[PW] Request help with quotation search and French translation - Music/Opera is the most expensive noise

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com
Sun Aug 12 17:36:19 PDT 2018

I received a request from a historian to explore a saying often
attributed to the French playwright Moliere: Of all the noises known
to man, opera is the most expensive.

During my search I found variants of the joke attributed to Molière,
Théophile Gautier, Alphonse Karr, Alexandre Dumas (père), Prince
Albert, Honoré de Balzac, and others.

The earliest germane match I have located was written by Théophile
Gautier in 1845, and the target of the quip was "music" instead of
"opera". In addition, Gautier disclaimed credit and ascribed the
remark to a "geometer". Below is an excerpt in French followed by a
version in English from Google Translate. Perhaps someone would be
willing to share a superior translation off-list or on-list.

The first linkage to Moliere I've found occurred in 1956. The citation
suggests that Moliere's play "L'École des Femmes" ("The School for
Wives") contains the joke, but I have not found it yet. The details
and a question appear further below.

Here is the Gautier citation followed by addition background citations.

[ref] 1845, Zigzags par Théophile Gautier, Chapter VI: Têtes d'anges,
Quote Page 243 and 244, Victor Magen, Éditeur, Paris. (Google Books
Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
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
[End excerpt]

[Begin Google Translate]
One night I was at Drury Lane. The Favorite was played, accommodated
to the British taste, and translated into the language of the island,
which produced a din that was difficult to describe, and perfectly
justified the word of a geometer, 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.
[End Google Translate]

The quip was applied to "pianos" in 1875:

[ref] 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 [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
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.
[End excerpt]

A variant barb was aimed at expensive singers in 1883:

[ref] 1883 October 10, The Daily Picayune (The Times-Picayune),
(Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[Begin excerpt]
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.
[End excerpt]

In 1911 "The New York Times" shared a version aimed at opera:

[ref] 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)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
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.
[End excerpt]

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 the joke
about "expensive noise" was spoken during the performance. I have been
unable to find this joke in Molière's original play (translated into
English). Perhaps some list member can determine whether some version
of the joke is present in Molière's play?

[ref] 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.

[Begin excerpt]
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.
[End excerpt]


More information about the Project-Wombat-Open mailing list