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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Music of Wagner
By Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899)
 
From a speech at a dinner in honor of Anton Seidl, New York, February 2, 1895

THERE are a few things that stand out in my recollection as having touched me more deeply than others, a few men to whom I feel indebted for the little I know, and for the little I happen to be. Those men, those things, are forever present in my mind. The first man that let up the curtain in my mind, that ever opened a blind, that ever allowed a little sunshine to straggle in, was Robert Burns. I went to get my shoes mended, and I had to go with them. And I had to wait till they were done. I was like the fellow standing by the stream naked washing his shirt. A lady and gentleman were riding by in a carriage, and upon seeing him the man indignantly shouted: “Why don’t you put on another shirt when you are washing one?” The fellow said, “I suppose you think I’ve got a hundred shirts!”  1
  When I went into the shop of the old Scotch shoemaker he was reading a book, and when he took my shoes in hand I took his book, which was ‘Robert Burns.’ In a few days I had a copy; and, indeed gentlemen, from that time if ‘Burns’ had been destroyed I could have restored more than half of it. It was in my mind day and night. Burns you know is a little valley, not very wide, but full of sunshine; a little stream runs down making music over the rocks, and children play upon the banks; narrow roads overrun with vines, covered with blossoms, happy children, the hum of bees, and little birds pour out their heart, and enrich the air. That is Burns. Then, you must know that I was raised respectably. Certain books were not thought to be good for the young person; only such books as would start you in the narrow road for the New Jerusalem. But one night I stopped at a little hotel in Illinois, many years ago, when we were not quite civilized, when the footsteps of the red man were still in the prairies. While I was waiting for supper an old man was reading from a book, and among others who were listening was myself. I was filled with wonder. I had never heard anything like it. I was ashamed to ask him what he was reading; I supposed that an intelligent boy ought to know. So I waited, and when the little bell rang for supper I hung back and they went out. I picked up the book; it was Sam Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare. The next day I bought a copy for four dollars. My God! more than the national debt. You talk about the present straits of the Treasury! For days, for nights, for months, for years, I read those books, two volumes, and I commenced with the introduction. I haven’t read that introduction for nearly fifty years, certainly forty-five, but I remember it still. Other writers are like a garden diligently planted and watered, but Shakespeare a forest where the oaks and elms toss their branches to the storm, where the pine towers, where the vine bursts into blossom at its foot. That book opened to me a new world, another nature. While Burns was the valley, here was a range of mountains with thousands of such valleys; while Burns was as sweet a star as ever rose into the horizon, here was a heaven filled with constellations. That book has been a source of perpetual joy to me from that day to this; and whenever I read Shakespeare—if it ever happens that I fail to find some new beauty, some new presentation of some wonderful truth, or another word that bursts into blossom, I shall make up my mind that my mental faculties are failing, that it is not the fault of the book. Those, then, are two things that helped to educate me a little.  2
  Afterward I saw a few paintings by Rembrandt, and all at once I was overwhelmed with the genius of the man that could convey so much thought in form and color. Then I saw a few landscapes by Corot, and I began to think I knew something about art. During all my life, of course, like other people, I had heard what they call music, and I had my favorite pieces, most of those favorite pieces being favorites on account of associations; and nine tenths of the music that is beautiful to the world is beautiful because of the association, not because the music is good, but because of association. We cannot write a very poetic thing about a pump or about water works; they are not old enough. We can write a poetic thing about a well and a sweep and an old moss-covered bucket, and you can write a poem about a spring, because a spring seems a gift of nature, something that cost no trouble and no work, something that will sing of nature under the quiet stars of June. So, it is poetic on account of association. The stagecoach is more poetic than the car, but the time will come when cars will be poetic, because human feelings, love’s remembrances, will twine around them, and consequently they will become beautiful. There are two pieces of music, ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ and ‘Home Sweet Home,’ with the music a little weak in the back; but association makes them both beautiful. So, in the ‘Marseillaise’ is the French Revolution, that whirlwind and flame of war, of heroism the highest possible, of generosity, of self-denial, of cruelty, of all of which the human heart and brain are capable; so that music now sounds as though its notes were made of stars, and it is beautiful mostly by association.  3
  Now, I always felt that there must be some greater music somewhere, somehow. You know this little music that comes back with recurring emphasis every two inches or every three and a half inches; I thought there ought to be music somewhere with a great sweep from horizon to horizon, and that could fill the great dome of sound with winged notes like the eagle; if there was not such music, somebody, sometime, would make it, and I was waiting for it. One day I heard it, and I said, “What music is that?” “Who wrote that?” I felt it everywhere. I was cold. I was almost hysterical. It answered to my brain, to my heart; not only to association, but to all there was of hope and aspiration, all my future; and they said this is the music of Wagner. I never knew one note from another—of course I would know it from a promissory note—and was utterly and absolutely ignorant of music until I heard Wagner interpreted by the greatest leader, in my judgment, in the world—Anton Seidl. He not only understands Wagner in the brain, but he feels him in the heart, and there is in his blood the same kind of wild and splendid independence that was in the brain of Wagner. I want to say to-night, because there are so many heresies, Mr. President, creeping into this world, I want to say and say it with all my might, that Robert Burns was not Scotch. He was far wider than Scotland; he had in him the universal tide, and wherever it touches the shore of a human being it finds access. Not Scotch, gentlemen, but a man, a man! I can swear to it, or rather affirm, that Shakespeare was not English, but another man, kindred of all, of all races and peoples, and who understood the universal brain and heart of the human race, and who had imagination enough to put himself in the place of all.  4
  And so I want to say to-night, because I want to be consistent, Richard Wagner was not a German, and his music is not German; and why? Germany would not have it. Germany denied that it was music. The great German critics said it was nothing in the world but noise. The best interpreter of Wagner in the world is not German, and no man has to be German to understand Richard Wagner. In the heart of nearly every man is an Æolian harp, and when the breath of true genius touches that harp, every man that has one, or that knows what music is or has the depth and height of feeling necessary to appreciate it, appreciates Richard Wagner. To understand that music, to hear it as interpreted by this great leader is an education. It develops the brain; it gives to the imagination wings; the little earth grows larger; the people grow important; and not only that, it civilizes the heart; and the man who understands that music can love better and with greater intensity than he ever did before. The man who understands and appreciates that music becomes in the highest sense spiritual—and I don’t mean by spiritual, worshiping some phantom, or dwelling upon what is going to happen to some of us—I mean spiritual in the highest sense; when a perfume arises from the heart in gratitude, and when you feel that you know what there is of beauty, of sublimity, of heroism and honor and love in the human heart. This is what I mean by being spiritual. I don’t mean denying yourself here and living on a crust with the expectation of eternal joy—that is not what I mean. By spiritual I mean a man that has an ideal, a great ideal, and who is splendid enough to live to that ideal; that is what I mean by spiritual. And the man who has heard the music of Wagner, that music of love and death, the greatest music, in my judgment, that ever issued from the human brain, the man who has heard that and understands it has been civilized.  5
 
 
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