Understanding Music

Nietzsche on Wagner

Maybe Nietzsche’s reaction would have been more moderate had he not at first offered the unquestioning discipleship that Wagner demanded, presenting Wagner, both in The Birth of Tragedy (1882) and in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1886) as the greatest modern artist and the saviour of German culture. At any rate, the dispute between Wagner and Nietzsche was a divorce, rather than a disagreement.[1] In reacting against Wagner Nietzsche was also reacting against himself, vomiting forth a poison that he thought he had swallowed, but to which his metabolism had made its own peculiar contribution.

Matters are made worse by the subsequent demonisation of Wagner and canonisation of Nietzsche. It is hard to go back to this controversy now, without regretting the tone taken by Nietzsche, and the tone taken subsequently by just about everyone else. Nietzsche’s attack on Wagner is an attack on the art, the institution and the man, and it was echoed by Theodor Adorno, so as to foreground those aspects of Wagner which are most objectionable to the modern reader – anti-Semitism, the focus on national myths and racial heroes, the use of orchestral magic to fill every moment with an emotion that might seem to be, in Nietzsche’s word, ‘counterfeit’.[2] And it is partly thanks to Nietzsche that Wagner-criticism has become stuck in this groove.

Meanwhile Nietzsche himself has become a kind of idol. Despite his antagonism towards democracy and mass culture, despite his unashamedly racist attack on the Germans and all things German, despite his advocacy of ‘health’ and strength against the ‘sickness’ of compassion, despite his contempt for socialists, vegetarians, feminists and women generally – despite committing every sin condemned by the morality of ‘political correctness’, Nietzsche is now a cult figure. His perspectival approach to truth and knowledge, his debunking of morality in general and Christian morality in particular, his genealogical approach to art and culture and his emphasis on power and domination as the real ‘truth’ of the human condition – all these give him a head-start in the postmodern search for anti-authoritarian authorities. His texts are therefore read for what they permit – which is just about everything – rather than for what they condemn – which is also just about everything. The result is that, in the Nietzsche-Wagner stand off, Nietzsche is dealt all the winning cards. And this is a pity since it obscures the very real strength of Nietzsche’s position, and the seriousness of the grounds on which he questions Wagner’s art. Although Wagner the artist can be defended against the charges levelled by Nietzsche, those charges force us nevertheless to explore the music dramas at the deepest level. And they contain interesting hints of a philosophy of music.

Nietzsche expressed his adoration towards Wagner in his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, which appeared in 1872. Fourteen years later Nietzsche reissued The Birth of Tragedy with ‘an attempt at self-criticism’, in which he dismisses the book as ‘badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, …’ and much more to similar effect. And certainly The Birth of Tragedy has none of the lapidary quality that we associate with the later works. For all that, it is an important work, and one that is vital to understanding Nietzsche’s conception of the artistic enterprise.[3] It registers a decisive break with a reading of Greek art and literature that had been orthodox in German-speaking countries since Winckelmann and Goethe. According to this reading Greek civilisation epitomised the human spirit in its sunlit, self-knowing form. The art of the Greeks was an art of reason, and their literature an exploration of the virtues through which the rational being confronts and overcomes adversity. The Greek ideal was one of clarity and harmony, and this ideal was conveyed by their poetry, their architecture and their art.

Nietzsche was not the first to cast doubt on that wishful picture. In The Art Work of the Future (1859) Wagner had pointed to the religious nature of Greek tragedy, to the connection between tragedy and religious ritual, and to the paradigmatic nature of tragedy as an art. The Ring of the Nibelung was conceived with the Oresteia in mind, and Wagner understood the Greek gods in Aeschylus in the same spirit as he depicted the German gods in The Ring, namely as personifications of the unconscious forces by which the human will is governed. Nietzsche went further, identifying Dionysus, the god of tragedy, as one of two dominant psychic principles, the other being Apollo, the god of philosophy. While Apollo represents the reason and enlightenment that had been singled out by Winckelmann and Goethe, Dionysus was the god of dark passions, unconscious yearnings and ritual destruction. Tragedy invites this god into the public arena where his demands can be acknowledged and purged. And the true vehicle of tragedy is not words, in which the rational and critical intellect is sovereign, but music and dance, in which bodily rhythms and animal passions find their expression.

