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The contact and conflict between Nietzsche and Wagner remains a most fascinating topic in the history of philosophical conversations. It continues to show us the fundamental tension which sustains music itself, a tension that extends beyond the clash of the thinker with the musician.

Nietzsche and Wagner met initially in 1868 in Leipzig. Although not a natural Wagnerian, Nietzsche, at the time an admirer of the music of Schumann, is drawn to Wagner on account of their mutual interest in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche and Wagner were both well acquainted with Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation and its references to the metaphysical centrality of music. Schopenhauer argues that music is the closest, albeit analogical reflection of the fundamental essence of Being which he calls “will”. Based on their creative imagination and intuition Nietzsche and Wagner are both attracted to Schopenhauer's identification of "will" and to the elevated view that music sublimates individuation and difference and overcomes the alienation of essentially individuated, fragmented beings. For Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner music expresses, reflects and – on an aesthetic level- reconstitutes the primordial unity of Being. This unity is, however, threatened by conscious reflection. In his Birth of Tragedy and at the peak of his admiration for Wagner and Schopenhauer Nietzsche articulates this essence of music and argues that a decline of genuinely musical attributes is caused by critical spirit: The “spirit of Socratism”, the light of conscious reflection searching for justification, for reason or proof, expels the spirit of music and undermines musical essence. For the early Nietzsche, Wagner’s all-encompassing work of art (his Gesamtkunstwerk) aims to overcome this destruction reconstituting a unity of art not seen since the classical Greek tragedy. Wagner is seen to be reviving the essential characteristics of Greek tragedy and to be restoring music to its rightful place and character which is rooted in the Dionysian.

From 1869 Nietzsche, then a professor for philology in Basel, visits Wagner and his future wife Cosima von Bülow regularly in their residence in Tribschen near Lucerne. Wagner recognises in the young professor a kindred spirit. The composer hopes that Nietzsche’s thinking can provide a conceptual underpinning and public advocacy for his creative direction which may be acceptable to the intellectual establishment of the time. Wagner is looking for allies and even servants to his ambitious cultural project of placing his musical drama at the centre of German cultural life. The hope to find in Nietzsche a professorial servant becomes disappointed, however, when Nietzsche pursues radical philosophical depth and clarity which requires the articulation of a critical stance that includes Wagner and his work. With increasing philosophical radicalism and rigour Nietzsche realises that the understanding of a phenomenon cannot remain content with the articulation of an unambiguous view and with the pledge of uncritical, personal loyalty. His philosophical reflection asserts its freedom and autonomy. It must explore all dimensions and directions of thinking to bring to light the dynamic properties of the phenomena, of the subject matter at hand. This attitude includes a “rejection” and inversion of values. The phenomenon of life is at the centre of Nietzsche’s philosophical interest. Life - Nietzsche will argue- is only understood and affirmed if the fundamental contradictions that constitute it become clearly visible.

Nietzsche’s turn against Wagner is a necessary step dictated by his understanding of philosophy. In this sense Nietzsche will state that “attack is for me a proof of sympathy, in certain cases of gratitude.” (Nietzsche contra Wagner). Wagner and his wife Cosima, trapped in an everyday consciousness, will fail to understand this approach. To be sure, Nietzsche’s rhetorical flamboyance of referring to Wagner as a “magician”, an “actor”, a “decadent” and an “illness” is initially puzzling and must strike Wagner as offensive, since Nietzsche does not abandon his fundamental view that music properly understood and practiced must reflect an all-encompassing essence of life. But Nietzsche knows that in his duty to truth the philosopher must preserve a complex phenomenon in its complexity. There are aspects that contradict Nietzsche’s original enthusiasm for Wagner and there are aspects that contradict the very possibility of music and Wagner’s “all-encompassing work of art” becoming a metaphysical symbol. Indicators of these contradictions are Wagner’s involvement with semblance, his exaggerated sense of self and his need for “propaganda”, his unambiguous affirmation of death and his self-absorbed search for redemption, his emphasis on pity and – most of all- his invocation of an otherworld providing the human being with escape and redemption from the suffering of life.

Nietzsche insists increasingly on a comprehensive and radical approach in understanding the phenomenon of music philosophically. This view includes the need to explore how music – and Wagner- in reality promote untruth. On an existential level, Wagner was appropriating music for his own personal need of redemption. According to Nietzsche, he bends his knee in front of the cross and attempts to escape from life itself into a metaphysical “otherworld”. Yet, such an otherworld is a philosophical untruth, an unphilosophical fiction that denies life and leads to a diminished existence.

While remaining under the spell of Wagner’s music, a spell emanating from a “pact between beauty and illness”, Nietzsche rejects Wagner’s artistic directions on philosophical grounds. This rejection follows a re-evaluation of the place of the aesthetic. Nietzsche implies the demand that the musician – like the philosopher- must remain truthful and must remain committed to truth. This is difficult for the musician as music is an art of appearance and thus by essence rooted in untruth. But nevertheless, music and art must not become means to an end – not even to a metaphysical end. Wagner – so Nietzsche- precisely used music: in the first instance as a vehicle for dramatic illustration and secondly as a path to articulate and overcome his own personal suffering. Nietzsche’s point is that if music becomes a vehicle of life-denying personal therapy it looses its authenticity and integrity. The artist who uses music in this sense, shows his weakness and creative decay for it is primarily the role of the artist – as it is the role of the philosopher – to affirm life.

Two points thus seem to underpin Nietzsche’s aggressive attack on Wagner: Firstly, the demand that the existence of the musician must be truthful. This implies that the musician cannot use music for non-musical intentions. Music is essentially self-referential. It does not refer to metaphysical concepts. It may embody – or symbolise ontological forces. But it does not represent metaphysical dilemmas or solutions and it does not provide a vehicle for metaphysical escape. A musician who uses music for other purposes than making musical phenomena audible has abandoned his art and has become corrupt and untruthful. Secondly, the philosophical demand that music (like philosophy) must contribute to an affirmation of life. This is only genuine if life is affirmed in its entirety, including in its exposure to suffering, decay and death. Artistry which shrinks back from such comprehensive affirmation is for Nietzsche suspect as is a philosophy that fails to pursue radically an affirmation of life including its essentially and authentically abysmal contradictions.