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Nietzsche and Wagner

Eduard Hanslick, the notorious Viennese music critic and writer on musical aesthetics, has had a rough time. After a start that was notably spoilt by Wagner’s mocking portrayal of him as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger he has been disqualified more recently as the “chief polemicists for the absolutists” (Susan McClary). To be sure, contemporary philosophers of the analytical tradition have shown sympathetic interest in- and appreciation for Hanslick, who was incidentally an accomplished pianist with skills in composition. But the reasons for this may ultimately be self-interested: Hanslick’s arguments prove useful to professional philosophers of music. They can be neatly dissected. In addition Hanslick is interested in the nature of emotion and in the role cognition and judgement play in their constitution. This attracts those yearning for an escape from the dissonant curses of consciousness and passion to a life of academic equilibrium.

I am arguing here that Hanslick still deserves a fair go. This may require us to turn down the noise of operatic or academic opinions (two phenomena which in combination wreak havoc on the life of the spirit) and turn directly to a reflection on his essay On the beautiful in Music. Here we find two well-known arguments: a negative thesis that music does not represent emotion and feeling and a positive thesis that music is essentially self-referential - not a language of feeling but simply “sounding, moving form.” It is one characteristic of the Hanslick reception to focus on the distinctness of the arguments all but ignoring that both theses are in fact expressions of a more fundamental and unifying view.

In fact, the crucial point is Hanslick’s contextual understanding that music addresses itself properly to pure intuition. He insists that music is neither an intellectual nor an emotional, but a spiritual art. The human faculty most relevant to music in this context is neither reason (Verstand) nor feeling (Gefuehl) but imagination (Phantasie). “It is peculiar”, Hanslick writes at the outset of his treatise, “how the older Aestheticians merely moved within a contrast between “feeling” (Gefuehl) and “reason” (Verstand) as if the main issue would not have to be settled in between this alleged dilemma” (VMS, 41). The identification of this “in-between” (inmitten) is the important point. It warrants a closer look.

For Hanslick a mediation of emotion and reason is firstly achieved by limiting exclusive claims such as the suggestion that the spiritual essence of music amounts to a representation of emotion (his negative thesis). He is clearly insistent on this as he separates the spiritual from the emotional emphasising the peculiar characteristics of the latter in instances of purely emotional responses to music: “We oppose this pathological seizure (Ergriffenwerden) to the conscious, pure contemplation of the sounding work. This contemplation is the only artistic, truthful form of listening; it qualifies the raw passion of the savage and the gushing reaction of the musical enthusiast as belonging to one class” (VMS, 119).

While we are not mistaken to talk about emotion in relation to music, the exclusive account of music in emotional terms is always incomplete and ultimately inauthentic. Music is a spiritual art. This suggests some affinity with the emotional life, but it also suggests a realm of conception and experience that is autonomous - and ultimately independent from mere feeling. Feelings and emotions are totalitarian and tend to claim exclusiveness. They can in fact establish a tyranny over consciousness overwhelming our spiritual consciousness on its way. In this process they reveal their pathological roots.

Such a decisive demarcation of the spiritual essence of music from emotional representation has often generated a view that Hanslick might instead be advocating some kind of intellectual formalism in his positive thesis of music as “sounding moving form”. This seems equally mistaken. An exclusive approach to beauty through understanding or reason would transform – for Hanslick- our relationship with music from an aesthetic one into a logical one. It would amount to an entirely dispassionate relationship with music. However, “without inner warmth, nothing great or beautiful has been achieved in life” (VMS, 97) Hanslick tells us. Neither logical nor pathological approaches to music have a privileged - or even an authentic place in our relationship with music. Hanslick is clear why this is the case: feeling and reason are merely “boundary regions” of the beautiful. Our perception of sounding beauty occurs through intuition (Anschauung) and takes place in our imagination (Phantasie), its natural homeland–neither in our abstract understanding nor in our feeling alone.

Pure contemplation or intuition (Anschauung) transcend feeling and understanding. The “reflection of the imagination” (Nachdenken der Phantasie, VMS 120) reveals the essentially spiritual characteristic of music. A musical work is “spiritual” (geistvoll)- not merely emotional (gefuehlvoll) or merely logical. Feeling is an appearance of spirit but should by no means be confused with its essence. It is a partial and in extreme dominance an inauthentic appropriation of music. In the case of musical performance feeling assists in the communication of the spiritual dimension of music enlivening the moment of recreation. The performer unleashes the emotional dimension of music through the sensuous attributes of music – music “ravishes” the listener in the “amorphous, demonic power” of the tone itself (VMS, 102). However, this emotional – or ultimately physical- impact of music in performance (pathological in a higher sense) will transform our aesthetic relationship to music into a pathological one if it is afforded exclusive influence.

This instrumental importance of emotion in music should not be confused with the pure contemplation which reveals the work of art as a “pure metal”. Once we contextualise the elementary powers of music, the artistic dimension of music is revealed in spiritual perception. This requires an entirely different attitude towards music in which the reflection of the imagination can perform its unique function. The careful distinction between passion and spirit alone suggests that Hanslick deserves a fair go if only for the reason that our contemporary culture constantly confuses the two.

VMS: E. Hanslick, "Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen", in: E. Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen, Aufsaetze, Musikkritiken, Leipzig: Reclam, 1982, 33-145.

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.

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.