Nietzsche argued that Greek civilisation had been misjudged by Winckelmann, Goethe and Schiller, and that a new understanding had since supervened, one that acknowledged the function of Greek religion in presenting and appeasing the irrational aspects of the human psyche. This thesis is one to which Nietzsche returns in later works, writing, for example, in Twilight of the Idols, that ‘it is only in the Dionysian mysteries…that the basic fact of the Hellenic instinct finds expression’.[4] And he connects that ‘basic fact’ with life, health and sexuality. The thesis was later defended by E.R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), and has been effectively normalised by modern scholarship. But it was associated in The Birth of Tragedy with the new German spirit, manifest in the art of Wagner. Like the Greeks, the Germans had their myths and legends, in which the unconscious forces of life claim recognition and acknowledgement. If the Germans were really to do what Winckelmann and Goethe wished for them, and to replicate the achievements of Greek civilisation, it would not be through philosophy but through music, not through reason and enlightenment, but through myth and legend.

Here Nietzsche introduced a theme that was to dominate his later thinking: the theme of health. Myth, he argued, is the healthy part of a culture: ‘myth alone saves all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollonian dream from their aimless wanderings’ (BT, p. 135[5]). Without myth the Apollonian principle of reason has no life on which to reflect. Hence the ‘Socratism which is bent on the destruction of myth’ is the sign of an unhealthy and degenerate culture. And Nietzsche discerned this unhealthy ‘Socratism’ in the Germany of his day, arguing that ‘now the mythless man stands eternally hungry, surrounded by all past ages, and digs and grubs for roots, even if he has to dig for them among the remotest antiquities’ (BT, p. 136). In the face of this disinherited condition, Nietzsche implies, the Wagnerian rebirth of tragedy through music and myth brings with it the possibility of a return to health. Nothing less is at stake in the destiny of German music than the defence of German culture from decadence. The terms are those that Nietzsche would later use to condemn the art of Wagner; but they are here used to praise it. So, right from the start, Nietzsche’s discussion of Wagner presents us with two major questions in aesthetics: on what grounds can we distinguish healthy from decadent art, and what is the aesthetic significance of the distinction?

In the last work published in his lifetime, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche ventures an explicit account of his aesthetic (sections 19 and 20): ‘The “beautiful in itself” is scarcely a term,’ he writes, ‘not even a concept. In the beautiful man sets himself up as a measure of perfection; in certain cases he prays to himself therein. Nothing is beautiful; the human alone is beautiful: in this naivety all aesthetics is contained – it is the first truth of aesthetics. Let us add a second truth at once: nothing is ugly save decadent humanity (der entartende Mensch).’ Nietzsche is here giving the central place in aesthetic judgement to the distinction between healthy and decadent forms of human life. He adhered to this position throughout his literary career. As he puts the point in the posthumous Ecce Homo, ‘what has most profoundly occupied me is in effect the problem of decadence’, and in taking up arms against decadence, he was ‘joining forces against everything sick in me, including Wagner, including Schopenhauer, including the whole of modern “humaneness” (Menschlichkeit).’ And he returns to the point in Contra Wagner (p. 664) arguing that ‘my objections to the music of Wagner are physiological objections: why should I trouble to dress them up in aesthetic formulas? After all, aesthetics is nothing but a kind of applied physiology.’ Wagner’s music, he suggests, is the cause and effect of a bodily sickness.

Nietzsche was not the first philosopher to place the idea of health at the centre of his worldview – Feuerbach had defended a ‘healthy sensuality’ in his Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843), a work that profoundly influenced Wagner. And the concepts of decadence and degeneration were moving to the centre of intellectual life at the time of Nietzsche’s mature works. Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis appeared in 1886 and in a compendious and influential work published in 1892 Max Nordau summarised the fin-de-siècle as the period of decadence, taking Nietzsche himself, along with Baudelaire, Zola, Wagner, Poe and many more, as symptoms of the disease.[6] Nevertheless Nietzsche was probably the first thinker to take the distinction between health and disease as definitive of what is at stake in the artistic enterprise. And this distinction had an added importance for him on account of his genealogical method.

