Site Map


Page 1 | Page 2

In my talk [1] this evening I will focus on the impact of Nietzsche's knowledge of music on his philosophy and the development of his thought. Along this path, I will also explore some key ideas of Nietzsche's that bear on music and hope to answer, at least to some extent, what music is for Nietzsche. Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers who was a musician and who could compose music, and this background in music had a significant influence on the way he thought and expressed his ideas; this topic is explored by Georges Liebert in Nietzsche et le music that came out in 1994 in France (also translated into English). Before I explore the music in Nietzsche's philosophy, I would like to drop a few notes on Nietzsche's musical development.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Saxony, Germany (at the time a part of Prussia), a region rich in musical traditions; Leipzig is known as the home of many well-known composers (e.g. Schütz, Bach, Handel, Schumann, and Wagner). Nietzsche's father, a Lutheran minister at the small parish Röcken, used to play the piano when Nietzsche was little, and he died when Nietzsche was five. After his death, the family moved to Naumburg where Nietzsche went to school. Here Nietzsche's mother, Franziska Nietzsche acquired a piano, took lessons, and became Nietzsche's first piano teacher (first lessons in 1851). Mother and son would play duets in their back room.[2] After this Nietzsche also took private piano lessons, and in two years he could play Beethoven's sonatas and some transcriptions of Haydn's symphonies. In addition to these two composers, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelsohn, and Bach formed the framework of his early music education.[3] Nietzsche also attended public and private concerts and performances in Naumburg in his early teen years.

Around this time he also started composing music; the first attempts were made in his early teens. The earliest composition that survived is from 1857, Allegro for Piano, and most of his compositions are from his late teen years, to be precise from 1861 to 65. They were motivated by his musical demon and inspired by the cultural association called Germania that he had established with two of his friends in 1860. These compositions[4] bear the traces of Liszt (e.g in his symphonic poem Ermanirich), and Schumann (e.g. in his Lieder). During his high school years at Pforta (1858-64) and his university years at Bonn and Leipzig (from1864 to 1868), Nietzsche attended concerts and sang, while composing music. His activities as composer declined when he started teaching at Basel University in 1869, although his Manfred-Meditation, a duet for piano, was finalized during his early Basel years. And by this time he must have lost his ambition to be a composer, although his musical daimon was still raging within him and, despite all odds, he did not entirely cease to compose. Nietzsche's music was not well received by the leading musicians of his time. Wagner politely reminded him of his poor compositions; Bülow gave a harsh critique to Nietzsche himself on his Manfred-Meditation (your music is ".more detestable than you think"), and Brahms never responded to Nietzsche's letter. Nor was the audience well disposed towards his music. "He played one of his compositions to an audience in Basel, which was received with displeasure, according to Julius Piccard." (Köhler, Zarathustra's Secret, p.121).

Regardless of his failure as a composer, music was such an essential part of young Nietzsche, or Nietzsche in every stage of his life, that without music there was no life for him: "When I don't hear any music, everything seems dead to me." (Liebert, p.16) Thus he confided in his mother in a letter written during his university years. And in this age without radios, record players and I-pods, music meant live music. All of these notwithstanding, Nietzsche's formative years in music and his relationship to music and musicians would play a crucial role, in multiple layers, in the shaping of his later philosophy and his works in general.

Nietzsche-Wagner Encounter

Nietzsche's encounter with Wagner is not only a significant event in his musical life, but it is also one of the most intriguing encounters of the nineteenth century. The following is a list of the high points of this encounter. Nietzsche became familiar with Wagner's music in 1860 at the age of 16 when he came across Bülow's piano reduction of Tristan. Despite Nietzsche's later alienation from Wagner, Tristan remained a masterpiece for him (KSA 6, p.290). In November 1868 Nietzsche met Wagner in Leipzig when he was still a student at the university; lively conversation and common passion for Schopenhauer marked this first meeting. In 1869 Nietzsche attended two performances of Wagner's Meistersinger, one in Dresden conducted by Hans von Bülow, the other one in Karlsruhe conducted by Hermann Levi. From April 1869 to April 1872 Nietzsche visited Wagners 23 times (according to Hollinrake's Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Philosophy of Pessimism) at Tribschen, not far from Basel, Nietzsche's new home. In May 1872 Nietzsche was present at the foundation of Bayreuth, but he was not admitted as the writer and/or editor for its press. Nietzsche dedicated his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, to Wagner, which came out in 1872. In August 1876 Nietzsche attended Bayreuth festival and was repulsed by the whole atmosphere and ran away; shortly before this episode he had published his fourth Untimely Meditation: Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, an intimately close and insightful analysis of the life and works of Wagner within the context of a grand artistic spectacle. In November 1876 Nietzsche and Wagner saw each other in Sorrento, Italy, for the last time. When Nietzsche sent a copy of his Human, All Too Human to Wagner, he declined to read it, out of friendship.

