Friends and Foes: Nietzsche and Wagner

ON this occasion I shall be examining Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) literary attack on Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the famous German composer. Despite the fact that Nietzsche mentioned Wagner in several of his books, however, I will confine my investigations to three main sources that deal specifically with the work and character of his former friend; namely, Selected Aphorisms (1878), The Case of Wagner: A Musician’s Problem (1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1888).

Born in May 1813, just six months before the untimely death of his father, Wagner was brought up by his mother and Ludwig Geyer, the man she married the following year. Like Nietzsche, Wagner was from Saxony, in the eastern part of Germany. By 1820, aged seven, Wagner was already taking piano lessons. In 1821, however, a second paternal figure disappeared from his life when Geyer also died in September of that year.

Fifteen months later, the young Wagner was enrolled in the Dresden Kreuzschule, and remained there when the rest of his family moved to Leipzig in 1827. Soon afterwards, Wagner joined the Nicolaischule where he undertook harmony lessons with Christian Gottlieb Müller and produced two piano sonatas and a string quartet. In 1830 he left the Nicolaischule and took up the violin, later producing a piano transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and three overtures, including the Drumbeat Overture in B flat. A year afterwards, Wagner began attending Leipzig University and fell in love with Leah David. He also produced his Piano Sonata in B flat, Fantaisie in F# minor, Polonaise, Incidental Music to Raupach’s Konig Enzio, Entractes and Grosse Sonata in A.

By 1832 he had transferred his affections to Jenny Raymann, the daughter of Count Pachta, and composed the Symphony in C. He then became chorus master at Wurzburg, wrote Die Feen and expressed a keen interest in Young Germany, a socialist literary movement. In 1834 he marked his first appearance as a concert conductor, beginning with Don Giovanni, although the same year also led to his first encounter with Wilhelmine ‘Minna’ Planer, whom he married in 1836. Wagner remained busy during his courtship and worked with Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804-1860), an operatic soprano, before going on to produce the overture and incidental music for Apel’s Christopher Columbus. He also began a diary, known as the Red Pocketbook.

After his opera company was made bankrupt, Wagner was appointed musical director in Konigsberg. His wife, on the other hand, Minna, tried to run away but Wagner brought her back and subsequently moved to Riga to accept another role as musical director. He also wrote an essay on the Italian opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). In 1838 Wagner embarked upon a concert series in Riga and began writing the Rienzi. The following year, however, Wagner found himself embroiled in serious debt and therefore he, Minna and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, were forced to leave Riga and travel abroad. Surviving a dangerous sea voyage between Denmark and Norway, Wagner continued on to England and then Paris. In addition, he also composed the completed aria for Norma and began what was eventually to become the Faust Overture.

More financial problems appeared in 1840, but on a more positive note he produced various essays and stories, including On German Music, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, The Virtuoso and the Artist and A Pilgrimage to Beethoven. By 1841 he had become friends with the Jewish philologist, Samuel Lehrs, from whom he obtained some ideas about composing a series of operas based on medieval German literature. But as he completed his Der Fliegendre Hollander, Wagner was gradually becoming more and more disillusioned with Paris and tried to lose himself in another outpouring of essays and stories. These included On the Overture, An End in Paris, The Artist and Publicity, Parisian Amusements, Der Freischutz, Parisian Fatalities for the German, A Happy Evening and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

In 1842, Wagner returned to Dresden. Once there, he staged a dramatic première of Rienzi and, the following year, his Hollander. Around the same time he composed Der Tag Erscheint and Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, began writing the music for Tannhauser, and published both his Autobiographical Sketch and Die Sarazenin. In 1845 Wagner began reading about the medieval character, Parzival, something that would later inspire him to compose one of his most well-known operas. It was a very productive year and he not only completed Tannhauser, but also wrote the drafts for Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin.

Meanwhile, Wagner’s dual existence as an accomplished conductor continued apace and he oversaw the performance of Beethoven’s wonderful Ninth Symphony in Dresden and a personal interpretation of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide. Elsewhere, his increasing love of German medieval literature led to his final completion of Lohengrin.

