Théophile Gautier? Molière? Alphonse Karr? Alexander Dumas père? A Mathematician? Prince Albert? Joseph Coyne? Honoré de Balzac? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Operas and orchestra concerts are quite expensive productions. A deprecatory wit once grumbled about the outlays. Here are three versions:
- Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.
- Opera is the most expensive variety of noise.
- Music is the most expensive of all noises.
This thought has been attributed to the prominent French playwright Molière, but I have been unable to find a good citation. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1845 book “Zigzags” by Théophile Gautier, a French dramatist, novelist, and critic; however, Gautier disclaimed credit and ascribed the barb to an unnamed “géomètre” (“mathematician”). Here is an excerpt in French followed by one possible English translation. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Un soir, j’étais à Drury-Lane. On jouait la Favorite, accommodée au goût britannique, et traduite dans la langue de l’île, ce qui produisait un vacarme difficile à qualifier, et justifiait parfaitement le mot d’un géomètre, qui n’était pas mélomane assurément. — La musique est le plus désagréable et le plus cher de tous les bruits. — Aussi j’écoutais peu, et j’avais le dos tourné au théâtre.
One night I was at Drury Lane. The opera was La Favorite, adapted to the British taste and translated into the language of the island. This produced a din that is difficult to categorize, and perfectly justified the quip of a mathematician, who was certainly not a music lover. — Music is the most unpleasant and the most expensive of all noises. — So I listened little, and my back was turned to the theater.
Molière (pen name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) died in 1673, and the earliest linkage of the playwright to the saying found by QI appeared many years later in 1956. Details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1856 a volume of “L’Artiste” included an article directly crediting Gautier with the remark. Here is a French excerpt followed by an English rendering: 2
Théophile Gautier a écrit quelque part: « La musique est le plus désagréable et le plus cher de tous les bruits. »
Théophile Gautier wrote somewhere: “Music is the most unpleasant and the most expensive of all noises.”
In 1865 the reference “Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle” also credited the expression to Gautier. 3
Yet, in the same year of 1865 a simpler instance of the saying was ascribed to French critic Alphonse Karr in “L’Artiste: Beaux-Arts et Belles Lettres”: 4
C’est, je crois, Alphonse Karr qui a dit: « La musique est le plus cher de tous les bruits. »
It is, I believe, Alphonse Karr who said: “Music is the most expensive of all noises.”
In 1875 a variant statement in English targeting pianos appeared in “The Musical Standard: A Newspaper for Musicians”: 5
It is much less the custom than it was several years ago, to force young ladies, irrespective of taste and aptitudes, to “practise” several hours daily. French people have come to understand that when there is no natural call to the piano, performing on it is most expensive noise. At Parisian boarding schools, the proportion of girls devoting themselves to this instrument is very small.
In 1876 the London periodical “The Academy” credited Gautier with a simpler version of the saying: 6
To every one concerned the traditional farce may be described in the words Théophile Gautier reserved for music, as “the most expensive noise he knew of.”
In 1880 a collection of works by Alphonse Karr appeared under the title “Le Livre de Bord”. Interestingly, Karr attributed an instance of the saying to Théophile Gautier: 7
Il disait un jour: — La musique est à la fois le plus cher et le plus désagréable de tous les bruits.
One day he said: — Music is both the most expensive and the most unpleasant of all noises.
In February 1883 ‘The Times” of London published an anecdote about German composer Richard Wagner and French novelist Alexandre Dumas père, and the saying was assigned to Dumas: 8
Now, Wagner always seemed to pontify when he talked, and he could never join in little jokes against himself. Alexandre Dumas, calling upon him, made some good-humoured remark about his own ignorance of music—which he had once defined as “the most expensive of noises”:—but his pleasantries were listened to with such a smileless stolidity that he went home in a huff, and wrote his contemptuous protest against “Wagnerian din—inspired by the riot of cat scampering in the dark about an ironmonger’s shop.”
In October 1883 “The Daily Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana printed a variant targeting high-priced singers: 9
Amateur singing is never good, because the singer does not get four thousand dollars a sight. Nothing but the most expensive noise suits the American public.
In 1886 the “Chicago Tribune” printed a tale linking Prince Albert of Prussia to the saying: 10
Franz Liszt, after vainly trying with his most brilliant performances to produce some impression upon Prince Frederick, brother of the King of Roumania, exclaimed: “No wonder! All the Hohenzollerns I have known cared nothing for music. Old Prince Albert once told me he looked upon music as an ‘expensive noise’…
In 1911 “The New York Times” printed an anonymous instance targeting opera: 11
A wag once defined opera as the most expensive variety of noise. Still it is not quite as expensive as the faithful phalanx of press agents would have us believe.
