Music Begins Where Language Ends

Heinrich Heine? Claude Debussy? Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky? Richard Wagner? Leonora Schmitz? Henry R. Cleveland? Jean Sibelius? John S. Dwight? Ludwig van Beethoven? Anton Rubinstein? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The expressiveness of words is paltry in the domain of deeply felt emotions and sensations. Yet, music can resonate with these profound feelings. Here are two versions of this sentiment:

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

Numerous famous people have been credited with this adage including Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, French composer Claude Debussy, German composer Richard Wagner, and German poet Heinrich Heine. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This article is intended to provide an overview of this large and complex topic. Research is difficult because the phrasing of the adage is highly variable. In addition, the saying has appeared in multiple languages, e.g., English, German, French, and Russian. The native language of QI is English; therefore, this article is inevitably skewed toward English, but QI has attempted to locate instances in other languages.

Here is a set of dates and phrases summarizing the occurrences of this adage during a few early decades:

  • 1835: Music begins where language ends
  • 1841: Where the speech of man stops short there music’s reign begins (translation from French)
  • 1845: (Music) begins where speech leaves off
  • 1849: When words lose their power, it is then that the true office of music begins
  • 1853: Music begins where words leave off
  • 1855: Music begins where words cease
  • 1857: The province of music begins where language fails
  • 1865: Where the power of the words ceases, there that of the music begins
  • 1866: Where all words end, music begins

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. Our favorite songs are set to music, because we are not satisfied with hearing them recited; we want to express more vividly the emotions which these words excite within us; and music alone will do it. Hence it is, that after hearing them sung, the words appear powerless if read in the common tone of voice.

This adage has remained popular during the ensuing 185 years, and the remainder of this article discusses several variants with citations.

If you are interested in a specific prominent individual who has employed this saying you may wish to veer off and consult one of QI’s specialized articles.

Composer Richard Wagner employed the saying in 1841, and an article focused on that ascription is here.

Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky credited Heinrich Heine with the saying in 1878, and an article focused on that attribution is here.

Composer Claude Debussy received credit for the saying in 1889, and an article focused on that attribution is here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Music Begins Where Language Ends

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

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

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

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.

Continue reading Wagner Has Some Beautiful Moments But Terrible Quarter-Hours

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