This method conditions all Nietzsche’s fundamental positions in philosophy, so that for him to describe a work of art as decadent, and to say that it arises from and is rooted in a decadent form of life, are ultimately equivalent claims. Tragedy, according to The Birth of Tragedy, is healthy precisely in what is most obscure, and what flows unconsciously beneath the reasoned clarity of the conscious motives. For health means life, life belongs to the body, the body belongs to the community, and the community is true to its inner nature only when responding to the unconscious forces by which it endures. In the collective dance the social organism lives and renews itself.

The tragic hero is precipitated out of the dance through the fault of consciousness, and for this fault he must pay. Hence the original dichotomy – Dionysus versus Apollo – shows itself in another: that between the formless flow of unconscious life, and the principium individuationis that asserts itself in defiance of life. Those Schopenhauerean terms are used to alert the reader to the danger of the enlightened, Apollonian spirit that stands outside the collective life of a culture, in a posture of critical isolation. That, for Nietzsche, is the primary source of decadence. The tragedy reaffirms the original flux, in which human life constantly renews itself through negating the claims of individuality. Nietzsche quotes Isolde’s dying words by way of explaining what he means:

In des Wonnemeeres

wogendem Schwall,

in der Duft-Wellen

tönendem Schall,

in des Weltathems

wehenden All –

ertrinken – versinken

unbewusst – höchste Lust.

Isolde’s ‘highest joy’ lies in the renunciation of the individuated self, sinking at last into the unending flux of becoming – the world breath’s wafting whole, which is the equivalent in Wagner of Schopenhauer’s directionless and ever restless Will.

Nietzsche was later to turn his back on Schopenhauer as he turned his back on Wagner. But some of the most important ideas adumbrated in The Birth of Tragedy survive into his mature writings on music. For Nietzsche the primary musical phenomenon is dance, and dance is organised by rhythm. Dance is a social phenomenon: we dance with others, and usually in groups. So music is one part of a complex social whole, which is the group or tribe moving together, in response to a pulse whose significance lies deeper than reason. The primary form of this collective movement is religious ritual, and it is from religious ritual that tragedy is born. The art of tragedy, Nietzsche claims, delayed the destruction of the Greek myths, by perpetuating the Dionysian ritual in which music and dance occupied a central place. (BT 138.)

Those ideas are more suggested than dwelt upon in The Birth of Tragedy. But they are of considerable importance in understanding the dispute with Wagner. Equally important is the conception of art that both men shared, and which they had inherited from Hegelian philosophy. Art, for both Nietzsche and Wagner, was the highest of human activities – higher than science, and higher too than religion. Indeed the destiny of art, according to both Wagner and Nietzsche, is to rescue through symbols the human truth that religion conceals, the truth about us. This truth is not what religion tells us, but it is what religion means. (This is the theme of Wagner’s powerful essay on Art and Religion: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 10, 211. It is also the original inspiration for The Ring.) And both thinkers turned to music as epitomising the spiritual transformation that is the true goal of every artist. ‘Only music,’ wrote Nietzsche (BT, 141), ‘placed beside the world, can give us an idea of what is meant by the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.’

Here, then, is a suggestion as to the source of the dispute with Wagner. Both men believed that the human world is in need of justification. They believed that the religious justification was either empty (Wagner) or pernicious (Nietzsche). But both believed that the religious need is a non-accidental feature of the human psyche, and one that demands satisfaction. This satisfaction is to be found in art, which supersedes religion and provides an aesthetic justification of the world (‘the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon’). And for Nietzsche, at least, no other justification is possible: hence the need for tragedy, which involves the overcoming of horror by aesthetic means. The difference between Nietzsche and Wagner begins at this point. For Nietzsche an aesthetic justification of the world is one that affirms life and health against decline and sickness. It is in direct conflict with the Christian justification, which elevates meekness, compassion and other such life-denying virtues over the life-affirming virtues on which the future of mankind depends and of which Nietzsche went on to give an alarming description. As he puts it in The Genealogy of Morality 3, 14: ‘The sickly are the greatest danger to man: not the wicked, not the “beasts of prey”’.