In 1915 the musical comedy actor Joseph Coyne received credit within a London newspaper for the quip aimed at opera: 12
As in most opera-houses the intervals occupied as much time as the performance—thus justifying Mr. Coyne’s remark that “opera is the most expensive noise in the world” . . .
In 1921 the periodical “The Etude” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania implausibly credited Honoré de Balzac who had died many years earlier in 1850: 13
We know that Balzac, the great, perhaps the greatest novelist, said of music that it was “the most expensive noise”: but we need not mind this supposed witticism; for Balzac belonged to the literary fraternity and everybody knows that, with a few and very notable exceptions the word-artists know nothing about music.
Molière’s play “L’École des Femmes” (“The School for Wives”) was used as the basis for a one-act opera which was performed by the New York City Opera in the 1950s. A review of the opera stated that an instance of the joke was spoken during the performance: 14
And when Ludwig Donath, acting the title role, observed that opera is “the most expensive noise known to man,” the audience laughed in heartfelt sympathy.
“School for Wives,” with which the New York City Opera chose to open this brand-new double production, renders Moliere speechless. And although Rolf Liebermann, the Swiss who set the play to music, is a living, breathing composer of today, there is nothing new or old, for that matter, about his product. It is a timeless bore.
QI has been unable to find this joke in Molière’s original play “School for Wives”.
The 1968 book “The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera” by Quaintance Eaton credited Molière: 15
Truly, if the gentlemen had known who Molière was, they might have groaned with him: “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.”
The quip continued to circulate in 1995 in “The Los Angeles Times” of California where Molière again received credit: 16
As a fund-raiser, the evening was a major success with more than $300,000 raised from tickets priced as high as $725 each. Proving, in the words of Moliere: “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.”
In conclusion, this jest has been evolving for more than 170 years. The earliest instance found by QI was written by Théophile Gautier in 1845, but he credited an unidentified “géomètre” (“mathematician”). Initially, the barb was aimed at music, and over time pianos, singing, and opera were all described as expensive noise. The linkage to Molière is currently unsupported.
(Great thanks to Mark Schubin whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Johannes Borgen for help with the translation of the French text of the 1845 citation. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
- 1845, Zigzags par Théophile Gautier, Chapter VI: Têtes d’anges, Quote Page 243 and 244, Victor Magen, Éditeur, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1856, L’Artiste, Sixième Série, Tome Premier, Les Concerts et Les Cafés-Concerts by Denis de Thezan, Start Page 60, Quote Page 61, Aux Bureaux de L’Artiste, Paris. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1865, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle Boutades, Plaisanteries, Excentricités by Pierre Larousse, Volume 1, Quote Page 992, Column 2, Administration du Grand Dictionnaire Universel, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1865, L’Artiste: Beaux-Arts et Belles Lettres, Tome I, Les Beaux-Arts Appliqués a L’Industrie, Start Page 91, Quote Page 91, Champs-Élysées, Avenue Friedland, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1875 February 27, The Musical Standard: A Newspaper for Musicians, Professional and Amateur, Foreign Musical Intelligence (From our Correspondent in Italy; Milan, Feb. 21, 1875), Quote Page 135, Column 2, William Reeves: Musical Standard Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1876 August 12, The Academy, The Stage: Playgoers’ Grievances by Frederick Wedmore, Quote Page 173, Published by Robert Scott Walker, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1880, Le Livre de Bord: Souvenirs, Portraits, Notes au Crayon by Alphonse Karr, Volume 3, Éditeur Calmann Lévy, Quote Page 217, Ancienne Maison Michel Lévy Frères, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1883 February 19, The Times, Recollections of Richard Wagner, Quote Page 8, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1883 October 10, The Daily Picayune (The Times-Picayune), (Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1886 September 24, Chicago Tribune, Personals, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1911 March 19, The New York Times, Part 5: Magazine Section, New York Pays About $7,000,000 Yearly for Its Music, Quote Page 8, Column 3, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1915 June 12, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Our Captious Critic: “Watch Your Step!” At the Empire Theatre, Quote Page 418, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1921 July, The Etude, Volume 39, Noise, the Disease of the Century by Constantin von Sternberg, Start Page 437, Quote Page 438, Theodore Presser Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1956 April 12, Daily News, Mozart Comes to the Rescue at City Center by Douglas Watt, Quote Page 72, Column 1,New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883-1967, by Quaintance Eaton, Chapter 4: Magnificent Gamble, Quote Page 63, Meredith Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1995 September 11, The Los Angeles Times, The Other Tenor Didn’t Sing a Note by Bill Higgins (Special to the Times), Quote Page E5, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