Wagner is said to have described Mayerbeer's operas as follows:

(translated into English and originally written in German, probably.)

"Meyerbeer ... wanted a monstrous, piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatica-libidinous, sacra-frivolous, mysterio-criminal, autolyco-sentimental dramatic hodgepodge ..."

I can never even guess what "autolyco-" means. I didn't find any definition in any dictionary in any language. But this is quoted in a few books.

What is the answer?

  • Do you have a source for this?
    – Mick
    Aug 4, 2019 at 3:36
  • I saw this on The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Scheonberg, Chapter 16.
    – kimweonill
    Aug 4, 2019 at 6:48
  • @PeterMortenson "I found no definition..." is perfectly grammatical, as is "Does anyone know what X means?" As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 4, 2019 at 18:29
  • 2
    Perhaps this was meant to be analytico-sentimental, in keeping with the other pairs. It’s an oddico-normality brought on by excessive machine use.
    – user205876
    Aug 4, 2019 at 20:02
  • 1
    @GlobalCharm That was my first impression, but the pairs aren't necessarily opposites, just incongruities. And 'Autolycos', despite the (to me obscure) Greek mythology reference, works as a translation (Autolycos was a thief, and that is one of the meanings of 'gauner').
    – Mitch
    Aug 4, 2019 at 20:34

3 Answers 3


The quote is not Berlioz but from Wagner’s book-length essay “Oper und Drama” (Opera and Drama). Wagner wrote it in 1851, and it was published the following year in Leipzig.

Your text is just one translation, the one that runs:

Weber wanted a Drama that could pass with all its members, with every scenic nuance, into his noble, soulful Melody: — Meyerbeer, on the contrary, wanted a monstrous piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-libidinous, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal, autolyco-sentimental dramatic hotch-potch, therein to find material for a curious chimeric music, — a want which, owing to the indomitable buckram of his musical temperament, could never be quite suitably supplied.

But here’s another, this time from Edwin Evan’s 1913 translation, where the translator has seized on different wording here:

Weber wanted a libretto of such character as to enable it, at all times and with every scenic shade of colouring, to rise up into his noble soulful melody. Meyerbeer, on the other hand, wanted a huge, parti-coloured, historico-romantic, satanico-pious, dogmatico-lewd, sancto-nonsensical, mystico-daring, sentimentally roguish, stagy conglomeration of all sorts, in order to provide him with the occasion for inventing fearfully curious music which, however, could never prove successful in application, in consequence of the natural thickness of his musical skin.

So this is talking about some “roguish” activity — as Mick notes, alluding to a thieving figure from classical mythology who used tricks to deceive his neighbors.

Seems pretty roguish to me.

  • Yes, it was Wagner who said it. My mistake. Thank you so much!
    – kimweonill
    Aug 4, 2019 at 6:58

Autolyco- From the Greek autolycus, meaning "the wolf itself" (i.e. savage, without sentiment).

Wikipedia: Autolycus

So, autolyco-sentimental is, perhaps, an oxymoron meaning both with and without sentiment.



Greek mythology

A thief who stole cattle from his neighbour Sisyphus and prevented him from recognizing them by making them invisible

Collins Dictionary

  • 2
    Auto- self, lyco- wolf (as in lycanthropy, or being a werewolf - lyco- wolf, and anthropos, man). Etymology is such fun! Aug 4, 2019 at 6:33
  • @marcellothearcane The translator took the German for 'thieving/roguish/scoundrel' and chose the mythological representative name. Whether that actual name's etymology really implies in all its uses 'thieving' is up to classicists.
    – Mitch
    Aug 4, 2019 at 20:31
  • @Mitch yes, my comment above was a little self-discovery regarding etymology. It could just as reasonably be someone that howls at themselves at night. Aug 4, 2019 at 21:09
  • So the thief named “the wolf himself” stole a bunch of sheep and “made them invisible”?
    – 11684
    Aug 4, 2019 at 23:06
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    I wouldn't say oxymoronic. It is perfectly possible to be sentimental about the times before one was sentimental, for that reason alone. It seems also appropriate if you miss a time when you were more ruthless or uncaring.
    – Stian
    Aug 5, 2019 at 11:44

Completing @tchrist's answer (since I'm not able to comment), here is a quote from the original, which you can read in its entirety here:

Weber wollte ein Drama hergestellt haben, das überall, mit jeder szenischen Nuance in seine edle, seelenvolle Melodie aufzugehen vermochte – Meyerbeer wollte dagegen ein ungeheuer buntscheckiges, historisch-romantisches, teuflisch-religiöses, bigott-wollüstiges, frivol-heiliges, geheimnisvoll-freches, sentimental-gaunerisches, dramatisches Allerlei haben, um an ihm erst Stoff zum Auffinden einer ungeheuer kuriosen Musik zu gewinnen – was ihm wegen des unbesieglichen Leders seines eigentlichen musikalischen Naturelles wiederum nie wirklich recht gelingen wollte.

I'm not a native speaker of either English or German, but it's obvious that both translations are way off the mark -- the original, while trite, is not so heavy, and has no made-up words. "Gauner" is very common term for a small criminal.

The translation also fails to convey the not so subtle dog-whistling (playing on the fact that Meyerbeer was a Jew).

  • 1
    Keep this up and you'll be able to comment in no time.
    – Mr Lister
    Aug 4, 2019 at 14:45
  • 3
    1. Not trite. Other than historisch-romantisch, the hyphenated adjectives are all absurd nonce words, i.e., made up, accentuating the random, chaotic relationship of text and music Wagner imputes to Meyerbeer. 2. A series of eight adjectives with all but two hyphenated compounds is heavy in any language. This sentence is a translator's nightmare. I'm not sure where you're hearing the dog whistle, but a bit earlier in this chapter, Wagner blandly states that as a Jew, Meyerbeer had no true native language and thus no feel for a libretto. Wagner's fullblown anti-Semitism comes later.
    – KarlG
    Aug 5, 2019 at 11:53

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