Ironically, perhaps, by 1848 Wagner had made the acquaintance of the inflammatory Russian anarchist,

Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876):

At their first meeting [Bakunin] told Wagner the story of his life; and on Palm Sunday, April 1st, 1849, he was present in the Opera House when Wagner conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The performance led Bakunin to introduce a reservation into the doctrine of pan-destruction. Going up to congratulate Wagner, he declared that, “should all the music that had ever been written perish in the world conflagration, they must pledge themselves to rescue this symphony, even at the peril of their lives.”[1]

The pair joined forces in the brave 1849 defence of the Dresden barricades against the Prussian troops, but whilst Wagner managed to avoid capture by seeking exile in Switzerland – thanks to the intervention of the Hungarian composer, Friedrich Liszt (1811-1886) – Bakunin was eventually sentenced to thirteen months in prison for his part in the upheaval. Wagner’s essays around this period reflected his keen interest in left-wing politics and included Theatre Reform, Man and Established Society, The Revolution, Art and Revolution and The Artwork of the Future.

In 1850 Wagner had an affair with Jessie Laussot in Bordeaux, before retuning to Minna in Zurich. August the same year saw the première of Lohengrin and he also worked on Siegfried’s Tod, wrote the prose draft for Wieland der Schmied and produced essays on both Art and Climate and the controversial Judaism in Music. Wagner believed that Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) did not faithfully reflect the German spirit and, inevitably, produced shallow and artificial music which was unsuited to the German temperament. However, a century after his death some biographers claimed that Wagner himself may have been Jewish as a result of his alleged father’s surname being Geyer. Several derogatory caricatures published in the 1870s tried to exaggerate the size of Wagner’s nose, but there is no evidence that he was actually Jewish.

In 1852 work began on Siegfried and, in 1853, he published his Ring poems among a small circle of friends and acquaintances. The same year he met Cosima de Flavigny (1837-1930), who was later to become his wife. But for now he had become infatuated with another woman, Mathilde Wesendonck. In 1834, as Wagner was composing Die Walkure and taking an interest in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and Pererga and Paralipomena, Minna began to suffer health problems.

In 1855 Wagner conducted in London, before reading Introduction a l’histoire du Buddhisme Indien by Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852) and drawing up plans for Die Sieger, a Buddhist opera. Two years later he and Minna moved into the ‘Asyl’ villa, owned by Mathilde Wesendonck, and the couple were later joined by Cosima de Flavigny and her new husband. Wesendonck soon reciprocated Wagner’s affections and kept him entertained in between composing Tristan und Isolde and studying Liszt’s symphonic poems. In 1858 he travelled to Paris and met the French romantic composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Minna also intercepted one of his love letters to Mathilde, but Wagner remained unsympathetic and took a trip to Venice with Karl Ritter, later to become a Nazi activist.

In November 1859 Wagner was reunited with Minna and completed his Arthurian love story, Tristan und Isolde. After receiving an amnesty from the German government, which had been trying to arrest him for the past ten years, Paris also became the setting for a disastrous production of Tannhauser. But Wagner ploughed himself into Die Meistersinger and had an affair with another woman, Frederike Meyer. In November 1862, Wagner met Minna for the last time – in Dresden – before settling in Penzing, near Vienna, and struggling to come to terms with yet more financial difficulties. In 1864 Ludwig II (1845-1886) became King of Bavaria and Wagner was summoned to his palace. He also published To the Kingly Friend and On State and Religion. Cosima, meanwhile, who had left her husband, Hans von Bulow, took her two daughters to Munich and moved in with Wagner.

Their first child, Isolde, was born in 1865 and the première of Tristan und Isolde took place the same year. Minna died in 1866 and Wagner and his new family moved to Geneva and a second daughter, Eva, was born in February 1867. In 1868 Wagner met Nietzsche for the first time, but more of that later. Die Meistersinger was also premièred in June of that year and a son, Siegfried, was born exactly twelve months later. In 1870, Cosima’s marriage to von Bulow was finally dissolved and she married Wagner on August 25th. Das Rheingold was also successfully premièred, as was Die Walkure and the Siegfried Idyll. Wagner and Cosima visited Bayreuth in 1871 and the council offered them land for a proposed festival project that would, in time, become world famous. Various ‘Wagner Societies’ were formed and some of his essays and poems in the early 1870s included To the German Army Before Paris, The Destiny of Opera, Reminiscences of Auber, Actors and Singers, On the Name Music-Drama, The Rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Spohr’s Jessonda at Leipzig.

