Nietzsche Versus Wagner


Edit, August 2015: the following text is now part of my Wagner biography, ”Richard Wagner — A Portrait”. Chapter 12 of that book tells of the subject of Wagner versus Nietzsche, however, more elaborate than the post below. — In 1888 the former Wagner fan Nietzsche turned against the composer and said he wasn’t the epitome of art. Nevertheless, Nietzsche still had some good things to say about Wagner. And overall Nietzsche’s criticism might help us appreciate Wagner more fully.


Nietzsche criticized Wagner in Der Fall Wagner (1888). In short the philosopher said: Wagner is the consummate rhetorician, his music ”means” this and that. His music is merely an instrument, an illustration of stories and ideas. The rhetorical feature generates a false, seductive music.

This Nietzsche meant. And he was more or less correct in that. I mean, Richard Wagner remains a classic and now he’s more performed than ever. But his aesthetics has its faults and Nietzsche was among the first to note them.

In his 1888 critique Nietzsche continues: Wagner strikes poses and makes gestures. Also, the music becomes dark with the Wotan passion, ”the bad weather god”. And the eternal ”speech-song” makes the works heavy and cumbersome, not light and witty as the southern operas à la Bizet.

This was a rather well-founded criticism. However, Nietzsche wasn’t a hater of all things Wagnerian. In the same year (1888), Nietzsche in Ecce Homo for example praised the Wagner who created Tristan and Isolde. The Tristan music was modern, it was true, it said something real in a new way, Nietzsche seems to mean. His views may symbolize the general acclaim for this opera which since has only grown. Tristan was Wagner’s artistic triumph and epitome; then Wagner created the Ring and Die Meistersinger and they were not as advanced Nietzsche thought, and with this you can agree.

Hereby the quote from Ecce Homo, the chapter ”Warum ich so bin Klug”, 6th Division, where Nietzsche celebrates Wagner’s Tristan [English translation by me]:

”From the moment you could get a piano score of Tristan (…) I was a Wagnerian. The earlier works of Wagner I thought nothing of — still too common, too “German”… However, still I search for a work of equally dangerous fascination, of equally sweet and fearsome infinity as that of Tristan — I search in vain in all the arts. All the grotesqueries of Leonardo da Vinci lose their magic at the first note of Tristan. This work is absolutely Wagner’s non plus ultra; he recuperated from it with the Meistersinger and the Ring. (…) I consider myself lucky having lived at the right time and having lived precisely among Germans, so as to be ripe for this work: my psychologist’s curiosity goes that far. The world is poor for one who has never been sick enough for this “voluptuousness of hell”: it is permissible, it is almost imperative to employ a mystic formula here. — I think I know better than anyone else the enormities Wagner was capable of, the fifty worlds of strange extacies, for which no one outside of him had the wingspan; and such as I am, strong enough to turn even the most questionable and dangerous things to my advantage and become stronger thereby, I call Wagner the great benefactor of my life.”

– – –

Friedrich Nietzsche overall critizised Wagner but his views were rather sound. True, this attack had some yellow journalism-approach to it, Nietzsche’s tone in Der Fall Wagner being spiteful and sarcastic. But as we’ve seen he could also (in Ecce Homo) cut the man, Wagner, some slack.

Nietzsche’s criticism didn’t kill the Wagner oeuvre, as some may think. If I may put up a strawman it would be something like this; some may have this image of it: ”First Wagner triumphed, then Nietzsche came and said it was all bluff. Wagner never was the same man again. End of story.” – But art criticism doesn’t work that way. Nietzsche’s words carried weight but he didn’t stop Wagner operas from being performed. The Wagner opus lived on and it still lives on.

Wagner’s operas suffered some damage from Nietzsche’s attack but they lived on as an art work, as a holistic phenomenon, as an ouevre. And Nietzsche’s criticism is now a part of that oeuvre. This is a lesson on how the reception of a work becomes a virtually integral part of the work. No Wagner historian can ignore the concept ”Friedrich Nietzsche” when he depitcs the life and work of the composer. Nietzsche and Wagner are united forever in a hate-love relationship, a virual embrace of the philosopher both admiring and hating the composer.

For example, in 1876 Nietzsche wrote the panegyric Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. It’s rather heavy in style but can’t be ignored in this respect, the Wagner reception. In this paper we see Wagner in the role of artist-as-magician. Wagner indeed had this talent, of becoming swept away like a shaman on an astral trip. Maybe he got too carried away sometimes but the genius that Nietzsche saw still lives on – on opera stages world wide. In spite of the faults of the Wagner operas. You have to be able to unite both the good and not so good aspects of the work in order to enjoy it, I think.

The role of Wagner as a magician, for its part ,is captured by Ingvar Lundewall in his bio Trollkarlen från Bayreuth (1989). Having sketched the philosophy, characters and diverse plot moves of The Ring Lundewall states this, a kind of summary uniting everything that can be said concerning a massive work of art like The Ring, and why not the whole Wagner oeuvre:

”Ideas, theories and analyses whether Der Ring des Nibelungen is a problem play or a political or aesthetic revolution drama, a logically rigorous antique tragedy or a mosaic pattern, a romantic fairytale drama, an opera or a ”music drama” – all alternative interpretations lose every sense in the dark of the opera salon, as soon as Wagner the Shaman exerts his magic on stage and in the orchestra pit.” [p 134; my English translation]


Related (in Swedish)

Wagner — kompositör och nationalist

Joakim Andersen: Abir Tahas Nietzsche

Nietzsche och ateismen

Nietzsche och Dionysos

Havets gröna öar