Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Nietzsche and Music
By George Liébert
University of Chicago Press, 291 pp. $25

Death-Devoted Heart:
Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde
By Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press, 238 pp. $25

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was the nineteenth century’s most penetrating writer on music, as he was on much else, and he was also a gifted musician. Beginning piano lessons at age five, first with his mother, then with a demonically pedantic choir director, he would soon be playing Beethoven sonatas handily. As a young boy he scorned “the alleged ‘music of the future’ of Liszt and Berlioz,” but by the time he reached fourteen he was composing balefully dissonant pieces, expressing “the blackest and most radical things I know in raven-black music.” He never did become the musician he hoped to be; his entire musical output consisted of some Schumann-like songs, a few efforts for piano, and a stirring “Hymn to Life.”

He would, however, become the most celebrated friend of the most celebrated German composer of his time, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and later his most notorious enemy. “From the moment when there was a piano redaction of Tristan . . . I was a Wagnerian,” Nietzsche wrote in 1888, when he had been for over a decade a committed anti-Wagnerian. The early development of Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche’s stint as the composer’s spellbound acolyte, and his eventual break with Wagner take up nearly the whole of Georges Liébert’s Nietzsche and Music, as well they should.

The merely personal aspects of this infatuation and revulsion happen to be fascinating, but they do not much concern Liébert, a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris, who comes armed with his intellectual elephant gun and has little use for anything but the biggest game. That would be fine, if only he were consistently able to hit what he is shooting at. Sometimes he is on target and the trophy is impressive, but at the critical moments he misses badly.

Nietzsche and Wagner first met in 1868, while Nietzsche was studying classical philology at the University of Leipzig. A year later Nietzsche, already a professor at Basel, was a regular visitor at Wagner’s villa on Lake Lucerne. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), raises the extravagant hope that Wagner’s operas would herald a German rebirth of the ancient Greek tragic spirit, the Dionysian spirit that honors the cruel but sublime unintelligibility of existence. This spirit has been suffocated by the Socratic presumption that “virtue is knowledge; man sins only from ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy,” and Nietzsche indicts his age for “that Socratism which is bent on the destruction of myth. And now the mythless man stands eternally hungry, surrounded by all past ages, and digs and grubs for roots, even if he has to dig for them among the remotest antiquities.” Resurrecting the old gods and heroes, promising national regeneration through “the fire magic of music,” Wagner the mythmaker enthralled Nietzsche, who thought seriously about becoming a full-time promoter for Wagner’s proposed music festival at Bayreuth.

About the time of the first such festival in 1876, however, disenchantment set in. The customary explanation for this comes from Nietzsche himself, who in 1888 remembered how disgusted he was when Wagner told him of his project for Parsifal; this abject prostration before the cross defiled the thrilling pagan heroism Nietzsche adored. Liébert has another explanation: Nietzsche conceived a distaste not just for Wagner but for music as such; a long phase of reverence for rationality subverted his original, spiritually frenetic passion for tragic mythopoeia.

Liébert’s argument is misguided on two counts: it utterly overlooks the nonphilosophical motives at work and gets even the philosophical motives wrong. Liébert is out to demolish the common view of Wagner as “the lone villain or bogeyman of an edifying history of music from Bach to Schoenberg,” but to do that he must ignore much that is in plain sight. Wagner was among the foulest characters in the history of Western music. Despite Liébert’s silence on the matter, Wagner was very much the malignant anti-Semite of legend—witness his notorious essay “Jewishness and Music,” various recorded remarks (usually admiringly recorded), and a host of savage operatic portraits.

At first Nietzsche joined in the Jew-baiting con brio, as one learns from Joachim Köhler’s Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation, which is short on music and philosophy but indispensable on Wagner’s general nefariousness. Indeed, Nietzsche was so unrestrained in his public animadversions against the Jews that Wagner’s mistress (later his wife), Cosima von Bülow, felt obliged to give him a lesson in discretion: there are indirect, coded ways of making one’s point apparent. And the Wagners always made their point apparent. When Nietzsche made the mistake of introducing the Wagners to Paul Rée, a Jewish friend whom he thought they would find sympathetic, the couple made their disapproval clear. Rebellion ensued. Nietzsche would become a notable philo-Semite and a severe critic of Teutonic race fantasy.

Contributing to his estrangement from Wagner was the Master’s continual insinuation that, with corrupt friends such as Rée, Nietzsche must be homosexual. Wagner went so far as to write Nietzsche’s doctor to say that his protégé’s gnawing ill health was caused by habitual masturbation, which men of his unfortunate disposition engaged in when they ought to get married and forget their youthful indiscretions. Nietzsche was syphilitic and given to ardent male friendships, but there is no evidence he was homosexual or shared Rousseau’s addiction. The germ of his falling-out with his beloved Wagner lay in his growing awareness of Wagner’s personal ignobility and malevolence.

There was more to it than that; these were terribly serious men, after all. In The Case of Wagner (1888), Nietzsche puts his finger on the source of his intellectual and spiritual antipathy toward Wagner: “his opera is the opera of redemption. Somebody or other always wants to be redeemed in his work: sometimes a male, sometimes a little female—this is his problem.” It was a problem Nietzsche had no intention of making his own: to his mind, the one thing from which mankind needed to be redeemed was the need for redemption. From The Birth of Tragedy to his final works, Nietzsche taught men to emulate the careless surging energy of inhuman nature, indifferent to the assault of popgun morality, delighting in the play of light on spindrift phenomena, never protesting that life should be something other than it is.