In 1874 the Wagner family moved to a new villa in Bayreuth and named it Wahnfried, a compound word denoting madness and peace. Gotterdammerung and the Ring were also completed and, in 1876, the latter was performed in three cycles at Bayreuth. Nietzsche was present at the concert, but was taken ill. Wagner also became obsessed with yet another woman, Judith Gautier, and went to Rome to meet the aristocratic Frenchman, Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), author of An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races.

After conducting a series of London concerts in 1877, Wagner began composing Parzival. In 1878 he began publishing the Bayreuther Blatter and Cosima caught him burning love letters from Judith Gautier. He also took a public stand against vivisection and continued to work on Parzival.

After a series of heated discussions with Gobineau in 1881, Wagner experienced chest pain and suffered a heart attack the following year. However, Parzival was finally completed and premièred in July 1882, just seven months before Wagner’s death in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi at Venice on February 13th, 1883. His final essay was On the Feminine in Humanity, a title that would hardly endear him to an already outraged Nietzsche.

Returning to 1871, the very year that Wagner and Cosima had established themselves at Bayreuth, Nietzsche dedicated his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, to the man he then regarded as a great friend. In his Foreword to Richard Wagner, Nietzsche wrote:

I picture the moment when you, my much respected friend, will receive this essay; perhaps, after an evening walk in the winter snow, you will behold the unbound Prometheus on the title-page, read my name, and be at once convinced that, whatever this essay may contain, the author has something serious and impressive to say, and, moreover, that in all his meditations he communed with you as one present and so could write only what befitted that presence. Thus you will be reminded that I collected myself for these thoughts just when your magnificent dissertation on Beethoven originated, amid the horrors and sublimities of the war which had just then broken out.[2]

As far as Nietzsche was concerned, Wagner was the epitome of an unstoppable and wonderfully creative force that could potentially act as a catalyst for the transformation of German life and culture.

At the end of his dedication, he wrote:

These earnest ones may be informed of my conviction that art is the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life, as it is understood by the man, to whom, as my noble champion on this same path, I now dedicate this essay.[3]

Wagner, too, admired Nietzsche and

warmed to him genuinely, throwing off his customary reserve, and entrusting him with responsible commissions. In Nietzsche he saw, perhaps, even more than an ally – a portent: the first of a new generation who would respond to his art as their elders had never done.[4]

However, despite the high esteem in which Nietzsche held Wagner and his talented musical compositions, by the time the former had published his Richard Wagner in Bayreuth in 1876, it was clear that his feelings towards his friend had cooled somewhat. This essay, since published with three others in The Untimely Meditations (Thoughts Out of Season Parts I and II), contained the usual praise for Wagner’s status as a great interpreter of Europe’s cultural past, but seemed rather more doubtful in relation to his role as a prophet of the future.

By the time Nietzsche’s Selected Aphorisms had been published in the Summer of 1878, Wagner had been transformed from friend into fiend. The Selected Aphorisms themselves consist of seventy-six short passages ranging from a single sentence to one page in length, all of them dealing specifically with Nietzsche’s retrospective thoughts on his onetime friendship with Wagner:

My blunder was this, I travelled to Bayreuth with an ideal in my breast, and was thus doomed to experience the bitterest disappointment. The preponderance of ugliness, grotesqueness and strong pepper thoroughly repelled me.[5]

But this simply wasn’t true and, despite becoming ill during a performance of the Ring, Nietzsche had enjoyed his experience of Wagner’s music at first-hand. He even complains about the music itself:

What affected, artificial and depraved tones, what a distortion of nature, were we made to hear![6]

Wagner, he argues, had completely failed to live up to his expectations and was little more than a pale reflection of the cultural superman that he had envisaged from afar. Whilst he does credit Wagner for bringing Germanic creativity to a wider audience, he claims to have been thoroughly unimpressed with the character of Wagner himself.

