Why Did Nietzsche Break With Wagner?

A painful but necessary parting of the ways

Nietzsche. Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Of all the people who Friedrich Nietzsche met, the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was, without question, the one who made the deepest impression on him. As many have pointed out, Wagner was the same age as Nietzsche father, and thus could have offered the young scholar, who was 23 when they first met in 1868, some sort of father substitute. But what really mattered to Nietzsche was that Wagner was a creative genius of the first rank, the kind of individual who, in Nietzsche’s view, justified the world and all its sufferings.

From an early age Nietzsche was passionately fond of music, and by the time he was a student he was a highly competent pianist who impressed his peers by his ability to improvise.  In the 1860s Wagner’s star was rising. He began receiving the support of King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1864; Tristan and Isolde had been given its premiere in 1865, The Meistersingers was premiered in 1868, Das Rheingold in 1869, and Die Walküre in 1870. Although opportunities to see operas performed were limited, both because of location and finances, Nietzsche and his student friends had obtained a piano score of Tristan and were great admirers of what they considered the “music of the future.”

Nietzsche and Wagner became close after Nietzsche began visiting Wagner, his wife Cosima, and their children at Tribschen, a beautiful house beside Lake Lucerne, about a two hour train ride from Basle where Nietzsche was a professor of classical philology.

  In their outlook on life and music they were both heavily influenced by Schopenhauer.  Schopenhauer viewed life as essentially tragic, stressed the value of the arts in helping human beings cope with the miseries of existence, and accorded pride of place to music as the purest expression of the ceaselessly striving Will that underlay the world of appearances and constituted the inner essence of the world.

Wagner had written extensively about music and culture in general, and Nietzsche shared his enthusiasm for trying to revitalize culture through new forms of art. In his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedy emerged “out of the spirit of music,” fueled by a dark, irrational “Dionysian” impulse which, when harnessed by “Apollonian” principles of order, eventually gave rise to the great tragedies of poets like Aeschylus and Sophocles.  But then the rationalist tendency evident in the plays Euripides, and most of all in the philosophical approach of Socrates, came to dominate, thereby killing the creative impulse behind Greek tragedy. What is now needed, Nietzsche concludes, is a new Dionysian art to combat the dominance of Socratic rationalism. The closing sections of the book identify and praise Wagner as the best hope for this sort of salvation.

Needless to say, Richard and Cosima loved the book. At that time Wagner was working to complete his Ring cycle while also trying to raise money to build a new opera house at Bayreuth where his operas could be performed and where whole festivals devoted to his work could be held. While his enthusiasm for Nietzsche and his writings was no doubt sincere, he also saw him as someone who could be useful to him as an advocate for his causes among academics.

Nietzsche had, most remarkably, been appointed to a professor’s chair at the age of 24, so having the backing of this apparently rising star would be a notable feather in Wagner’s cap.  Cosima, too, viewed Nietzsche, as she viewed everyone, primarily in terms of how they might help or harm her husband’s mission and reputation

But Nietzsche, however much he revered Wagner and his music, and although he had quite possibly fallen in love with Cosima, had ambitions of his own.  Although he was willing to run errands for the Wagners for a time, he became increasingly critical of Wagner’s overbearing egoism. Soon these doubts and criticisms spread to take in Wagner’s ideas, music, and purposes.

Wagner was an anti-Semite, nursed grievances against the French which fueled a hostility to French culture and was sympathetic to German nationalism.

  In 1873 Nietzsche became friends with Paul Rée, a philosopher of Jewish origin whose thinking was heavily influenced by Darwin, materialistic science, and French essayists like La Rochefoucauld.  Although Rée lacked Nietzsche’s originality, he clearly influenced him.  From this time on, Nietzsche begins to view French philosophy, literature, and music more sympathetically.  Moreover, instead of continuing his critique of Socratic rationalism, he starts to praise the scientific outlook, a shift reinforced by his reading of Friedrich Lange’s History of Materialism.

In 1876 the first Bayreuth festival took place.  Wagner was at the center of it, of course.  Nietzsche originally intended to participate fully, but by the time the event was underway he found the cult of Wagner, the frenetic social scene swirling around the comings and goings of celebrities, and the shallowness of the surrounding festivities unpalatable.  Pleading ill health, he left the event for a time, returned to hear some performances, but left before the end.

That same year Nietzsche published the fourth of his “Untimely Meditations”, Richard Wagner at Bayreuth.  Although it is, for the most part, enthusiastic, there is a noticeable ambivalence in the author’s attitude toward his subject.  The essay concludes, for instance, by saying that Wagner is “not the prophet of the future, as perhaps he would wish to appear to us, but the interpreter and clarifier of the past.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement of Wagner as the savior of German culture!

Later in 1876 Nietzsche and Rée found themselves staying in Sorrent at the same time as the Wagners.  They spent quite a lot of time together, but there is some strain in the relationship.  Wagner warned Nietzsche to be wary of Rée on account of his being Jewish.  He also discussed his next opera, Parsifal, which to Nietzsche’s surprise and disgust was to advance Christian themes. Nietzsche suspected that Wagner was motivated in this by a desire for success and popularity rather than by authentic artistic reasons.

Wagner and Nietzsche saw each other for the last time on November 5th, 1876. In the years that followed, they became both personally and philosophically estranged, although his sister Elisabeth remained on friendly terms with the Wagners and their circle. Nietzsche pointedly dedicated his next work, Human, All Too Human, to Voltaire, an icon of French rationalism. He published two more works on Wagner, The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner, the latter being mainly a collection of previous writings.  He also created a satirical portrait of Wagner in the person of an old sorcerer who appears in Part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  He never ceased to recognize the originality and greatness of Wagner’s music. But at the same time, he distrusted it for its intoxicating quality, and for its Romantic celebration of death. Ultimately, he came to see Wagner’s music as decadent and nihilistic, functioning as a kind of artistic drug that deadens the pain of existence instead of affirming life with all its sufferings.