For Wagner, by contrast, the aesthetic justification of the world involves foregrounding our capacity for renunciation. Art is not a vindication of life but a redemption from it, and the theme of redemption is the recurring motive of the Wagnerian music-drama, from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal. The music drama retains, for Wagner, the fundamental significance of the Greek tragedy. That is to say, it is not merely a picture of a moral process. It is an enactment of that process, into which the spectator is drawn as a quasi-participant, as in a religious ritual, so that the redemption portrayed on the stage takes place also in the psyche of the observer. This ‘Eucharistic’ conception of art became ever more prominent as Wagner’s art developed, so that Parsifal is described as a ‘festival play for the consecration of the stage’, in other words as a religious ceremony. And Wagner attempted to confine the performance of Parsifal to the sacred precinct of Bayreuth (mercifully without success). In some way the work of art redeems the one who stands within its emotional ambience. The spectator undergoes the music drama, and his emotions are rearranged by it, as they are rearranged by the religious ritual. The hunger of the knights of the Grail for the Eucharistic meal is a symbol of the hunger that calls out in all of us, for a spiritual transformation that art alone can now provide. This transformation frees us from our enslavement to the world, and gives us the strength and the serenity to renounce it. And – if we are to follow the path taken by Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal and Hans Sachs – we will recognise that the erotic, which seems to invite us into life, is in fact the original call to renunciation, the deep burning in the soul that tells us that we are ‘not of this world’.

The Wagnerian idea of redemption closely corresponds to the Christian one; and it was part of Wagner’s brilliance to recognise that in all its forms redemption requires sacrifice – the very sacrifice that is portrayed in the Greek tragedy and enacted in the Christian Eucharist: the sacrifice of the whole human being. The human must be ‘offered up’ if we are truly to transcend it: only then do we free ourselves from the resentments and conflicts with which human communities are poisoned. That which is ‘offered up’ is life itself – either in the promissory form of erotic yearning (Sachs, Parsifal) or in the realised form of a living victim (Siegfried, Tristan, Brünnhilde). This idea has both a religious and a secular meaning, as is clear from Parsifal and The Mastersingers, and has since been developed in surprising and ingenious ways by René Girard[7]. Wagner’s vision of redemption through sacrifice is both a theory of human communities, and a moral exhortation. And the moral exhortation is tried and tested, not in life, but in art – in the realm of imagination, that enables the spectator of the drama to ‘live through’ a sacrifice that he cannot actually live. (If he did so, life itself would cease.) That vision of redemption was once available through religion. In Parsifal, however, art replaces religion, taking the instruments of redemption and infusing them with an aesthetic life.

For Nietzsche the whole idea of redemption, conceived in that way, is a denial of life and an invocation to decadence. In the third essay of The Genealogy of Morality, devoted to the demolition of asceticism, he ridicules Parsifal, wondering whether the composer had not intended the work as a kind of satyr play, a grotesque sequel to The Ring. And in The Case of Wagner he sets out to demonstrate the decadent quality of the Wagnerian hero, who is not a hero at all but an entartete Mensch. He also sets out to show the aesthetic disaster that ensues, when such a character is made central to a large-scale music drama. The goal of the book is to reject Wagner’s moral vision, and also to suggest that the attempt to build that vision into a sustained work of art, leads to music that is fundamentally sick. The moral faults of the vision translate directly into aesthetic faults in the music, and at the same time an immersion in the music involves a corruption in the soul of the listener, whose psyche is jeopardised by this surrender to a polluted ideal.

Claims of that kind place an enormous critical onus on the one who makes them, and it is fair to say that Nietzsche does not discharge that onus. He does not succeed in showing that the Wagnerian philosophy of redemption is either decadent in itself or aesthetically destructive. Nor does he succeed in showing just how a moral vision displays itself in musical form, and just how music invites the sympathy (and possibly corrupt sympathy) of the listener. The belief that music has a moral and character-forming potential is at least as old as Plato; and the belief that works of art are to be judged in terms of the life contained in them has survived into our times as a critical commonplace, though one that stands in need of a philosophical underpinning. But it seems to me that Nietzsche does not really provide that underpinning.