Instead of the rampant Dionysian spirit that he so longed for, Nietzsche found only a decaying Christianity that championed everything German but failed to take on board the ideas of the Renaissance and the stylised art of France and Greece:

Wagner has the mind of the ordinary man who prefers to trace things to one cause. The Jews do the same: one aim, therefore one Saviour. In this way he simplifies German and culture; wrongly but strongly.[7]

At the same time, Nietzsche also draws our attention to that which is apparently ‘un-German’ in Wagner; namely, his lack of charm – rather ironic, given his flirtatious activities with the opposite sex – and ability to be good tempered without descending into insincerity. Nietzsche also believed that Wagner lacked modesty and the ability to remain calm. In fact he even speculated as to whether Wagner tried deliberately to avoid being seen as too German. This, inevitably, leads Nietzsche to conclude that Wagner may have been Jewish:

Terrible wildness, abject sorrow, emptiness, the shudder of joy, unexpectedness – in short all the qualities peculiar to the Semitic race! I believe that the Jews approach Wagner’s art with more understanding than the Aryans do.[8]

Nietzsche then reminds his readers that Wagner’s dislike of Jews somehow validates this claim, although he offers no further evidence in relation to Wagner’s alleged ethnicity.

Wagner’s music, it is argued, merely seeks to stir the passions and therefore by appealing to the masses its very artistic status is undermined:

Wagner does not altogether trust music. He weaves kindred sensations into it in order to lend it the character of greatness. He measures himself on others; he first of all gives his listeners intoxicating drinks in order to lead them into believing that it was the music that intoxicated them.[9]

Elsewhere, Nietzsche attacks Wagner for his repetition, his presumptuousness, his carelessness and for showing a lack of basic will. More interestingly, he openly thanks Wagner – as well as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), another early influence – for demonstrating the sheer folly of youthful apotheosis:

I gained an insight into the injustice of idealism, by noticing that I avenged myself on Wagner for the disappointed hopes I had cherished of him […] I leave my loftiest duty to the end, and that is to thank Wagner and Schopenhauer publicly, and to make them as it were to take sides against themselves.[10]

As Bryan Magree notes in his excellent work on Wagner’s philosophy, what the composer lacked

was any kind of scholarly objectivity. His intellectual activities were dominated by his subjective needs as an artist, and were therefore harnessed not to critical analysis, as would those of an academic, but to the explanatory interrelating of widely differing insights. To this he brought an intellect of utterly exceptional capriciousness, depth and power, and his approach was always one of complete intellectual seriousness.[11]

Turning now to The Case of Wagner: A Musician’s Problem, which Nietzsche began writing in Turin during May 1888, the author begins his work by explaining that

It is not malice alone which makes me praise Bizet at the expense of Wagner in this essay. Amid a good deal of jesting I wish to make one point clear which does not admit of levity. To turn my back on Wagner was for me a piece of fate, to get to like anything else afterwards was for me a triumph. Nobody, perhaps, had ever been more dangerously involved in Wagnerism, nobody had defended himself more obstinately against it, nobody had been so overjoyed at ridding himself of it.[12]

For Nietzsche, becoming disillusioned with Wagner was a form of self-mastery. The difference between himself and Wagner, Nietzsche argues, whilst admitting to being a child of the age and just as decadent as his musical counterpart, is that as a philosopher he struggled against it. Recognising the problem of morality, he continues, caused him to exercise self-discipline:

I had to side against everything that was morbid in myself including Wagner, including Schopenhauer, including the whole of modern humanity…[13]

Nietzsche suggests that it was necessary for him to become deeply acquainted with Wagner’s music in order to understand, at a later stage in his life, just how much of a contributory factor Wagner actually represented in terms of the ongoing decline of German culture. Nietzsche claims to have made great sacrifices and to have spurned the trappings of modern society and its continuing rejection of life.

Accordingly, Wagner is therefore included among the more degenerate and harmful effects of modernity:

And what better guide, or more thoroughly efficient revealer of the soul, could be found for the labyrinth of the modern spirit than Wagner? Through Wagner modernity speaks her most intimate language: it conceals neither its good nor its evil: it has thrown off all shame.[14]

But although Nietzsche had decided to withdraw his earlier respect and admiration for Richard Wagner, he was certainly not discarding his love for music in general. Indeed, Nietzsche now sought to strike a contrast between Wagner and the Romantic composer, Georges Bizet (1838-1875).

