Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Ambrose Bierce? Punch Magazine?
Dear Quote Investigator: Richard Wagner was a prominent German composer who created the landmark four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). A comically incongruous remark about his efforts has been attributed to two famous American humorists Mark Twain and Bill Nye:
Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.
Do you know who crafted this jibe?
Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in August 1887. Several newspapers such as “The Wichita Daily Beacon” 1 of Wichita, Kansas and “The Jackson Citizen Patriot” 2 of Jackson, Michigan printed a column called “Bill Nye’s Information Bureau”. The Wichita paper acknowledged “The New York World” as the initial source. The column began with a letter from “Truth Seeker” who posed several questions for Nye including the following:
What is the peculiarity of classical music, and how can one distinguish it?
Nye responded with a version of the quip that targeted a class of music instead of an individual composer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
The peculiar characteristic of classical music is that it is really so much better than it sounds.
In November 1889 “The Indianapolis News” of Indianapolis, Indiana pointed to an unnamed Philadelphia paper while crediting Nye with a version of the joke targeting Wagner: 3
Says a Philadelphia newspaper: “Bill Nye on his recent visit to this city to lecture called upon a well-known music lover, and while there was asked to write in an autograph album. He did so, and among other things wrote the following: ‘Wagner’s music, I have been informed, is really much better than it sounds.'”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1891 the author Thomas W. Knox moved the joke from the auditory domain to the gustatory domain: 4
Frank said that he would paraphrase the remark of the critic who said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, by suggesting that the haggis is better than it tastes.
In his 1897 travel book “More Tramps Abroad” the famous humorist Mark Twain credited Nye with the Wagner remark: 5
It often happens that people frame phrases which have no meaning to a grammar, and yet convey a clear meaning to the world. William Nye’s remark about Wagner’s music is of that sort: ‘They say that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.’
In 1902 Mark Twain delivered a commencement address at the “University of Missouri” in Columbia, and he credited Nye with the Wagner version of the jest: 6
I do not know the first principles of music and I should say that there are no standards of music, none at all, except for those people who have climbed through years of exertion until they stand upon the cold Alpine heights, where the air is so rarefied that they can detect a false note, and they lose much by that. I do not detect the false note, and it took me some time to get myself educated up to the point where I could enjoy Wagner. I am satisfied if I get it in the proper doses but I do feel about it a good deal as Bill Nye said. He said he had heard that Wagner’s music was better than it sounds.
In 1906 “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” published a short anecdote titled “Bill Nye as a Musical Critic” by Edwin Tarrisse: 7
Joseph H. Choate tells of a conversation he once had with the late “Bill” Nye, in reference to a concert the humorist had attended during his first visit to London. “I had asked Mr. Nye,” said Mr. Choate, “what was his opinion of Wagner’s music.” With the most serious expression in the world, Nye replied:
“I must confess that his music is beyond my comprehension; but I always feel sure, when I hear it, that it is really much better than it sounds.”
In 1911 “The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce” volume 9 was published, and it included an essay titled “Concerning Pictures” by Bierce who was a well-known humorist. Bierce credited Nye with the Wagner quip: 8
The notion that a picture can be better or worse than it looks does seem absurd when one stops to think about it. It is not original with me; the late Bill Nye once set the country smiling by solemnly explaining that he had been told that Wagner’s music was better than it sounded.
In 1918 the popular London humor magazine “Punch” printed a one-panel cartoon depicting two women conversing; the caption presented a version of the Wagner joke: 9
“CAN YOU PLAY BRIDGE TO-NIGHT?”
“SORRY, GOING TO HEAR SOME WAGNER.”
“WHAT!—DO YOU LIKE THE STUFF?”
“FRANKLY, NO; BUT I’VE HEARD ON THE BEST AUTHORITY THAT HIS MUSIC’S VERY MUCH BETTER THAN IT SOUNDS.”
In the posthumous 1924 book “Mark Twain’s Autobiography” the humorist employed the quip while criticizing the oratorical skills of an acquaintance General Daniel Sickles: 10
The late Bill Nye once said, “I have been told that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” That felicitous description of a something which so many people have tried to describe, and couldn’t, does seem to fit the general’s manner of speech exactly. His talk is much better than it is.
In 1942 H. L. Mencken was unable to untangle the ascription when he included the remark in his impressive tome “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 11
Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.
Author unidentified; ascribed to S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain), E. W. (Bill) Nye, and others
In conclusion, Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye) should be credited with the closely related quips about classical music and Wagner’s music. Mark Twain helped to popularize the Wagner remark, but he credited Nye.
(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Shapiro knew that Twain had credited Nye. Thanks to Ralph Keyes whose research recorded in “The Quote Verifier” identified important citations. Also, thanks to Barry Popik whose work identified key citations. In addition, thanks to Nigel Rees who mentioned the valuable “Punch” magazine citation in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”.)
- 1887 August 4, The Wichita Daily Beacon, His Information Bureau: Bill Nye Takes a Man into His Confidence and Educates Him (From the New York World), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1887 August 11, The Jackson Citizen Patriot, Bill Nye’s Bureau: He Takes a Stranger in and Educates Him, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1889 November 22, The Indianapolis News, “SCRAPS”, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1891, The Boy Travellers in Great Britain and Ireland Thomas W. Knox (Thomas Wallace Knox), Quote Page 129, Harper & Brothers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1897, More Tramps Abroad by Mark Twain, Quote Page 191, Chatto & Windus, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Speech: University of Missouri Commencement, Columbia, Date of Speech: June 4, 1902, Start Page 435, Quote Page 436, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1906 November, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine: A Popular Journal of General Literature, Section: Walnuts and Wine, Unnumbered Page, Bill Nye as a Musical Critic by Edwin Tarrisse, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1911, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 9: Tangential Views, Chapter: Concerning Pictures, Start Page 208, Quote Page 212, The Neale Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1918 November 20, Punch, or The London Charivari, (Caption of one-panel cartoon), Quote Page 339, Published at the Punch Office, Bouverie Street, London. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1925 (Copyright 1924), Mark Twain’s Autobiography by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 1 of 2, Quote Page 338, P. F. Collier and Son Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Richard Wagner, Quote Page 1260, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