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The Influence of Nietzsche's Musical Background on his Philosophy

Nietzsche was a musician as much as he was a writer; it would be impossible to remove Nietzsche the musician from Nietzsche the writer. This is such an immense area of research that many more books will have to be written for a closer, a microscopic investigation. For the sake of simplicity, I will demarcate five areas in which one can trace the marks of Nietzsche's musicality in his written works:

1)      Metaphors of music are scattered throughout Nietzsche's writings; they are borrowed from the language of music, mostly western music, and are used in many different ways in his texts. Some have to do with hearing or listening or the tempo or the pause. A list of many examples would be impossible here, but I can give two or three examples. The first one is on reading and tempo. Writing on Germans who read badly, he says: "That one must not be in doubt about the rhythmically decisive syllables, that one experiences the break with any excessively severe symmetry as deliberate and attractive, that one lends a subtle and patient ear to every staccato[5] and every rubato[6]." (BGE 246) Nietzsche does not stop with Germans and the lack of music in the literary culture; a few aphorisms further he criticizes the English with different metaphors of music: "But what is offensive even in the most humane Englishman is his lack of music, speaking metaphorically (but not only metaphorically): in the movements of his soul and body he has no rhythm and dance, indeed not even the desire for rhythm and dance, for "music."" (BGE 252). Both of these criticisms apply to the whole modern culture and its lack of musicality. Another entirely different musical metaphor appears in Twilight of the Idols: "sounding out idols with a hammer." (TI, Preface) The image of a musician who is a fighter like the troubadours of Occitan appears in this metaphor.

2)      Nietzsche would rather have sung his works and not spoken, as he reveals in the 1886 Preface to The Birth of Tragedy. After a modest admission for the shortcomings of his youthful book fifteen years later, Nietzsche writes: "What spoke here-as was admitted, not without suspicion-was something like a mystical, almost maenadic soul that stammered with difficulty, a feat of the will, as in a strange tongue, almost undecided whether it should communicate or conceal itself. It should have sung, this "new soul"-and not spoken!..." (BT, Preface, sec.3) This passage exposes an aspect of Nietzsche's life as a creative spirit that exceeds just this one work; music and musical moods permeate all of Nietzsche's works in different forms.

3)      Composition of his works: this includes word orders, sentence and paragraph structures, chapter and book organizations, and the use of punctuation. Nietzsche's use of punctuation is unique and may have been influenced by his knowledge of musical notation, an area that has yet to be unearthed.

4)      Nietzsche's frequent use of prose/poetic genre to express his ideas; the best example for this genre is aphorism. Aphorisms enable the author to use poetic devices such as rhymes, play with words, variations on the same theme, repetition of sounds, metrical forms, anaphoras (repetition of the first word in successive lines), and epiphoras (or epistrophes, repetition of the last word in successive lines). These are analogous to musical devices, although music has a wider range of possibilities.

5)      Finally, what he calls his greatest gift to humanity, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is a musical text. There are, at least, three speculations regarding the musicality of this text: a) the work is modeled loosely on Greek tragic tetralogy (three thematically related dramas followed by a satyr play). As it is known, Greek drama was a music drama. Therefore, if this speculation is correct, Nietzsche had music in mind (not Greek music but nineteenth century symphonic music) that accompanied the written text. Since he himself did not (or could not) write the musical part, it is up to the future generations of musicians to do the work; Richard Strauss composed for about 10 sections out of about 80 in total (plus the Prologue). b) Zarathustra is a music drama influenced by Wagner. This position is defended by Hollinrake in his Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Philosophy of Pessimism, where he does a micro comparative analysis between passages from Zarathustra and parts of Wagner's operas. Undoubtedly there are many differences too; in Zarathustra one does not come across Germanic gods and heroes and medieval heroes like Parsifal. However, Hollinrake explores the connection at deeper symbolic levels and through the common Schopnenhauerian territory. c) music is not only in the structure and the form, but in the very text itself. In his recent translation of Zarathustra into English, Graham Parkes aims to bring out the musicality of this text, as he says in his Note to the Text and Translation: "In view of Nietzsche's saying that Zarathustra is to be taken as music, I have tried above all to convey the musicality of the text.This has meant faithfully reproducing its paragraph structure and- in most cases-its punctuation, as well as all repetition of words, phrases, and sentences.I have attempted to retain as far as possible the alliterations and assonances, and above all the rhythms and cadences[7] of the original." (TSZ, p.xxxv).