Nietzsche’s attack has three parts. First there is the accusation of decadence, which is directed not only at Wagner but at the world of which Wagner was a part, and specifically at the German conception of that world. Then there is the attack on the claims that Wagner makes for his art. For Wagner his Gesamtkunstwerk involved an adventure of music into new expressive domains, so as to explore the depths of the human condition through the ‘endless melody’ that speaks to what is unconscious and hidden. Against these claims Nietzsche argues that Wagner is really a ‘miniaturist’, that his musical techniques are incapable of generating real development, and that the whole thing is a kind of confidence trick, a simulation of musical life, which ignores the real source of music in rhythm and dance. Finally Nietzsche argues that the heroic in Wagner is a sham. His characters need to be unmasked, to be deprived of their mythic costumes and returned to the bourgeois context from which they have been lifted into legend. Wagner’s portentous music does not offer them redemption, since it merely disguises the fact that they are the ordinary sick refuse of nineteenth-century society – as far from tragic grandeur as Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. The Wagnerian drama is a species of ‘counterfeiting’, in which the heroic passions and vast deeds reveal themselves, when held up to the critical light, as thin wisps of sickly passion, puffed up by musical bombast. The promises of ‘redemption’ and ‘transcendence’ both depend on the forgery conducted by the music, and the fact that these promises are taken so seriously by so many is indicative of the equally decadent and counterfeit nature of the surrounding culture.

Those powerful criticisms issue in off-putting passages like this:

‘Wagner’s art is sick. The problems he presents on the stage – all of them problems of hysterics – the convulsive nature of his affects, his overexcited sensibility, his taste that required ever stronger spices, his instability which he dressed up as principles, not least of all the choice of his heroes and heroines – consider them as physiological types (a pathological gallery!) – all of this taken together represents a profile of sickness that permits no further doubt… Precisely because nothing is more modern than this total sickness, this lateness and overexcitement of the nervous mechanism, Wagner is the modern artist par excellence…’ (The Case of Wagner, p. 166.)

Nietzsche is aware that to justify his claims he must say something about the music – about what it does and how it does it. His attack is directed against all three musical dimensions – melodic, rhythmic, harmonic – as Wagner makes use of them. Nietzsche claims that Wagner’s supposedly ‘infinite’ or ‘endless’ melody conceals an absence of genuine melodic inspiration.[8] He implies that there is even a kind of fear of melody in Wagner – certainly fear of those gripping tunes that Nietzsche identifies in Carmen, and which he associates with ‘French’ finesse, as against ‘German’ bombast. (This reverses a thesis of The Birth of Tragedy, which had contrasted the healthy world of German myth, with the unhealthy clarity of French civilisation, applying in a local way the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation made fashionable by Herder.) The real melody, for Nietzsche, is the melody that gives direct and immediate pleasure to the listener, the melody that engages with the spontaneous will to dance. He is short on examples, other than Carmen, but we can all agree that the Habañera from that great work is quite another kind of thing from the Prize Song from The Mastersingers, which constantly develops, and reaches closure only as a temporary pause in its seemingly unending growth towards the final chorus.

Nietzsche is dismissive towards the Wagnerian ‘leitmotif’, which he compares (obscurely) to a ‘toothpick’, used to get rid of the remainders of food. (CW. 174.) And he associates the Wagnerian musical process with a ‘degeneration of the sense of rhythm’ (CW. 184), while praising Wagner for having inspired the study of rhythmics, then being initiated by H. Riemann (CW. 179).[9] In Contra Wagner – the fragments collected in Turin in 1888 – Nietzsche takes this criticism further, interestingly connecting the ‘endlöse Melodei’ with the rhythmic disintegration, as he perceived it, of Wagner’s music – its inability to dance. He illustrates through an image that occurs also in The Case of Wagner:

‘One walks into the sea, gradually loses one’s secure footing, and finally surrenders oneself to the elements without reservation: one must swim. In older music, what one had to do in the dainty, or solemn, or fiery back and forth, quicker and slower, was something quite different, namely, to dance. The measure required for this, the maintenance of certain equally balanced units of time and force, demanded continual wariness of the listener’s soul – and on the counterplay of this cooler breeze that came from the wariness and the warm breath of enthusiasm rested the magic of all good music. Richard Wagner wanted a different kind of movement; he overthrew the physiological presuppositions of previous music. Swimming, floating – no longer walking and dancing.’ (Contra Wagner, 666)[10]

The faults Nietzsche discerns concern Wagner’s attitude to the listener. The composer’s floating rhythms are denying the impulse to move with the music in a healthy and reciprocal way: Wagner is not responding to, not wary of, the listener’s soul. Finally Nietzsche is dismissive of Wagnerian harmony, which he describes (in connection with Parsifal) as ‘a rope of enharmonics’, on which ugly things perform their gymnastics. (The Case of Wagner, 168) He means, I take it, that the harmonic progressions are not genuine, but the result of taking chords whole from one tonal centre to another, as in the enharmonic changes used in classical music for special effect, and normalised by Schubert in his Lieder. This use of enharmonics, Nietzsche implies, negates true harmonic movement, so that the music slops around like a sea, instead of moving forward like a river. Thus Wagner’s music is a failure in all three dimensions of musical order: melody, rhythm and harmony. And the failure stems from the adverse use of music, to inflate the sentiments attached to scenes and characters that do not really contain them. To put the point directly: the defects of form stem from defects of content. Because the content is faked, so is the form.

