A Polite Reply


Although Hector Berlioz was capable of stinging irony, when he received a pointed letter from Richard Wagner, his reply was the essence of graciousness. On September 10, 1855, he wrote from Paris to Wagner in Switzerland:

Your letter gave me great pleasure. You’re quite right to deplore my ignorance of the German language, and as to what you said about the impossibility of my understanding your works, I’ve struggled with it many a time. The flower of expression almost always withers under the weight of translation, however delicate the translation may be. There are accents in true music that demand just the right word, and there are words that require their particular accent. To separate the one from the other or to give them approximations is like trying to suckle a puppy on a goat.

But what can I do? Learning languages is devilishly difficult for me. I know only a few words of English or Italian.

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So you’re melting glaciers with your Niebelungen. How marvelous it must be to write in the presence of grand nature! Another pleasure denied me. The beautiful countryside, the lofty peaks, broad vistas of the sea. Instead of provoking thought, they absorb me completely. I feel, but I’m unable to express anything. I can only draw the moon by looking at its reflection in the bottom of a well.

I wish I were able to send you the parts you gave me the pleasure of requesting. Unfortunately my editors haven’t given them to me for a long time. I do have two or three–the Te Deum, L’enfance du Christ, and Lelio, a lyric melodrama, which will appear in a few weeks, which I can send you.

I have your Lohengrin. If you could have Tannhäuser sent to me it would give me great pleasure.

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