The Frenchman’s most famous work was Carmen, an operatic piece based on a novella by the dramatist Prosper Mérimée (1801-1870). Nietzsche claims to have seen the performance on at least twenty occasions:

To sit for five hours: The first step to holiness! May I be allowed to say that Bizet’s orchestration is the only one that I can endure now? That other orchestration which is all the rage at present – the Wagnerian – is brutal, artificial and “unsophisticated”…[15]

Nietzsche was impressed with the way in which Bizet’s compositions were far more complete than Wagner’s, avoiding the unending melodies and duplicitous settings that often insulted the intelligence of the listener. By raising and ennobling the spirit, Nietzsche believed that Bizet’s music could serve as an aid to thinking and even to philosophy itself. He also preferred the “African” climate that permeated Bizet’s work, something he valued far more than the allegedly barren northlands of Parzival and the Ring. For Nietzsche, despite the fact that Bizet’s music often seems at odds with the German temperament – something he loathed at the best of times – it is sensual and daring, sensitive and lascivious. Nietzsche even champions the war between the sexes that one finds in Carmen, as well as the youth and vitality that endorses the way of nature.

Wagner’s operas deal with salvation and redemption, themes that he returns to again and again in his efforts to reconcile his characters with virtue and happiness. Nietzsche particularly loathes Lohengrin for its Christian undertones and refusal to go beyond the purely subjective and question existence itself. Wagner’s male characters invariably end up being constrained by women, too, an aspect of his work that inevitably relates to Christianity’s perpetual demonisation of the eternal feminine.

Nietzsche is willing to admit that Wagner’s Ring contains much of value, not least Siegfried’s revolutionary attitude towards the laws and customs of his day. However, Wagner then undermines his hero’s radical spirit and ends up destroying him completely. This, Nietzsche believes, demonstrates how Wagner was negatively influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer:

It was the philosopher of decadence who allowed the artist of decadence to find himself.[16]

As far as Nietzsche was concerned, Wagner – who is labelled a decadent – deliberately contaminates everything that is healthy and positive in Germanic folklore. This may seem rather at odds with his earlier comments about the sensuality of Bizet’s Carmen, but Nietzsche disliked Wagner’s penchant for death and decay and preferred Bizet’s affirmation of life and vitality. More specifically, he attacks and lampoons the psychological implications of the Wagnerian opera:

Wagner’s art is diseased. The problems he sets on the stage are all concerned with hysteria; the convulsiveness of his emotions, his overexcited sensitiveness, his taste which demands even sharper condimentation, his erraticness which he togged out to look like principles, and, last but not least, his choice of heroes and heroines, considered as psychological types (- a hospital ward! -): the whole represents a morbid picture; of this there can be no doubt. Wagner est une nevrose. Maybe, that nothing is better known to-day, or in any case the subject of greater study, than the Protean character of degeneration which has disguised itself here, both as an art and as an artist.[17]

Wagner’s compositions, he says, are the epitome of the modern age and everything it stands for. The German people were themselves seduced and corrupted, he argues, by the dishonesty and inverted character that really underlies Wagner’s pessimistic ethos. Nietzsche also criticises the type of individuals who go along to Wagner’s operas:

[…] the cultured cretins, the blase pygmies, the eternally feminine, the gastrically happy, in short the people…[18]

In addition, Wagner’s harmonies and melodies are said to be at odds with nature and the music as a whole lacks taste and refinement. Like most décadents, says Nietzsche, his style also exudes pity and egalitarianism. Wagner, he continues, does not even deserve to be included within the musical sphere itself:

As a musician he was no more than what he was as a man, he became a musician, he became a poet, because the tyrant in him, the actor’s genius, drove him to be both.[19]

Wagner, then, is portrayed as an unknown quantity, rather than as a musician or a composer as millions of others perceive him. His anarchic instinct, we are told, is not suited to music at all.

Even Wagner’s literary outpourings are not safe from Nietzsche’s vitriolic criticism and he accuses his former associate of using his essays to condemn everything that he himself is incapable of ding. He could do far more if he really wanted to, however, but he is only prevented from doing so on principle. Furthermore, that which he can do, suggests Nietzsche, is unique to him alone and therefore others must look upon him as some kind of deity. This negative, three-fold summary of Wagner’s chief motivations in literature is designed to insinuate that the composer was only ever interested in using music as a vehicle for other means. This, we are told, is the appliance of Hegelian philosophy through music. Wagner and his followers, he says, are the heirs of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) himself.