Nietzsche was of course aware of the originality and brilliance of Wagner’s music. In an illuminating study Georges Liébert has shown the extent to which Nietzsche’s love-hate relation with Wagner was really a love-hate relation with himself, and in particular with his own self-image as a musician. Liébert shows how deeply self-deceived the philosopher was, both in his initial admiration for the composer, and in his subsequent petulant break with him.[11] At the very moment when he was publicly denouncing Parsifal as a work of sickness, decadence and deception, Nietzsche sent to Peter Gast a wonderful description of the Prelude to that work, and confessed, in his notes written prior to Beyond Good and Evil, that he knows ‘of nothing that grasps Christianity at such a depth and that so sharply leads to compassion’.[12] Parsifal captures the dramatic and emotional logic of the Christian vision, and Nietzsche’s own musicality compelled him to recognize this, and to see it as an artistic triumph.

Furthermore, the faults that Nietzsche discerns in Wagner’s music are very obviously the faults shown by his own compositions. These have now been published, and many issued on CD. There are some charming songs in the manner of Löwe, some grandiose attempts at choral and orchestral fantasias, and massive splurges for piano with fraught romantic titles like ‘Hymn to Friendship’. Nietzsche was at best what he so unjustly and outrageously accused Wagner of being (CW, 171) – a miniaturist, whose short-breathed successes are inspired by solitary and lachrymose emotions that could not be pursued at greater length without morbidity. The works for which he would have wished to be remembered are formless improvisations, with lunatic bass-lines and grotesque progressions, entirely devoid of melodic or harmonic logic.

Nietzsche knew this, of course, and had turned to literature with a sense of opting for second best. He even described Also sprach Zarathustra as a work of music, hoping to gain by metaphor what he could not achieve in fact. And throughout his troubled and lonely literary career he took what consolation he could from the fact that he, unlike his critics, had the soul of a musician, and could hear his way into the secret heart of things. His prose was an attempt to convey the wordless truths, the primeval needs and hopes, that find their true voice in music. But the spirit of Dionysus eluded him, who claimed it as his own. And in his attack on Wagner’s music he was taking revenge for this.

According to Nietzsche Wagner’s music only pretends to the emotions that it claims. Hence the dramas themselves fall apart. The characters are real only by moments, and only in those histrionic gestures that show Wagner’s art to be the art of the showman. True drama, Nietzsche holds, is not theatrical, and it is precisely Wagner’s mastery of the theatrical idiom that disqualifies his dramas from bearing the meaning that he wishes for. Wagner is an actor, a showman, and everything he does is devoted to effect, even though there is no dramatic content in terms of which the effect could be justified. Hence the paradoxical-seeming description of Wagner as a ‘miniaturist’. It is only by moments that the magic works. But, in a famous passage, Nietzsche turns that criticism around, acknowledging that some of those moments, at least, are not mere theatre, but sparks of lyrical insight without compare in the history of music:

‘There is a musician who, more than any other musician, is a master at finding the tones in the realm of suffering, depressed, tortured souls, at giving language even to mute misery. None can equal him in the colours of late autumn, in the indescribably moving happiness of the last, truly last, truly shortest joy; he knows a sound for those quiet, disquieting midnights of the soul, where cause and effect seem to be out of joint and where at any moment something might originate “out of nothing”. He draws most happily of all out of the profoundest depths of human happiness, and, as it were, out of its drained goblet, where the bitterest and most repulsive drops have finally and evilly run together with the sweetest. He knows that weariness of the soul which drags itself, unable to leap or fly any more, even to walk; he masters the shy glance of concealed pain, of understanding without comfort, of the farewell without confession – indeed, as the Orpheus of all secret misery he is greater than any; and some things have been added to the realm of art by him alone, things that had hitherto seemed inexpressible and even unworthy of art – the cynical rebellion, for example, of which only those are capable who suffer most bitterly; also some very minute and microscopic aspects of the soul, as it were the scales of its amphibian nature: indeed he is the master of the very minute. But he does not want to be that!’ Contra Wagner, 663.

