Poor music! Its usual process of distribution—from composer to performer to audience to academy—has always seemed bad enough, describing as it does the fall from divine inspiration to musicology. But now, as a short but boring session on Richard Wagner at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting made clear, another denouement is horribly possible: the supercession of a composer’s music by his words.

This fate has befallen Wagner many times in the past. Many people might easily feel that the old devil—self-willed and arrogant—had it coming. All his life he took refuge from a giant-sized composer’s block in a persistent and satisfying logorrhea. To some extent his ceaseless writing enabled him to get his compositional thoughts in order; to an even greater extent, one must suppose, it served to take his mind off his manifold financial and artistic problems. Whatever the reasons for his...

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