change. Mine do. I have had many favourites and have many other admirations. Even keeping strictly to present favourites, and excluding perhaps nobler admirations, I am bound to answer your questions in the plural.

Songs: 'Batti batti', Mozart; 'Voi che sapete', Mozart; 'It was a lover and his lass', Morley. 

Composer: Mozart.

Tune: Rosenkavalier waltz music.

Singers: Chaliapin; Coates; Ranalow.

I have never heard, in person, a female singer who seemed to me at once such an artist and so humorously likeable as one of these.


Sir Richard Terry (Organist, choral director, musicologist)

1. I had better stick to English composers and singers. The range of music outside is so wide that one's 'favourite' anything must necessarily be what satisfies the mood of the moment, unless one cultivates a static imagination. 

2. Under the influence of tonight's mood I hazard the following:

Song: 'Sea Fever', by John Ireland. Tune: 'Hey Johnny Cope'. Composer: Elgar. Singer: John Goss.

3. I am posting this reply to you at once, in case I change my mind in the morning.


Sybil Thorndike (Actress)

My favourite song: 'There is a lady sweet and kind' (Purcell). 

Composer: Bach. Air: 'My heart ever faithful' (Bach). Singer: Chaliapin.

Confession books always did amuse me, I wish they were in fashion again.


Madge Titheradge (Actress)

Favourite song: 'Mainacht'.

Favourite composer: Brahms.

Favourite singer: John McCormack.


John Tweed (Sculptor)

You want me to become a critic of an art I don't practice; sometimes I sing and whistle, but am told it gives ear pains. I like a song well sung, and dislike it if badly sung. Then my mood delights in something trivial, or at moments classical. 'I want to be happy' is a favourite at present. As composers I like Bach and Beethoven, then it may be for a time the composers of some of 'No, no, Nanette.' The singer I care for may have a small voice, but love of the song gives it beauty and delight to me. So you see I can't answer your questions. If it had not been you as the artist who had asked, well, I would not have answered.


Hugh Walpole (Novelist)

As you rightly remark, these questions are a damn bore, but if it gives you any pleasure to know it I would say that certainly Brahms is my favourite composer, and the singer I most admire, Van Rooy; but he is singing no longer, so perhaps I should say in general Eleanor Gerhardt and, for Scandinavian things, a pal of mine, Lauritz Melchior. As to a tune I can think of thousands; two of the best, if you call them tunes, are Desdemona's song in the last act of Otello, and the Orestes music in Elektra. They are melodies, anyway.

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