Nietzsche’s main objective, in The Case of Wagner: A Musician’s Problem, was to make a distinction between what he considered to be true art and Wagner’s attempts – as an “actor” – to make the stage the main setting for the arts themselves. He also used his work to denounce Wagner as both a corrupter of music and a despoiler of the genuine. But just when you think Nietzsche’s polemic has reached its conclusion, he continues his thunderous denunciation in two postscripts and an epilogue.

The first postscript takes the form of an essay called “What Wagner Has Cost Us” and in it he praises the resistance to Wagnerism that was shown by many of the more right-thinking Germans. However, at the same time Nietzsche points out that Germany at that time was culturally backward and that Wagnerism had taken its toll. Again, he expresses his discontent with the way the cult of theatre was raised above the wider arts:

Bayreuth is grand Opera – and not even good opera… The stage is a form of Demolatry in the realm of taste, the stage is an insurrection of the mob, a plebiscite against good taste… The case of Wagner proves this fact: he captivated the masses – he depraved taste, he even perverted our taste for opera![20]

Wagner’s followers – male and female – are said to be idealists, their whole world-view centred on the interpretation of life and existence according to their idol: Wagner himself.

The second postscript, at least, does not credit Wagner with the initial decline of music, despite accusing him of hastening the actual process of degeneration. Wagner is compared to Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), too, but the latter is said to represent no worthy antidote to the former because of his weak personality and tendency to plagiarise the work of others. Unlike Wagner, however, Brahms was not an actor who used music and the opera as a mere stage for himself.

Finally, the “Epilogue” to Nietzsche’s work attempts to define what is meant by the term “modern”. This, of course, is something that Nietzsche constantly equated with Wagner and his music:

According to the measure of energy of every age, there is also a standard that determines which virtues should be allowed and which forbidden. The age either has the virtues of ascending life, in which case it resists the virtues of degeneration with all its deeper instincts. Or it is in itself an age of degeneration, in which case it requires the virtues of declining life – in which case it hates everything which justifies itself, solely as being the outcome of a plenitude, or a superabundance of strength.[21]

Nietzsche believes that aesthetics are inextricably linked to this process, although he makes a distinction between decadent and classical aesthetics. This is represented by the antithesis between what Nietzsche has described elsewhere as master-morality and slave ethics, the perennial opposites of affirmation and negation. Classical aesthetics, says Nietzsche, are related to artistic expressions that include the “Roman”, “pagan” and “Renaissance” spheres, whilst decadent aesthetics merely represents the impoverishment and self-denial of Christianity. It is precisely this form of aesthetics that one finds in Wagner’s later works.

In his opening comments to Nietzsche Contra Wagner: The Brief of a Psychologist, which was published in December 1888, several months after the work discussed above, Nietzsche tells us that much of his text originally appeared in previous works that date back to 1877. Interestingly, he also explains that the book

is an essay for psychologists and not for Germans…[22]

At this time Nietzsche’s work was being read by Italians, French, Russians, Austrians, Swedes, Danes and Americans, but in his native Germany he was virtually ignored.

In a section entitled “Wherein I Admire Wagner”, Nietzsche is quick to highlight the fact that he admires Wagner in the sense that he tends to his music privately and diligently, but what he cannot abide is the way Wagner insists on turning his compositions into huge, dramatic monoliths that somehow lose the spirit and essence of that which had been created in the first place.

