Though Music Be a Universal Language, It Is Spoken with All Sorts of Accents

George Bernard Shaw? Alan Lomax? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Henry David Thoreau?

music14Dear Quote Investigator: I believe that the famous playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw said something like the following:

Music may be a universal language, but it’s spoken with all sorts of peculiar accents.

I checked some quotation references and was unable to find this statement. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In December 1890 George Bernard Shaw wrote a music review that contrasted the divergent sounds produced by orchestras in Manchester and Lancashire. The drummer in Manchester employed “mighty drum-sticks” which could perform well on the “final crescendo roll” of the “Trold King’s dance” in the Peer Gynt suite. But the drummer in Lancashire excelled in pieces that required greater delicacy. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Thus, though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents; and the Lancashire accent differs sufficiently from the Cockney accent to make the Manchester band a welcome variety, without counting the change from Cowen or Cusins to Hallé.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Shaw’s remark about accents was built upon a pre-existing figurative framework. Indeed, describing music as a universal language has a long history. For example, in 1826 a periodical called “The Ladies’ Monthly Museum” printed the following passage: 2

Music, beyond any other art or science, seems to be the result of intuitive taste and feeling. Some persons are born with a peculiar sensibility to the harmony of sounds, while others are destitute almost of the power of distinguishing the relations between them. Music is the universal language of nature; and man, whether in a savage or a civilized state, seeks for gratification from the charms of this divine art; which becomes generally interesting, because it appeals directly to the senses and imagination.

In 1835 the prominent poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea”, and he referred to the universality of music. Longfellow’s fame assured that this quotation was placed in multiple reference works: 3

The goatherd of Switzerland and the Tyrol—the Carpathian boor—the Scotch Highlander—the English ploughboy, singing as he drives his team a-field,— peasant—serf—slave—all, all have their ballads and traditionary songs. Music is the universal language of mankind,—poetry their universal pastime and delight.

Around 1840 the notable author Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay that was published many years later in 1902. The posthumous work was titled “The Service” and included the following idealized conception of music: 4 5

There is as much music in the world as virtue. In a world of peace and love music would be the universal language, and men greet each other in the fields in such accents as a Beethoven now utters at rare intervals from a distance. All things obey music as they obey virtue. It is the herald of virtue. It is God’s voice.

In 1890 Shaw referred to music as a universal language as noted previously in this article. Additional context was provided by the following extended excerpt: 6

Again, the son of thunder who handles the drums in the Manchester band could hardly, with those mighty drum-sticks, play the solo passage in the finale to Beethoven’s E flat Pianoforte Concerto as delicately as Chaine does whenever the pianist gives him a chance; but then Chaine is equally at a loss when he comes to that final crescendo roll, with its culminating stroke upon the last note of the Trold King’s dance, in the Peer Gynt suite, a moment which would be one of the highest in the life of his Manchester rival. Thus, though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents; and the Lancashire accent differs sufficiently from the Cockney accent to make the Manchester band a welcome variety, without counting the change from Cowen or Cusins to Hallé.

In 1949 a folklorist and music collector named Alan Lomax wrote a review titled “Tribal Voices in Many Tongues” in the “Saturday Review of Literature” that included a thematically similar quotation referring to “a devilish lot of dialects”: 7

I suspect it was on a tourist’s visit to Naples in the nineteenth century that some sentimental literary gentleman opined, “Music is a universal language.” This absurd notion has bedeviled collectors of folk and primitive music ever since. I only wish I could hold the author’s head firmly against the bell of my loudspeaker while I played him a series of albums. Soft-headed as he was, he would be forced to say, “Music may be a universal language, but what a devilish lot of dialects!”

In 1979 the well-known pianist and conductor André Previn edited a book called “Orchestra”. He used the remark by Shaw as a chapter epigraph: 8

Though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents.
BERNARD SHAW, Music in London (1890)

In 1997 an article discussing orchestras that was printed in the “New Statesman” of London included a short quotation from Shaw: 9

A century ago the question didn’t arise: George Bernard Shaw took a trip from London to Manchester and suffered an acute attack of culture shock. Music, he wrote, may well be a universal language but it spoke “in all sorts of accents”.

In conclusion, in December 1890 George Bernard Shaw did write a sentence that strongly matched the one presented by the questioner. His comment was prompted by the dissimilarities he heard in the music played by two orchestras in England.

Image Notes: Depiction of musical notes from OpenClipartVectors at Pixabay. Photo of George Bernard Shaw circa 1914 from Life magazine archive via Wikimedia Commons. The image has been flipped on a vertical axis.

(Great thanks to Allan Kolsky whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1949 (Reprint of 1932 edition), Music in London: 1890-94 by Bernard Shaw, Volume 1 of 3, (Music review dated December 10, 1890), Start Page 90, Quote Page 91 and 92, Constable and Company Limited, London. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1826 July, The Ladies’ Monthly Museum, Volume 24, Carl Maria Von Weber, Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Printed and Published by Dean and Munday, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1835, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea by H. W. Longfellow, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 1: Ancient Spanish Ballads, Start Page 1, Quote Page 4, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1902, The Service by Henry David Thoreau, Edited by F. B. Sanborn, (Editor’s note stated that the essay was written about 1840), Chapter 2: What Music Shall We Have?, Start Page 11, Quote Page 12, Published by Charles E. Goodspeed, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1902 July 26, Literary Digest, Volume 25, Number 4, Posthumous Essays By Thoreau, Start Page 101, Quote Page 102, Published by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1949 (Reprint of 1932 edition), Music in London: 1890-94 by Bernard Shaw, Volume 1 of 3, (Music review dated December 10, 1890), Start Page 90, Quote Page 91 and 92, Constable and Company Limited, London. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1949 May 28, Saturday Review of Literature, Tribal Voices in Many Tongues by Alan Lomax, Start Page 43, Quote Page 43, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  8. 1979, Orchestra, Edited by André Previn, Interviews by Michael Foss, (Epigraph of Chapter: In Another Country), Quote Page 65, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1997 January 10, New Statesman, “You want to feel Berlin? Visit it. The orchestra just plays music” by Dermot Clinch, Start Page 42, Quote Page 42, Statesman & Nation Pub. Co. Ltd., London, England. (Verified on microfiche)