Wagner Has Some Beautiful Moments But Terrible Quarter-Hours

Critic: Gioachino Rossini? Mr. Archer? Charles Gounod? Apocryphal?
Criticized: Richard Wagner? Signor Tamberlik? François Rabelais? M. Chelles?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent Italian composer Gioachino Rossini reportedly delivered an amusingly harsh assessment of the famous German composer Richard Wagner. Here are three versions:

1) Wagner’s operas contain wonderful moments but terrible half hours.
2) Wagner has great moments, but some pretty awful half-hours.
3) Wagner had some fine moments but ugly quarter-hours.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip can be expressed in many ways; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in an 1861 issue of a London weekly called “The Illustrated Times”. The criticism was aimed at an operatic tenor named Signor Tamberlik, and the key phrases were presented in French instead of English. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Signor Tamberlik, sings more tremulously this year than ever. He would always seem admirable if we never heard him in anything but the “Otello” duet, where his quivering voice suggests naturally enough the emotion of jealous rage. In other operas he has, according to a French expression, his “beaux moments,” but he has also his “fichus quarts d’heure.”

One way to render this statement into English is the following:

He has his “beautiful moments”, but he also has his “ugly quarter-hours”.

In 1872 an instance in this family of jokes was published in a French-language newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana called “Le Carillon”. The statement was grouped together with other remarks in a column titled “Pensees de Larochefaux-Col”: 2

Rabelais, si l’on en croit la légende, avait de bons moments, mais de fichus quarts d’heure.

In 1876 a German-language book about Italian composers was published in Berlin titled “Italienische Tondichter von Palestrina bis auf die Gegenwart”. Gioachino Rossini was credited with a remark about Wagner: 3

“O!” rief Rossini aus, “in dieser Beziehung bin ich ganz Ihrer Meinung und Niemandist entferner davon, die Origianlität des Schöpfers des Lohengrin anzuzweifeln, als ich; nur daß es uns der Componist mitunter recht schwer macht, das Schöne, was wir ihm verdanken, in dem Chaos von Tönen, das seine Opern enthalten, aufzufinden. Sie werden es selbst schon erfahren haben: Mr. Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures! Dennoch bin ich seiner bisherigen Laufbahn mit gespanntem Interesse gefolgt.”

Below is one possible rendering of the above passage into English

“O!” cried out Rossini, “in this connection I am completely of your opinion and no one is further from doubting the originality of the creator of Lohengrin than I; only that the composer sometimes makes it right difficult for us to find the beauty, which we thank him for, in the chaos of the tones, that his operas contain. You will have heard it yourself already: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarter-hours. Nevertheless I have followed his career up to now with excited interest.”

The text above contained the earliest linkage of the quip to Rossini known to QI. Lohengrin was first performed in 1850, and the book was published in 1876. So if Rossini made the remark above then he must have spoken sometime between those two dates. In addition, the joke schema was circulating by 1861. The authenticity of the ascription was not clear to QI. Future researchers may discover more evidence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1881 an issue of the London journal “The Theatre: A Monthly Review” printed an anecdote about Rossini’s reaction to Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser” when it was performed in Paris in 1861. A proponent of Wagner’s compositions named Auber encouraged Rossini to attend: 4

Upon the conclusion of the third act he approached Rossini with something less than his usual sprightliness, having observed the master’s countenance to have been distorted by sundry formidable yawns during Tannhäuser’s description of his fruitless pilgrimage to Rome. “Eh bien, maître!” he exclaimed; “qu’en dites-vous? Avouez donc qu’il y-a de bien beaux moments!” “Je ne dis pas non,” replied Rossini, with a cynical smile; “mais il y-a aussi de bien mauvais quarts-d’heures!”

In 1882 “Le Journal Amusant” of Paris, France printed an instance of the quip, but the target was someone named M. Chelles and not Wagner: 5

Ajoutons que mademoiselle Tessandier se montre fort remarquable, que Mounet a des élans auxquels on ne peut demander que de se modérer, que M. Chelles, enfin, a de bons mouvements mêlés à de fichus quarts d’heure.

Also in 1882 Major Henry William L. Hime published a work titled “Wagnerism: A Protest”, and the epigraph on the title page was the following: 6

‘M. Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures’ Rossini

In 1888 the “Boston Post” of Massachusetts reported that a theatre critic named Mr. Archer deployed the joke: 7

The sum total of play and acting, concludes Mr. Archer, is “one beau moment with several mauvais quarts d’heure.” In how many new plays and performances of this season has there been one beau moment? Of the bad quarter-hours a first-nighter trembles even to think.

In 1890 “Sharps and Flats” by Max Maretzek included the jest in English and French with an ascription to Rossini: 8

Even Haydn said of Beethoven, that “he is a great pianist and nothing more.” Handel said that “his cook was just as good a musician as Gluck.” And Rossini remarked that “Wagner had some fine moments but ugly quarter-hours” (“Quelques beaux moments, mais de fichus quatre d’heures.”)

In 1903 “The Denver Post” of Colorado reprinted an article from the London Mail that included an instance of the joke attributed to the composer Charles Gounod instead of Rossini: 9

Their plays have splendid moments, but, as Gounod said of Wagner, they have terrible half-hours.

In conclusion, French instances of this quip have been circulating since 1861. The jest was attributed to the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini by 1876. Interestingly, he was credited with using a French version and not an Italian version. Rossini’s barb was reportedly aimed at Wagner. Over the years the joke has been employed by a variety of people.

Image Notes: Lithograph of Gioachino Rossini circa 1850 from F. Perrin. Clockface from KTEditor at Pixabay. Portrait of Richard Wagner circa 1840 by Julius Ernst Benedikt Kietz.

(Great thanks to Robert Max whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Amy West and Rebecca Garber for their German translation expertise. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1861 April 20, The Illustrated Times: Weekly Newspaper, Volume 12, Opera and Concerts, Quote Page 257, Published at the Office, Catherine Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1872 December 8, Le Carillon, Pensees de Larochefaux-Col, Quote Page 6, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1876, Title: Italienische Tondichter von Palestrina bis auf die Gegenwart: Eine Reihe von Vorträgen gehalten in den Jahren 1874 u. 1875, Author: Dr. Emil Naumann, Quote Page 543 and 544, Publisher: Robert Oppenheim, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1881 December 1, The Theatre: A Monthly Review, Volume 4, Our Musical Box, Start Page 353, Quote Page 355, Published by Charles Dickens & Evans, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1882 December 9, Le Journal Amusant, Article: Chez le Sorcier, Author: Pierre Véron, Quote Page 3, Column 1 and 2, Paris, Ile De France. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1882, Wagnerism: A Protest by Major H. W. L. Hime (Henry William L. Hime), (Epigraph on title page), Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1888 August 21, Boston Post, (Untitled article discussing a theatre review by Mr. Archer in “The World”), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1890, “Sharps and Flats”: A Sequel to “Crotchets and Quavers” by Max Maretzek, Quote Page 40, American Musician Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1903 June 2, Denver Post, Hell Depicted on the Old Drury Stage, (Acknowledgement to London Mail), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)