What is Music for Nietzsche?

What may have music meant to Nietzsche? Why was music so central to his life? This is another complex topic in the life and works of Nietzsche. I will tentatively propose several ideas some of which may be applicable only to one phase of Nietzsche's life.

The first one is the idea of re-covery from (or sublimation) of pain and suffering. Suffering and what we do with suffering is one of the fundamental aspects of Schopenhauer's philosophy and also of many religions. A tendency to deal with his own suffering at a young age and music's power of redemption may have been interlinked in young Nietzsche, as he reflected on the loss of his father who also reminded him of this invisible power. This is how he recorded it in his notes in 1858, nine years after the fact: "At one o'clock in the afternoon, the [funeral] ceremony began with a full ringing of bells. Oh, their hollow sounding knell will never leave my ears, never will I forget the somber melody of the chorale Jesu meine Zuversicht [Jesus, my refuge]! The organ resonated throughout the church." (Liébert, Nietzsche and Music, p.18). Suffering and how we relate to suffering remains a central theme throughout Nietzsche's works, and the connection between suffering and music via the Dionysian is clearly established in The Birth of Tragedy. In a similar way he would call Wagner "the Orpheus of silent suffering."

Second, music is an emotional experience. Music not only invokes feelings, but is a way of mastering feelings, as Nietzsche writes in a letter to Bülow: ".Of my music I know only one thing: that it enables me to master feelings." Schopenhauer discusses in his World as Will and Representation the wide range of feelings that music can invoke; Nietzsche accepts this and shows how limited language is when it comes to expressing human emotions. This is another topic of importance in Nietzsche's works, the types of feelings, what they are, where they originate in the human soul, their quality, high feelings, low feelings, how certain feelings can be overcome; in sum, the mastery of feelings. Nietzsche gives a special role to music in this regard.

Third, music is an aesthetic experience of the sublime, "das Erhabene" in German. Sublime, according to Kant, has to do with that which cannot be presented by Imagination, it has to do with the formless, the infinite, the intangible, and the grand. Although music cannot be said to be formless, through its cosmic symbolism music can throw the listener into elevated states. The fourteen-year-old Nietzsche was cognizant of this aspect of music: "Music combines all qualities; it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest heart with the softness of its melancholy tones. But its principal purpose is to direct our thoughts toward higher things, to elevate and even to shake us."  (Liébert, Nietzsche and Music, p.18). Although Nietzsche gave up the idea of Christian sublimation of his early life, he never gave up the idea of being directed or elevated toward higher beings or states; this strife and these higher states are to be later expressed by Nietzsche as the overhuman.

Fourth, music is an ecstatic experience. Nietzsche has amply shown the connection between music (arts in general) and ecstatic states and moods in his early works; and in his late writings he does not give up the idea of the Dionysian or his belief in the necessity of Dionysian forces in the life of a culture. The Dionysian now means affirmation of life forces, orgiastic states, overcoming pessimistic resignation in the face of suffering, "an urge to unity, a reaching out beyond personality, the everyday..., an ecstatic affirmation of the total character of life.the eternal will to procreation, to fruitfulness, to recurrence; the feeling of the necessary unity of creation and destruction." (WP 1050) Although Nietzsche rarely brings up music in these passages because music is no longer privileged over other arts, the spirit of music is present in all the things he says about Dionysus and the Dionysian. On a different note, one of the intense Dionysian experiences for Nietzshce was to play music with someone else; this is how Louis Kelterborn, a former student who visited Nietzsche in 1875 at a spa in southern Black Forest, recounted the story: "As we played together, Nietzsche was the image of kindness, patience and at the same time passion and encouragement. We played the Prelude to Tristan several times in succession, then the "Ode to Joy" and above all the great Manfred music, the passionate intensity of which he conveyed by extraordinarily playing, carrying me on the swell of his profound emotional response to this music." (Köhler, Zarathustra's Secret, p.118).