Contrary to Liébert’s argument, Nietzsche never became a rationalist after the Socratic or the Voltairean manner, and he essentially persisted in his early taste for Dionysian life enriched by myth and comprehended in music. His core doctrine of amor fati, love of fate, found its supreme expression in the myth of the eternal recurrence, the ultimate spiritual ordeal set forth in The Gay Science (1882) and amplified in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885) and Beyond Good and Evil (1886): if a demon were to perch on your shoulder and tell you your life would repeat itself throughout eternity, exactly the same in every detail, would you rejoice or despair at the thought? Here Nietzsche’s mythic creation outshone even Wagner’s.

Liébert struggles to make the case that Nietzsche was Wagner’s spiritual inferior: critical rather than creative, brilliant only in fragments, incapable of sustained flights of thought. Liébert fails to see how Nietzsche’s philosophic career was of a piece, how potent his own mythmaking capacity was, how his darting aphoristic style cohered with his conception of existence, in which the most honest theoretical man knows that the search for truth and not its supposed possession is the thing of supreme value. Nietzsche was a richer thinker than Wagner, and as fine an artist. No other post-Christian myth pierces the soul so profoundly as that of the eternal recurrence, and every other aspect of Nietzsche’s thought radiates from it. Like Wagner, Nietzsche was capable of callow monstrosity in his thought and rhetoric, and certain of his epigones were as loathsome as Wagner’s; indeed, the same Nazis who loved one usually loved the other. But of the two men there is no question who the superior was.

That doesn’t mean that Nietzsche’s judgments about Wagner are always to be trusted. In Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the English philosopher Roger Scruton begins by quarreling with Nietzsche’s most famous dismissal of Wagner, in The Case of Wagner. There Nietzsche proclaimed the Wagnerian heroic to be strictly factitious: in order to understand his gods and heroes, one cannot take them at face value but must translate them “into reality, into the modern—let us be even crueler—into the bourgeois!”Scruton devotes his book to proving Nietzsche wrong, and he makes a strong case, at least as far as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is concerned.

Tristan is an opera with no place for mingy bourgeois compromise. The Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde are the most nobly intransigent souls to be found in modern art. He has killed her betrothed in combat, and despite her murderous hatred for him she has saved his life with her magical healing powers. In Act I, as he is taking her across the sea to Cornwall to marry his uncle King Marke, she tells her servant Brangaene to give him a lethal potion, but instead of the poison Brangaene concocts a love-potion, which both Tristan and Isolde drink. They instantly fall into erotic delirium. The fever rages throughout Act II, in which one of the most celebrated duets in opera declares the lovers’ revolt against the daylight world of honor, glory, and renown; they will be priest and priestess of the night, in which, Scruton writes, “the dissolution of the self that occurs in love presages the final dissolution in death.” Death soon approaches: Marke and his retainers break in on the lovers, and Melot wounds Tristan fatally. Act III portrays the transfiguration of sexual love into the saving embrace of death—the Liebestod which both lovers welcome.

Scruton repeatedly suggests that bourgeois listeners, comfortably or uncomfortably married, cannot but feel their erotic penury before a love so consuming that only death can fulfill it. Yet if this opera makes the life one is actually living seem insufferably mean, it also extends one’s sense of life as it might be lived, and perhaps inspires one to recover the pristine ardor of first love, when one’s beloved was a destiny and not merely a convenient appurtenance. The Wagnerian ideal of erotic heroism inflames ordinary men and women with the desire to live as though such love were possible even for themselves; for myth does not represent some archaic glory but is written “in the eternal present.” Redemption through love is the end of Wagner’s mythic teaching—but as he holds the sacred to be of purely human invention, it is “redemption by our own devices and without the aid of a god.”

Scruton has prepared his brief with care. Medieval chivalric romance, Kantian ethics, anthropological mythography, and musicological close-work propel his sinuous but lucid argument. The end of that argument is that Wagner’s innovative “anthropological thinking . . . which puts ritual in place of doctrine” was the seminal influence on artistic modernism, and that this modernism is the surest route we now know to the sacred.

Death-Devoted Heart is a breathtaking book; yet one is left wondering whether Tristan und Isolde and the works of Stravinsky, Rilke, Rodin, and Debussy (for which Scruton sees it preparing the way) penetrate anywhere near as deeply into the sacred as does, say, the work of the pre-modern Tolstoy, for whom the numinous is no human invention, and who in his finest works presents quite conventional married love, suffused by a sense of sacramental perdurability, as the great fount of earthly happiness and holiness. In War and Peace, the two chief couples achieve in marriage the supreme happiness that the adulterers and other lovers cannot; their initial erotic transports fade into comfortable habit but remain the basis of a solid and lasting love. In Anna Karenina, the sexual rapture of the adulterous Anna and Vronsky decays into grimness, recrimination, and suicide, while the married love of Levin and Kitty endures severe trial and even approaches religious ecstasy. As Levin listens to his wife in childbirth, his feelings are “like openings in that usual life through which something higher became visible.” Levin, who is not a praying man, prays then, as he did in childhood, and when his son is born that flash of transcendence irradiates “the old everyday world” to which he returns.

Tristan and Isolde could not understand how their moment of nonpareil bliss, which Wagner renders in the most sensually rapturous music ever written, might sustain a lifetime’s happiness in the everyday world. After peerless union such as theirs, death seems to offer the sole noble alternative to a gradual deterioration of their love. Tolstoy understood something essential that Wagner and Nietzsche did not: that the greatest part of love can survive and surpass even the most intense passion, and that what modern man most needs is not sublime myth but living truth.

Algis Valiunas is a literary journalist and the author of Churchill’s Military Histories (Rowman and Littlefield).