Mark Twain on Operatic Music

Mark Twain

Mariposa Free Press/June 17, 1865

I have always heard that Italian opera was the most charming music in the world after your taste is cultivated up to it, and you have got thoroughly used to it. Very well; after I had got myself cultivated up to so fine a point that I could close one eye in an opera and tell ‘Norma’ from the ‘Bohemian Girl,’ and ‘Traviata’ from ‘Trovatore,’ I began to acknowledge to myself that this was tolerably true — and finally I deliberated decided that it was entirely and unquestionably true. All San Francisco has laboriously schooled itself up to the same conviction in the same way. But to-night myself and a gorgeous concourse of other musical thoroughbreds were taken unawares and startled from our proprieties in this respect. The opera was ‘Martha,’ and we sat and listed to the greasy, mushy Italian accents in a trance of ineffable delight, understanding little or none of it, of course, but applauding every two minutes and a quarter, as is customary and proper, and making a little more boisterous demonstration occasionally, when the risk was warranted by a more than usual obscurity in the sentiment.

But finally Signorina Sconcia suddenly stepped forward to the footlights and launched out into that enchanting old song, ‘The Last Rose of Summer,” in Italian. I tell you, the contrast between those sweet, home-like strains, and that infernal foreign caterwauling, was too much for the proprieties of our fine-spun cultivation — the house was suddenly caught off its guard, and came down with a perfect crash of applause! Then everybody looked ashamed, and one cultivated party would look savagely at another cultivated party, as much as to say, ‘D-n it, you did it,’ and the other cultivated party would reply with a fierce glance, ‘No, d-n it, you began it’; but somebody ventured to start an encore, and it faltered a moment — then swept the house like a tornado! Then the lady came forward again and sang the same song in Moore’s own pure, flowing English, unmarred by an accent of infamous Italian, and then — why then there was an earthquake!

I have modified my musical creed a little since that incident. I now hold that when one sings of dukes and duchesses, and imperial asses and brigands, it sounds all the bettor to do it in Italian words and Italian music, because these latter are well suited to the subject; but when you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you and suffuse your system, and go through you and inflame your whole constitution, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, call for a melody of our own, and have it sung in good, strong, stirring old Saxon! Confound it, now I have got to go back to the foot of the class and start in fresh and get all cultivated over again.


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