Fifth, music is a source of inspiration, as its Greek root indicates. To be activated or enervated, Greeks needed their muses who guided them to sublime action. And music existed almost in all walks of life in ancient Greece: in contest games as in Olympia, at gymnasia, at symposia, at cult practices, in the theater, and so on.

Sixth, music can be a collapse into pessimism, as in the case of Wagner and other musicians (this may be due to the problem of having "seen" too much), or a recovery from the pessimistic world-view. Nietzsche had gone through both phases. In his youthful phase perhaps due to his own sufferings and search, a Schopenhauerian pessimism had a certain appeal to him, a pessimism that evades life in the face of suffering and withdraws into a musical solitude-Schopenhauer used to play the flute for himself. However, he could see through the problems of this type of pessimism and its music-suffering-Dionysian association. The first sign of his break-away can be discerned in Human, All Too Human: "Music is, of and in itself, not so significant for our inner world.In itself, no music is profound or significant, it does not speak of the 'will' or of the 'thing in itself'; the intellect could suppose such as a thing." (Aphorism 215) The association of music with pessimism is only interpretive and is not inherent to music; Nietzsche has seen both sides of Janus' face and has come full circle in terms of the spectrum of musical moods and sentiments.

Seven, music is the most primordial and the most primary expression of a total artwork and a total human being.  Nietzsche subscribed to this Wagnerian idea in his early phase; it is also inspired by their interpretation of Greek drama. They both saw a unifying function in music; it is through music that all arts that are disparate come together. And Nietzsche saw Wagner as a total artist in accordance with Wagner's own theory of total artwork; not only all arts but all forces of culture come together in the life of Wagner: "I recognize in Wagner such a counter-Alexander: he unites what was separate, feeble and inactive; if a medicinal expression is permitted, he possesses a stringent power: to this extent he is one of the truly great cultural masters. He is master of the arts, the religions, the histories of the various nations." (UM IV: RWB, p.209)

Finally, music is a joyful intuition and a moment of self-discovery. In a letter to Rohde, his friend from university years, he writes: "At last we could let ourselves be carried away by the emotional power of this music, this Schopenhauerian world every corner of which I can see and feel, so that listening to Wagner's music becomes a joyful intuition, a moment of self-discovery." (Köhler, p.95). Being intuitive, to discover one's self, these have been at the core of Nietzsche's philosophical life; all his philosophy can be summed up as a journey of such self-discovery. In this letter to Rohde he reveals music's power for helping see oneself and re-invent oneself through re-discovery. Nietzsche "endured" his own music in silence throughout his philosophical life.

Epilogue on Music, Dionysian, and Madness

Nietzsche collapsed into madness in early 1889 in Turin; a madness that is unique and that has been widely interpreted. Medicinal explanations aside, for which there is ample material from a long history of many ailments, Nietzsche's life was a perpetual struggle with himself, within himself, and with his own daemons. Nietzsche's daemon was of musical, poetic, and philosophical nature, which means, Nietzsche was composing, writing, and thinking in his inner life all the time. Musical works, poetry and thoughts all wanted to flow out of his soul in an ecstatic burst. To be artworks they also had to be mastered, a form given to the raw Dionysian forces. He was sufficiently equipped as a writer and a thinker to achieve this, but not in music. Nonetheless, it was music that wrapped up his whole life, which was the common element to his poetic and philosophical madness, the madness of a Dionysian thinker. After his collapse he was asked about his state at the hospital in Basel to which he responded that he felt well, but that he could express his state only in music. And later in the train to Jena, waking up from his chloral induced sleep, he would sing the gondolier's song from Wagner's Tristan. In madness all Nietzsche could remember was the musical collections of his life. A madness that can ultimately be called musical.

All content copyright © Yunus Tuncel - Nietzsche Circle. All Rights Reserved.

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