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In 1887 Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher and amateur musician, sends a copy of his composition Hymnus to the conductor Hermann Levi accompanied by the following statement: “Perhaps there never was a philosopher who was in reality a musician to the degree that I am one. This does not mean that I could naturally be a completely failed musician.” Nietzsche’s comment is striking: How can a philosopher claim to be a musician? Why should this be relevant? And furthermore, how can we reconcile the view that someone claims to be a musician while admitting at the same time that this could well imply that he be “a completely failed musician”?

As often in the case of Nietzsche, we must beware of a superficial impression. Nietzsche was indeed a musician in the traditional sense. He was a competent pianist who could perform the piano reductions of operas from the Ring Cycle for Wagner, the master and his mistress, Cosima von Buelow, during visits to their home in Tribschen near Lucerne. In that respect Nietzsche surpassed Wagner, who claimed himself to have played the piano like “a rat plays the flute.” On occasion and when the master had retired, Nietzsche would improvise with ease on the piano for the mistress perhaps to disperse shyness and to dispel the awkward directness of conversation. Nietzsche was certainly an able pianist. He was also an enthusiastic, if self-taught composer. Music was central to his life. According to his own testimony he wrote music for “hygienic” and “dietary” reasons. Even when his complete mental and physical breakdown dictated long hours in darkness and silence, Nietzsche was- by some accounts- still able to play the piano. Reports suggest that he remembered fluently the first movement of a Beethoven Piano Sonata while no longer able to articulate thoughts and words coherently.

Nietzsche tried his hand at composition as a teenager. His musical works are published (Janz, Nietzsche. Der Musikalische Nachlass, Basel: Bärenreiter, 1976) and even recorded by curious and eminent performers (links to recordings of Nietzsche’s music). The musical and artistic quality of these compositions, however, already divided Nietzsche’s contemporaries. The distinguished conductor von Bülow, first husband of Wagner’ mistress and wife Cosima, assessed Nietzsche’s Manfred Meditations to have been the “most extreme in fantastic extravagance” and “the most unproductive and anti –musical” creation he had seen for a long time. He asked why a “high and enlightened spirit” like Nietzsche had plunged himself into such “piano cramps”? A Swiss violinist and conductor at the Zürich Opera House, Friedrich Hegar, articulated a more balanced view. Reviewing Nietzsche’s work he conceded that “naturally, the execution of musical idea is lacking in architectonic underpinnings so that the composition seems more like an evocative improvisation than a structured composition.”

It seems perhaps that Nietzsche was a failed musician in the technical and professional sense. While his general musicality and pianistic skills were competent he had never learnt the craft of structuring a formal composition or of orchestrating any of his works. His musical imagination appears now derivative and his music making may have been characterised by naivety and an absence of sophistication. The most important point, however, is that unlike the philosopher the musician Nietzsche remained a mere possibility because of such an absence of structured qualification. No matter how hard we try, we will not hear in Nietzsche’s compositions a reflection of his philosophy. This has a bifurcated reason: While Nietzsche’s philosophical capacity flourished, his musical ability remained undeveloped and his musical potential remained unexplored. This is precisely why Nietzsche may have referred to himself as a “failed musician”. However, what is left of the musician who fails in the technical or artistic sense? And furthermore: why did Nietzsche himself claim that despite his failure he was as a philosopher in reality nevertheless a musician?

In order to answer these questions we will need to consider the relevance of music to philosophy. In Nietzsche’s case, these two pursuits are closely related. As a fourteen year-old Nietzsche identified the transcending capacity of music: “God has given us music so that firstly we are lead towards higher things. Music combines all characteristics in it. It can elevate, it can tease, it can cheer us up, yes, it can even break the most brazen temperament with its tender and yearning sounds. However, its main aim is to direct our thinking towards higher things, to elevate and even deeply disturb us…” The capacity of music to challenge us and to lead our thinking towards a transcendence relates it naturally to philosophy.

For Nietzsche philosophy is a realm of riddles and of challenges addressing itself to those “with ears to hear”. In its comprehensive demands for a radical understanding of life, the thinking of philosophy ultimately encounters conceptual boundaries where the vessel of language flounders. The philosopher cannot restrict himself to propositional analysis and conceptual truth alone. He must be able to conceive and address the unsayable. At this point, music and philosophy are brought to a close encounter. Nietzsche indicates this encounter when he writes in the Yes-and-Amen Song in the third part of his Zarathustra: “Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light one! Sing! Do not speak any longer!”

Philosophy and music emanate from the same source, wrestle with similar ambivalences and endeavour to articulate congruent fundamental truths. While both engage their subject matter within their particular technical, artistic and spiritual excellence, their limitations throw each upon the other: the limitations of music are exposed in her failure to find enduring form. The limitations of philosophy are encountered in the transpositions of transient thoughts into thinking. The philosopher must live with the limitations of philosophy just as the musician must live with the limitations of music. Nietzsche is not only a failed musician- he is also a failed philosopher, because failure is essential to the radical pursuit of philosophy. However, as a musician the philosopher achieves recompense for this failure and may complete the essentially incomplete. The musician too is able to achieve a completion: As a philosopher he can transcend the appearance of relentless transience and may indirectly save truth in the vortex of semblance and sound.