Where does music fit in Nietzsche's philosophical landscape?

During summer 2016, France Musique published a series of articles dedicated to philosophy in music and how philosophers perceive music. In this article, we will talk about Friedrich Nietzsche. For him, music was a true inspiration for many of his philosophical writings.

Nietzsche was a musician before being a philosopher

"Did we notice how much music can free the spirit? Give wings to thoughts? That, the more a musician we are, the more a philosopher we become?" This declaration by Nietzsche, taken from the book The Case of Wagner, was established through the prism of his own life. When we pay attention to the details of the philosopher's short life, it becomes easy to see that music gave structures to his philosophical reflexion, and made him as a philosopher.

During all his life, the young Friedrich Nietzsche tried to compose, unfortunately without success. Yet, his inspirations were various. Among the most famous ones, let's name Schumann and especially Wagner. His musical works weren't pointless though for they led him to think about the creation process and to start The Birth of Tragedy From The Spirit of Music in 1872. As a matter of fact, Nietzsche apprehended very early the composition process as if he was only a mere intermediary: a victim from a higher force of the piece, reduced to the hand that lays down on paper the divine inspiration.

This feeling is plainly shown in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, and is incarnated in the dichotomy Apollo-Dionysus. Dionysus, the creative force, wild and impetuous, symbolizes his first contact with music. Apollo came later, with maturity. Nietzsche turned out to be a very good improviser but wasn't a very good composer, except in the lied repertoire. His few successful results would be offered as gifts to some of his relatives and friends. Music stimulates him but doesn't seem to touch its goal. It would remain a great pain to the philosopher.

The Nietzschean thought started thanks to his raw relation to music, the one that springs from his fertile mind. But is it in particular his experience (as an adult) as a listener that would transform him and gave a great maturity to his writings. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy kindles the interest of the conductor Hans von Bülow in the young teacher. Though he was interested in the philosopher for his writings, Nietzsche submitted one of the compositions he was the most proud of in a burst of bravery: Manfred Meditation. Very happy with the result, he had in fact the project of completing a triptych including The Birth of Tragedy, surronded by two four hands compositions (Night of Saint Sylvester and Manfred Meditation). But his quest for musical legitimacy wouldn't take him far, since conductor Bülow made him this biting response: "Your Meditation, from a music point of view, has no other value than the one of a crime in the moral order". 

He also offered several pieces to Cosima Wagner and even if the couple held the young professor in high regards, we found in her journals the unflattering comments the young woman wrote to her husband about those pieces. 

If Nietzsche realizes that he has difficulties with the creation process (he rarely succeeds in finishing his pieces, and when he does, he often shows great clumsiness), he stays nonetheless convinced that his Christmas Oratorio was the precursor of Parsifal.

The years 1881-1882 mark a turn in his life. First, his writings are abundant and show great philosophical maturity. Second, he started to detached himself from the Wagnerian work. In 1881, Nietzsche discovered Carmen by Georges Bizet. This would be a revelation to him, like a remedy to the poison the music of Wagner was slowly turning into.

The case of Wagner : from passion to hate

Parsifal provoked in him a physical reaction. It was at the precise moment that he started to think more seriously about the physiological dimension of music. It must be close to the body, of the physiological and physical rhythms that it sharpens and glorifies. Little by little, he managed to locate his mistake: Wagner ensured an unhealthy cathartic function, when in fact, music should bring a physical relief.

"Without music, life for me would be a mistake", Friedrich Nietzsche.

In The Case of Wagner (1888), Nietzsche tried to put his finger on his mistake. How did he let himself be fooled by the Wagnerian work? First, we must look back on a letter he wrote to his friend Rohde on the 27th of October 1868. In it, he wrote he was "delighted as well by the prelude of Tristan und Isolde as by the opening of the Master-Singers", before carrying on: "Each of my fibres, each of my nerves were agitated and for a long time I had not felt as I did when I heard this opening, the feeling of being pleased out of myself". Once this Wagnerian idyll was over, Nietzsche put the "Wagnerian poison" in particular in his capacity to seduce the young German crowd (predisposed), thanks to the "effect". There, he recognized to the master of Bayreuth a "theatrical genius" and it was his only input to opera.

In Wagner's opinion, "music is nothing but a mean". But the philosophical maturity Nietzsche acquired with Carmen encouraged him to say the opposite: if music is nothing but a mean, then composers need other tricks to make their work valuable, and their music is not pure.

In his post-scriptum, Nietzsche claimed: "Get attached to Wagner has a price". Get attached to Wagner would mean to accept decadence by the prism of incoherence, proper to the Wagnerian style. At the end, what the philosopher reproached the musician was that he symbolized a dying romanticism. It was to be only a symbol, a nebula.

Aware that he would never equal the one he passionately admired and hated just as much, Nietzsche owed however a great deal to his musical failure since it led him to give birth to a brand new way of thinking art, as the expression of a human primitive urge, destined to create. Therefore, during his time, the philosopher made his the Sôphrosunè (wisdom), for lack of being able to channel this superior creative force, whereas Wagner was the very incarnation of the Hybris (immoderation).

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