Thursday, December 1, 2011

Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on Richard Wagner)

“I have seen and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; after two acts I have gone away physically exhausted.”—Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Did Twain say, as he is so often quoted, that Richard Wagner’s music is “better than it sounds”? 

It sure sounds like something he’d express—and when in doubt about a quote that surprises and delights with its plain-spoken directness, there’s a tendency to attribute it to him, just as, whenever there’s a quote that’s surprising and paradoxical, people will, more often than not, believe it originated with either Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw.

It turns out that Twain didn’t say or write this. In his autobiography, he quoted this as coming from the younger humorist Edgar Wilson, a.k.a. Bill Nye (1850-1896). Over the years, people became confused and attributed it to Twain himself, probably because the Man in the White Suit cited it approvingly in his memoir.

No matter what he might have thought about the sounds created by the composer, however, Twain freely admitted to fascination with the stagecraft of the German's overwhelming musical theater works: “One of the most engaging spectacles in the world is a Wagner opera force marching on to the stage, with its music braying and its banners flying.”

I don’t know if Twain was in the audience, but he undoubtedly would have had a similar reaction on this date in 1886, 21 years after its premiere in Munich and three years after the composer’s death, when Tristan und Isolde made its American debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The two leads had worked with the composer himself, so they were as well-grounded in the material as you could get.

Wagner had feared that he was creating an opera that would drive people mad, and indeed the first Tristan in Germany had died from delirium only days after the premiere.
If New Yorkers were driven mad, however, it was with delight. A critic for the Musical Courier observed that when the performance concluded, “middle-aged women in their enthusiasm stood up in their chairs and screamed their delight for what seemed like hours.”
The darker side of that latent hysteria was evoked in this Woody Allen one-liner: “Every time I listen to Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

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