Nietzsche’s tone soon changes, however, in “Wherein I Raise Objections”:

With all this I do not wish to imply that I regard this music as healthy, and least of all in those places where it speaks of Wagner himself. My objections to Wagner’s music are physiological objections.[23]

He then describes the negative effects that Wagner’s music has on him personally, although one does get the impression that some degree of exaggeration is taking place. His main quibble, however, is that whilst his soul demands bold compositions for relief, that offered by Wagner – through his use of theatre – merely appeals to the mob. Nietzsche, in fact, loathes the theatrical dimension to Wagner’s operas and labels him

a man of the stage, an actor, the most enthusiastic mimomaniac that has perhaps existed on earth, even as a musician.[24]

Bayreuth, as far as he was concerned, represented everything that was wrong with art in the late-nineteenth century. The festivals demand total submission, a complete abrogation of artistic sensibility:

In the theatre one becomes mob, herd, woman, Pharisee, electing cattle, patron, idiot – Wagnerite: there, the most personal conscience is bound to submit to the levelling charm of the great multitude, there the neighbour rules, there one becomes a neighbour.[25]

In “Wagner As A Danger”, Nietzsche compares the unending melodies of Wagner’s music with entering the sea and immediately finding oneself exposed to the elements. If you don’t learn to swim, therefore, you soon drown. The danger lies in Wagner’s total lack of rhythm, he contends, where chaotic expressiveness replaces the basic necessity of form.

Nietzsche, in a section entitled “A Music Without A Future”, then turns his thoughts to what many perceive to be the longevity of Wagner’s music. His argument is that the arrival of great music, being the last artistic form to appear on the landscape, is often a sign that a culture is about to become submerged or swept away. Originality in sound, Nietzsche believes, is something that precedes a civilisational decline and he concludes that Wagner might well be able to take advantage of the fact:

The age of international wars, of ultramontane martyrdom, in fact, the whole interlude-character which typifies the present condition of Europe, may indeed help an art like Wagner’s to sudden glory, without, however, in the least ensuring its future prosperity. The German’s themselves have no future.[26]

In “We Antipodes”, Nietzsche reflects on the two-fold nature of civilisation itself. The word ‘antipodes’ is usually defined as a place on the earth’s surface which is diametrically opposite another point found elsewhere. In relation to Wagner’s music, therefore, Nietzsche’s use of the term creates a juxtaposition between what he originally saw as the Dionysian elements in the composer’s work and those which later took a decidedly Christian form. Indeed, the primeval stirring of the soul which Nietzsche first detected in Wagner’s operas were eventually outweighed by his references to the Saviour. But Nietzsche also considers Wagner’s music and Schopenhauer’s philosophy to be his own antipodes, each of them representing a flagrant disgust with life and a denial of that which has genuine vitality and creative power.

The section entitled “Where Wagner Is At Home” attempts to make a distinction between the artistic nature of both Germany and France. Nietzsche – always quick to denounce his fellow countrymen – greatly favoured the latter, of course, particularly the country’s intellectual dimension, but he is forced to concede that Schopenhauer’s ideas were accepted more the French than by their German counterparts and that, as a result, the modern spirit that one finds in France itself has become fertile soil for Wagner’s own compositions:

French romanticism and Richard Wagner are intimately related. All dominated by literature, up to their very eyes and ears – the first European artists with a universal literary culture – most of them writers, poets, mediators and minglers of the senses and the arts, all fanatics in expression, great discoverers in the realm of the sublime as also of the ugly and the gruesome, and still greater discoverers in passion, in working for effect, in the art of dressing their windows…[27]

Here, Nietzsche is referring to the 1789 French Revolution and the senseless egalitarianism which grew out of it. This, he believed, was directly responsible for the mob-mentality that pervaded French society in the late-nineteenth century and which, apparently, was so receptive to the spirit of Wagnerism.

Turning now to “Wagner As The Apostle Of Charity”, which is broken into three sub-sections, Nietzsche resorts to verse form in order to criticise the more self-deprecatory aspects of Wagner’s musical foray into Christian ethics:

Is this the German way?

Comes this low bleating forth from German hearts?

Should Teutons, sin repenting, lash themselves,

Or spread their palms with priestly unctuousness,

Exalt their feelings with the censer’s fumes,

And cower and quake and bend the trembling knee,

And with a sickly sweetness plead a prayer?[28]

Unlike Wagner’s tendency to portray chastity and sensuality as moral opposites, Nietzsche believes that they are complementary to one another. He takes issue with the fact that the character of Parzival was transformed into a Christian, happy to accept that this role would be possible within a comedic context but certainly not something which ought to be taken seriously. He asks his readers, therefore, to consider exactly what Wagner was trying to achieve through this calculated metamorphosis of character. He concludes by suggesting that Parzival itself

is a work of rancour, of revenge, of the most secret concoction of poisons with which to make an end of the first conditions of life, it is a bad work. The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to unnaturalness: I despise anybody who does not regard “Parzival” as an outrage upon morality. unlike Wagner’s tendency to portray them as moral opposites.[29]

