Where the Speech of Man Stops Short There Music’s Reign Begins

Richard Wagner? Henry Russell Cleveland? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Music can express thoughts and emotions which cannot be captured by words alone according to some romantic souls. Here are two versions of this sentiment:

  • Where all words end, music begins
  • Music begins where language ends

Many people have been credited with this adage including the famous German composer Richard Wagner. Would you please explore the linkage to Wagner?

Quote Investigator: This is a large topic, and this article will focus on Richard Wagner’s use of the expression. A separate article located here provides an overview. Note that Wagner did not coin this adage.

Currently, the earliest match located by QI appeared in a July 1835 essay by Henry Russell Cleveland titled “The Origin and Progress of Music” in “The New-England Magazine”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Music begins where language ends; it expresses thoughts and emotions, to which speech can give no utterance; it clothes words with a power which language cannot impart.

Early in his career Richard Wagner lived for a few years in Paris. In October 1841 he published a short story titled “Une Soirée Heureuse: Fantaisie sur la musique pittoresque” (“A Happy Evening: Fantasy on pictorial music”) in the Paris periodical “Revue et Gazette Musicale”. The adage was spoken by a character in the tale. The French excerpt below 2 is followed by a translation into English by William Ashton Ellis: 3

Il est vraiment malheureux que tant de gens veuillent à toute force se donner la peine inutile de confondre le langage musical avec celui de la poésie, et de vouloir compléter par l’un ce qui, d’après leurs vues étroites et bornées, resterait incomplet dans l’autre. C’est une vérité établie à tout jamais : là où le domaine du langage poétique cesse, commence celui de la musique. Rien ne me paraît plus insupportable, que tous ces contes niais sur lesquels on prétend que ces compositions se fondent.

’Tis a great misfortune that so many people take the useless trouble to confound the musical with the poetic tongue, and endeavour to make good or replace by the one what in their narrow minds remains imperfect in the other. It is a truth for ever, that where the speech of man stops short there Music’s reign begins. Nothing is more intolerable, than the mawkish scenes and anecdotes they foist upon those instrumental works.

Below are additional selected citations.

A different English translation appeared in the collection “Wagner Writes from Paris: Stories, Essays, and Articles by the Young Composer” edited and translated by Robert L. Jacobs and Geoffrey Skelton: 4

It is an eternal truth that music begins where speech ends. Nothing is so intolerable as those tasteless pictures and stories with which some people try to buttress instrumental works.

Wagner died in 1883, and some of his writings were published posthumously. In 1899 William Ashton Ellis published his translation of Wagner’s jottings on the title page of the manuscript of “Die Kunst und Die Revolution” (“Art and Revolution”). The manuscript was published in 1849, but it is unclear when the jottings were made. Wagner penned this alternative contradictory remark about music: 5

III. history of music := christian expression: “where the word can no farther, there music begins:” = Beethoven, 9th Symphony, proves on the contrary: “where music can no farther, there comes the word.”—(the word stands higher than the tone.)

In 1905 British poet and critic Arthur Symons published a piece titled “The Ideas of Richard Wagner” in “The Quarterly Review” of London, and he mentioned the adage: 6

It is therefore instructive to turn to one of those newspaper articles which Wagner wrote when he was in Paris in 1840 and 1841; there we shall find, and in reference to Beethoven, a singularly clear anticipation of almost everything that he was afterwards to say on the inner meaning of music. Why, he asks, should people ‘take the useless trouble to confound the musical with the poetic tongue,’ seeing that ‘where the speech of man stops short, there music’s reign begins ’?

In 1936 music columnist Thomas Archer of “The Gazette” in Montreal, Canada attributed an instance of the saying to Wagner: 7

For, as Wagner declared, where music begins, words cease to function. No one has succeeded in describing a beautiful tune in words. No “programme” has ever done more than hint at the meaning of the music it is supposed to describe. Music is the most emotional and the most mysterious of all arts.

In 1937 Thomas Archer credited Wagner with a different phrasing of the adage: 8

It is a superb example of what Wagner meant when he said that music begins where words end.

In conclusion, Richard Wagner did employ this saying within a story he published in 1841. However, he did not coin this saying. An English version was circulating by 1835.

Interestingly, Wagner’s first publication of the statement was in French and not German. The adage was spoken by a character in the tale “Une Soirée Heureuse” (“A Happy Evening”) in the Paris periodical “Revue et Gazette Musicale”.

Wagner also penned conflicting remarks on this topic on the title page of the manuscript of “Die Kunst und Die Revolution” (“Art and Revolution”). His jottings were published posthumously.

Image Notes: Illustration of notes on a scale from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Terry Teachout whose inquiry led QI to publish a set of articles on this topic. Teachout asked about the attribution of the phrase “Where words leave off, music begins” to Heinrich Heine. Thanks also to twitter discussants David Wright, Cameron Wood, Joe Weber, and Amy Alkon.)

Notes:

  1. 1835 July, The New-England Magazine, Article: The Origin and Progress of Music: No. 1, Author not listed, (1844 book claims author is Henry Russell Cleveland), Start Page 58, Quote Page 59 and 60, Eastburn’s Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1841 Octobre 24, Revue et Gazette Musicale, Volume 8, Number 56, Une Soirée Heureuse: Fantaisie sur la musique pittoresque by Richard Wagner, Start Page 463, Quote Page 464, Column 1 and 2, Au Bureau D’Abonnement, Revue at Gazette Musicale, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1898, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works by Richard Wagner, Volume 7: In Paris and Dresden, Translated by William Ashton Ellis, A German Musician In Paris: 03: A Happy Evening, Start Page 69, Quote Page 73, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1973, Wagner Writes from Paris: Stories, Essays, and Articles by the Young Composer by Richard Wagner, Edited and Translated by Robert L. Jacobs and Geoffrey Skelton, Chapter: A Happy Evening, Quote Page 181, George Allen & Unwin, London. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1899, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Volume 8: Posthumous, Etc., Translated by William Ashton Ellis, Part 4: Sketches and Fragments, Section IB: A Title-Page, (Jottings on the title page of the manuscript of Die Kunst und Die Revolution), Quote Page 362, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1905 July, The Quarterly Review, Volume 203, Number 404, Article 4: The Ideas of Richard Wagner by Arthur Symons, Start Page 73, Quote Page 103, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1936 May 30, The Gazette, Intellectual Excursion: Arguing That Words Cannot Describe the Beauty of Music nor Foretell Its Wonders by Thomas Archer, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1937 May 29, The Gazette, Bach’s Great Mass by Thomas Archer, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com)