Take away those moments, however, and what remains? A great work of counterfeit: fake transcendence (CW 183), fake characters, fake emotions, and – in the end – a fake redemption offered without cost by Parsifal, the ‘holy fool’. None of this is believable, since none of it comes from the heart – it is all icy abstraction, rooted in the Hegelian conception of music as a vehicle for the ‘Idea’. (CW 177-8) Thus ‘everything that ever grew on the soil of impoverished life, all of the counterfeiting of transcendence and beyond, has found its most sublime advocate in Wagner’s art…’ (CW 183.) Nietzsche does not spell out this criticism in detail, but it is clear that he believes, not merely that the raw material provided by Wagner’s characters is insufficient to meet their allegorical and metaphysical purpose, but also that it is impossible that any characters should meet that purpose, and moreover that it is decadent to want to meet it. For the longing for redemption, as Wagner presents it, is a sickness, a renunciation of life and health for the sake of a bogus spiritual purity. Although Nietzsche does not explicitly say so, I suspect that he regarded the Wagnerian ‘redemption’ as a kind of cliché, an idea worn thin by too much use, brought in to the later dramas only because the characters, lacking the will and integrity that makes true tragedy possible, have to be content with ‘redemption’ as second best. Hence Nietzsche’s ironical comment, re the placing of a wreath on the composer’s grave by the German Wagner Society, on which was inscribed the last words of Parsifal: ‘Redemption for the Redeemer’: ‘Many (strangely enough) made the small correction: “Redemption from the Redeemer”. One breathed a sigh of relief.’ (CW 182.)

In response to those charges I will say only this: Nietzsche’s advocacy of ‘life’ is at best an excusable compensation for the invalid existence that the philosopher was obliged to lead, at worst a surrender to all that is most destructive in human nature. If compassion for the weak is decadence, if sacrifice is decadence, if the transcendence of sexual desire is decadence, if the renunciation of power for love, and divine arrogance for human pity are decadence – then roll on decadence. And if health comes only with a life ‘beyond good and evil’, in which pity and renunciation play no part, then away with health.

But enough of that. There is truth in Nietzsche’s claim that the Wagnerian characters do not always live up to the metaphysical and moral burdens that he places on them. Only every now and then – alone in the forest, confronting the Rhine-daughters, dying in a long-delayed access of consciousness – does Siegfried represent the tragic truth of human freedom. And whatever we think of his personal qualities and allegorical meaning, Siegfried is certainly very far from the ‘marvellously accurate archetypal youth’ whose portrait Nietzsche praises in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. (Untimely Meditations, 201.) Only in the encounter with Kundry as seductress does Parsifal become fully alive as a human being. On the other hand, there are few creations that are as hair-raising and persuasive as Wagner’s Kundry. There is nothing since the Greeks to compare with the portrait of Wotan, and nothing outside Dickens and Victor Hugo to match Alberich or Mime.

Much more interesting philosophically is Nietzsche’s sketchy attempt to read the charge of decadence into the music, to associate the moral failure (as he saw it) of the dramas with a failure of musical form. The insight that inspired The Birth of Tragedy is of lasting importance. Music is not a conceptual idiom. All attempts to assimilate the organisation of music to the organisation that we know from language are, it seems to me, doomed.[13] We understand music by moving with it, and what we understand is not a thought but a ‘field of sympathy’ into which we are inducted by the music as we are inducted into a ritual by the gestures of a priest. Dance is the primary form of this collective movement, and dance has a place in religious ritual for that very reason. If there is corruption in the music of Wagner it must be found, therefore, in the musical movement. In this Nietzsche is right; and he is right to question the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic organisation of the Wagnerian idiom in those terms. What kind of human being is it, that the listener is invited to ‘move with’ in this music? In surrendering to this movement am I surrendering something of myself that I should be withholding? Or am I, as Wagner wants me to believe, entering a sacred place, in which the sympathetic response to the music will effect a new order in my feelings? Can I through this music achieve the order of sacrifice and renunciation that will bring the peace and quiescence that the Greeks sought through tragedy, and which we moderns must seek through a new form of art – the ‘artwork of the future’ that will replace religion not by refuting it, but by doing its work, and doing it better?

