Note: Wikipedia does such a succinct job in this instance of summarizing Nietzsche’s fall out with Wagner over Wagner’s perceived late move away from what Nietzsche considered the Maestro’s previous virile neo-paganism in the direction of a “slave mentality,” “Christian,” sentiment, that I thought it good to simply reproduce it here whole. The Opera Parsifal, for which production Wagner consulted a Catholic priest for advice, represented the occasion which allowed Nietzsche to openly attack. —SH
“Nietzsche contra Wagner” is a critical essay by Friedrich Nietzsche, composed of recycled passages from his past works. It was written in his last year of lucidity (1888–1889), but was not published until 1895, six years after his mental collapse. Nietzsche describes in this short work why he parted ways with his one-time idol and friend, Richard Wagner. Nietzsche attacks Wagner’s views, expressing disappointment and frustration in Wagner’s life choices (such as his conversion to Christianity, perceived as a sign of weakness). Nietzsche evaluates Wagner’s philosophy on tonality, music and art; he admires Wagner’s power to emote and express himself, but largely disdains what Nietzsche calls his religious biases.
The sections are as follows:
Nietzsche explains that this book consists of selections from his previous writings. They show that he and Wagner are opposites. Nietzsche states that this book is for psychologists. He excludes Germans from his intended readers.
Where I Admire
Nietzsche admired Wagner’s ability to express his own suffering and misery in short musical creations. He criticized Wagner’s attempt to produce large works.
Where I Make Objections
Nietzsche’s objections to Wagner’s music were physical. His lungs, feet, stomach, heart, intestines, and throat were uncomfortably affected. He was disappointed to find that the music had no pleasing rhythm or melody. Nietzsche claimed that Wagner’s music was a mere means to enhance theatrical posing and gesturing. Wagner was more of an actor than a composer.
Nietzsche wants music to be cheerful, profound, unique, wanton, tender, roguish, and graceful. These qualities are lacking in German music, except for the works of Bach, Handel, and also in Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. He praises Liszt, Chopin, Peter Gast, and Rossini, as well as all Venetian music. The Intermezzo ends with Nietzsche’s poem “Venice.”
Wagner as Danger
1. The concept of Wagner’s “unending melody” is used to designate what Nietzsche regards as the chaotic degeneration of rhythmic feeling. This tendency results in a dangerous use of music to merely produce a dramatic effect. 2. Wagner’s music tries to produce a physically jarring effect on the Biedermeier audience. Mozart’s opera ‘’Don Giovanni’’, in contrast, had a serious music that was cheerful and tender.
A Music Without a Future
Music expresses the decline of a culture. Wagner’s music, in its relation to old Germanic and Scandinavian myths and sagas, is the song of a dying swan.
Nietzsche admitted that he had mistakenly thought that Schopenhauer’s philosophy was the result of a strong attachment to life that enabled him to acknowledge life’s horrors. He also thought that Wagner’s music expressed a vital life force. But Nietzsche later realized that he was only attributing his own qualities to those men’s works. Both Schopenhauer and Wagner were against life. Other such decadents were Epicureans, Christians, Pascal, and Flaubert. Nietzsche, in contrast, celebrated the egoistical Dionysian Greek who affirmed life in spite of its many horrors and terrors.
Where Wagner Belongs
Unlike Germans, the sick, artistic French appreciate Schopenhauer and Heine because they value pessimistic, refined culture. Wagner belongs with the French. He is more of a Parisian Romantic than a German. French art, like Wagner’s, is based on world literature. Wagner and the French have an expressive talent for producing sensational artistic effects. Both are sick artists who stupefy mass audiences with their spectacular dramatic shows.
Wagner as Apostle of Chastity
1. Nietzsche warned, in poetic verse, that Wagner’s art is not Germanic. Instead, it is similar to Italy’s Roman Catholic religion. 2. Why did Wagner write Parsifal and present the contrast between sensuality and chastity? 3. Did Wagner, in old age, parody tragedy by freely showing a simple country boy as the ideal embodiment of ascetic chastity? If Parsifal was, however, meant seriously, then it is an expression of Wagner’s late hatred of sensuality, egotism, and life. It would then be considered to be bad art.
How I was Set Free from Wagner
1. By 1876, Wagner had moved to Germany and had become a decaying anti–Semitic Christian. Nietzsche expressed his disappointment and feeling of loss. 2. Nietzsche then became a solitary, courageous pessimist and he completely dedicated himself to his life’s arduous task.
The Psychologist has a Word
1. Sympathy interferes with the psychological analysis of great, higher humans. Psychologists should be cheerfully unsympathetic. Revered, great people always eventually decay. This realization might remind the psychologist of his own decadence and may contribute to his own corruption. The great human’s work, not his own person, should be venerated. 2. Great artists and other higher humans create works in order to forget their own decadent flaws. Revering higher people with feminine sympathy is detrimental to them. 3. When a higher human knows deep, heart–breaking suffering, there develops immunity to receiving sympathy from lower humans. Noble, profound sufferers feign cheerfulness in order to ward off unwanted pity.
1. From a universal perspective, deep suffering is necessary, healthful, and beneficial, if it doesn’t kill. Great pain is useful and should be welcomed. Amor fati [love your fate]. It makes a philosopher deeply profound. Questions arise concerning beloved life itself. 2. After experiencing profound pain, a taste for artificial, cheering art is acquired. The horror of life is ignored. Like the ancient Dionysian Greeks, we have known the terrible truth about life and now appreciate the effects of an artist’s false, wonderful tones, fictional words, and fascinating forms.
On the Poverty of the RichestEdit
In a “Dionysian Dithyramb,” Nietzsche used poetic imagery from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This is an example of his new taste for cheerful art after having known the seriousness and horror of life. Following many years of solitude, Zarathustra now wants to share the riches of his wisdom. In order to be loved and appreciated, he will leave his lonely cave in order to generously and completely give of himself.”
Nietzsche’s attack on his former idol was visceral. It is almost as though he was viciously fighting to hold his fragile worldview, philosophy, and his very pysche, which was contingent on that worldview, together. When he detected Wagner near the end showing even the slightest sympathy for the vaguest Christian worldview, it was more than Nietzsche could bear. Was the great Nihilist, the philosopher of the Will to Power, beginning to feel the sand shifting beneath his feet just before he redoubled his efforts in one last great post-Wagnerian attempt to keep it all together?
“One has the feeling,” William Barrett says, “in reading him that those ultimate questions with which he dealt with would have been enough almost to drive any man mad. Was it necessary that he be deranged in order to reveal the secret derangement that lies coiled like a dragon at the bottom of our epoch? (William Barrett, Irrational Man, Anchor Press Doubleday, Garden City, NY 1962 pp.204)