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.

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


  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