Music21 Sep 2007 02:21 pm
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had an extremely unique career, and one of the oddest things about it was his relationship with the composer Richard Wagner. The infamous Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken summed it up well in his book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche: “In the decade from 1869 to 1878 [Nietzsche] was the king of German Wagnerians. In the decade from 1879 to 1889, he was the most bitter, the most violent, the most resourceful and the most effective of Wagner’s enemies.”
Why did Nietzsche regard Wagner so highly in the beginning of his career and repudiate him so violently later on? The first question is best answered by a glance at Nietzsche’s first book: The Birth of Tragedy, ostensibly a comparison of “Dionysian” tragedy (a reference to the god of wine and mirth) and “Apollonian” art and philosophy (a reference to the god of sunshine and order). In reality, the book a desperate plea against the conformity of the German art and society of Nietzsche’s day, with the strong implication that Wagner’s art might provide a way back to the tragic greatness of the Greeks.
Wagner was obviously pleased by this and he and Nietzsche were dear friends for many years. However, Nietzsche did not shy away from the philosophic consequences of his early ideas, and Wagner did. In his next books – Human, All Too Human, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche fearlessly pursued his train of thought to its radical and atheist consequences. Wagner, on the other hand, wrote Parsifal, an opera based on the story of the Holy Grail, (exactly the kind of tired old myth Nietzsche loathed). Nietzsche’s break with Wagner was decisive, eventually leading to an angry polemic against his old friend: The Case of Wagner.
There may be a simpler explanation, however. Like many brilliant and original men, Nietzsche may have been embarrassed by the fact that he idolized anybody so completely in his youth. As he put it in another context, ““You are rewarding a teacher poorly if you remain always a pupil.” With his rejection of Wagner, Nietzsche made sure this could never be said of him.
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