Nietzsche's Ideas on Music and Musicians

Nietzsche's earliest, substantial ideas on music are to be found in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy and also his Greek Music Drama, which was not published in his life time. Many of these ideas are influenced by his readings of Schopenhauer in 1866, Wagner's aesthetic writings, and his knowledge of Greek drama. After introducing two key terms into aesthetics, the Apollinian and the Dionysian, Nietzsche moves on to understanding Greek tragedy in terms of these two art impulses. The Apollinian is the principle of individuation and is associated with image, dream, and pleasure, whereas the Dionysian is the state where there is no individuation and is associated with symbol, ecstasy, intoxication and suffering. As applied to arts, visual and plastic arts (and epic poetry) are Apollonian, and musical arts (and lyric poetry) are Dionysian; since Greek theater is a synthesis of all arts like Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, it is an agonistic union of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian forces. Since the Dionysian is primordial, music then is also primordial and is more universal than all other arts. Music is independent and does not need any formal or language-based medium. This is how Nietzsche expresses his ideas on music as he discusses lyric poetry within the context of Greek drama:

Our whole discussion insists that lyric poetry is dependent on the spirit of music just as music itself in its absolute sovereignty does not need the image and the concept, but merely endures them as accompaniments. The poems of the lyrist can express nothing that did not already lie hidden in that vast universality and absoluteness in the music that compelled him to figurative speech. Language can never adequately render the cosmic symbolism of music, because music stands in symbolic relation to the primordial contradiction and primordial pain in the heart of the primal unity, and therefore symbolizes a sphere which is beyond and prior to all phenomena. Rather, all phenomena, compared with it, are merely symbols: hence language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never by any means disclose the innermost heart of music; language, in its attempt to imitate it, can only be in superficial contact with music; while all the eloquence of lyric poetry cannot bring the deepest significance of the latter one step nearer to us. (BT, chap.6, in BW, p.56)

In Greek drama, according to Nietzsche, the chorus was at the core of the stage and, with its musical functions, set the ecstatic mood of the whole theater as one unified being and brought all the diverse parts of the stage into a sensible whole. Many of these ecstatic functions, such as the satyr chorus, were borrowed from the cult of Dionysus, which Nietzsche considers to be the origin of Greek theater. In a way, Nietzsche projects the modern symphonic orchestra into the ancient chorus, as Liebert observes, whereas for Wagner the latter was only an incomplete pre-figuration of the former (Liebert, p.16).

Nietzsche's early ideas on music, predominantly Schopenhauerian, which means that they are based on Schopenhauer's metaphysics of will, a will that is mostly musical, are shortsighted and full of problems, which he himself would later recognize (in BT 1886 Preface). To say, as part of a cosmology, that all beings come into being, live, and then disappear, that is, all beings partake of the Apollinian and the Dionysian, and then to say that music is purely Dionysian and painting is purely Apollinian is inconsistent. In his post-Schopenhauerian and post-Wagnerian phase, Nietzsche saw the limitation of this dualism and the problems of Schopenhauerian metaphysics. One way of removing the difficulty, if we are still to use these two terms, is to say that music is more Dionysian than visual arts (but still has the Apollinian in it), whereas visual arts are more Apollinian than musical arts (but still have the Dionysian in them). In addition, once Nietzsche moves away from Schopenhauer and Wagner, he also gives up the idea of priority of music over other arts, as he declares in The Case of Wagner, one of his last books: no art should lord over other arts. This is not to say that music ceases to be important for Nietzsche; he was found to be improvising on the piano before he collapsed into insanity in January 1889.

Other than Wagner, other musicians are also subjects of discussion and criticism in Nietzsche's books. BGE Book 8 is one such place where Nietzsche reflects, within the context of the topic of this part, "Peoples and Fatherlands," on musicians and their style; a harsh verdict on German music is passed in Aphorism 245 where he diagnoses Schumann, his youthful passion, as a fall into fatherlandishness.

continues on Page 2...

  • Pages:
  • 1
  • 2

Featured in the Agonist

Recomended Readings

Support Us

Please consider donating! The NC is a not-for-profit organization. As an independent organization that receives no assistance from any institution, the NC relies on your magnanimity to sustain itself. Please help support the activities of the NC with a donation Donations of any kind, whether of money, services, equipment, or in-kind gifts, are all of great necessity and deeply appreciated.


To receive site updates, news, and announcement from NC via email. To do so, you simply need to provide your email address below.