Wagner believed that he had to refashion all the ways in which music moves. His endless melodies are not, however, the redundant contraptions that Nietzsche claimed them to be. Nor does his music display a rhythmic disintegration. The use of the broken triplet of the ‘look’ motive in the prelude to Tristan and Isolde is one of the finest examples in music of a syncopated rhythmic order generated from the smallest possible cell, which spreads its accent through the whole entity of which it is a part. The result is not rhythmic disintegration but integrated rhythm without closure. Likewise the harmonic movement of the prelude is not a tight-rope of enharmonic changes, but a supreme instance of voice-led modulation without closure. And the melody is moving according to the same principle and in a way that enters the memory of every musical person. This is musical art of the highest order. This three-dimensional movement without closure is used to convey a state of mind ‘from within’ and without words – without even the possibility of words.

That having been said, however, Nietzsche’s questions need to be answered. What would show this supreme musical competence to be also moral competence, so to speak – the expression of uncorrupted human life, of a kind that invites and deserves our sympathy? The sting might be drawn from Nietzsche’s charge of decadence, without conferring on the Wagnerian drama the supreme significance that it claims for itself. Not counterfeit, but not necessary either – a by-way of modern life that teaches us nothing. Such might be the moderated judgement of a Nietzschean today. But we have reached the point at which Nietzsche’s onus needs to be discharged. His own advocacy of life is far more obviously a sham, in my view, than Wagner’s post-Christian philosophy of redemption. And his defence of closed rhythms and catchy tunes is too short-breathed to carry any intellectual weight. One wonders what Nietzsche would say in response to Lady Gaga, Meshuggah or EDM, or in response to a popular movie culture dominated by ‘special effects’, ludicrous metamorphoses, and relentless violence without any moral or emotional rationale? Would he be thereafter a little less inclined to apply the label ‘decadent’ to Wagner, or would he recognise that there are forms of ‘life’ to which a dose of old-fashioned decadence might reasonably be preferred?

[1] For the intricacies of the story see Joachim Köhler, Nietzsche and Wagner,

[2] Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner, tr Rodney Livingstone, Verso, 2004

[3] This view is endorsed by Julian Young, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art, Cambridge 1992, though for reasons slightly different from those I give. In my view The Birth of Tragedy is the only one of Nietzsche’s works that contains an argument detachable from the author of it.

[4] Twilight of the Idols, 10.4

[5] Page numbers refer to the Kaufman edition, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner tr Walter Kaufmann, New York, Vintage books, 1967

[6] Max Nordau, Die Entartung, 1892, tr. as Degeneration 1895.

[7] La Violence et le sacré; Des choses cachées etc.

[8] That Wagner was the enemy of melody was a critical commonplace in the early reception of his works. An article in The Times of 21st July 1853 claims that Wagner’s music ‘threatens to exclude melody altogether’. Wagner’s champion Francis Hueffer responded with Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future, 1874, defending the Wagnerian conception of melody as inseparable from the musical and dramatic texture. (Thanks to Gulliver Ralston for these references.)

[9] H. Riemann’s System der musikalischen Rhythmik und Metrik did not appear until 1903. It is now unjustly neglected. In unpublished work Kathy Fry has drawn attention to Nietzsche’s phrase-structure analysis in the 1870-71 notebooks of Tristan, Act III, Scene II (the passage of rhythmical disorder, as Tristan tears the bandage from his wound). Nietzsche here attempts to show that a strophe/antistrophe form emerges at the higher level, so that what looks like disorder is in fact another kind of order. I am grateful to Kathy Fry for drawing my attention to this passage, which again shows Nietzsche praising Wagner on an aspect of his work that would later draw forth severe condemnation. See G. Colli and M. Montinari’s critical edition of Nietzsche, Werke II:3 Vorlesungsaufzeichnungen 1870-1871, Berlin de Gruyter 1993, p. 192.

[10] Reference to Kaufmann’s edition, The Portable Nietzsche.

[11] Georges Liébert, Nietzsche and Music

[12] Letter to Peter Gast (Heinrich Köselitz), January 1887.

[13] I have argued this at length in The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford 1997.

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