Indeed, according to Bertrand Russell:

He had a passionate admiration for Wagner, but quarrelled with him, nominally over Parzival which he thought too Christian and too full of renunciation. After the quarrel he criticised Wagner savagely, and even went so far as to accuse him of being a Jew. His general outlook, however, remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek.[30]

The next section in Nietzsche’s treatise is “How I Got Rid Of Wagner”, which gives the impression that he managed to recover from some kind of terrible disease and, indeed, as far as Nietzsche is concerned that was exactly what happened. In the Summer of 1876, Nietzsche explains, he finally woke up to the realities of his counterpart’s newly-adopted faith:

Richard Wagner, ostensibly the most triumphant creature alive; as a matter of fact, though, a cranky and desperate decadent, suddenly fell helpless and broken on his knees before the Christian cross…[31]

The disappointment felt by Nietzsche was incalculable and it led to him completely reevaluating and then ending his friendship with Wagner himself. He soon became ill, partly as a result of his disillusionment with Wagner’s new direction and the fact that he had broken ties with his only real companion. For a short while he drifted towards loneliness and pessimism, but his ideas were soon crystallized once he realised that Wagner was simply a distraction from his real mission in life. His illness, then, had taught him a valuable lesson:

Illness is always the answer, whether we venture to doubt our right to our mission, whenever we begin to make things too easy for ourselves. Curious and terrible at the same time! It is for our relaxation that we have to pay most dearly! And should we wish after all to return to health, we then have no choice: we are compelled to burden ourselves more heavily than we had been burdened before…[32]

The final section of Nietzsche Contra Wagner is “The Psychologist Speaks”, in which the author explains why it is essential to distance oneself from feelings of sympathy. A psychologist can often empathise with his subject to the extent that his conscience is severely affected, but Nietzsche – despite the contempt he feels towards Wagner – manages to keep a safe distance throughout his retrospective analysis by retaining a sense of cheerfulness. Furthermore, Nietzsche suggests that suffering – in this case, by appreciating and then rejecting Wagner’s music – is the key to avoiding an unwarranted excursion into the realms of human sympathy. This brief tour through Nietzsche’s three anti-Wagnerian polemics, meanwhile, should leave the reader in no doubt whatsoever as to the all-encompassing lack of sympathy and respect that Nietzsche shows towards his old friend. But as our embittered philosopher himself pointed out:

I do not possess the talent of being loyal, and what is still worse, I have not even the vanity to try to appear as if I did.[33]

Finally, as Michael Tanner points out, whilst many of his comments are very personal, Nietzsche’s overall determination to expose the true nature of Wagner’s work is extremely significant and tells us a great deal about his philosophy in general:

Most of Nietzsche’s commentators greet with relief his becoming an anti-Wagnerian, possibly because they think it exempts them from knowing anything much about Wagner. Of course it does nothing of the kind, since Wagner is the person who continues to feature more often in Nietzsche’s writings than anyone else, including Socrates, Christ, or Goethe.[34]



1. E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (Vintage Books, 1937), pp.195-6.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Dover Press, 1995), p.iv.

3. Ibid.

4. F.A. Lea, The Tragic Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche (Methuen, 1977), p.31.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, and Selected Aphorisms (Dodo Press, 2008), p.55.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p.61.

8. Ibid., p.62.

9. Ibid., p.64.

10. Ibid., p.69.

11. Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (Penguin, 2001), p.287.

12. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, and Selected Aphorisms, op.cit., Preface.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p.1.

16. Ibid., p.7.

17. Ibid., p.9.

18. Ibid., p.10.

19. Ibid., p.16.

20. Ibid., p.26.

21. Ibid., p.32.

22. Ibid., p.36.

23. Ibid., p.38.

24. Ibid., p.39.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., p.42.

27. Ibid., p.45.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p.47.

30. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p.728.

31. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, and Selected Aphorisms, op.cit., p.47.

32. Ibid., pp.48-9.

33. Ibid., p.56.

34. Michael Tanner, Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.23.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *