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  • Nietzsche, Tristan und Isolde, and the Analysis of Wagnerian Rhythm
  • Katherine Fry (bio)

In his first publication, Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872), Friedrich Nietzsche famously interprets Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as an ideal union of “Dionysiac” music and “Apolline” myth—a union that revives the spirit of Greek musical tragedy.1 According to the Romantic ideology of early Nietzsche, Wagner’s music stands at the culmination of a gradual reawakening in modern German culture of an authentic Dionysiac artistic drive. Nietzsche argues that the music of Tristan—when reconciled with the Apolline element of words and action—represents an antithesis to the modern rationalism and decadence exemplified above all in the conventions of Italian opera. Of course, Nietzsche’s early critique of the decadence of modern operatic culture—together with his utopian conviction in the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal as a force for cultural renewal—derived from Wagner’s theoretical writings, especially Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama, 1851) and “Beethoven” (1870).2 As is well known, however, Nietzsche’s attitude toward Wagner and his operas would become increasingly critical over the course of his subsequent writings, culminating in the anti-Wagnerian polemics published at the very end of his career. In one of his last publications, Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner, 1888), Nietzsche presented a starkly contrasting view to the one articulated in his first book: a portrait of Wagner and his music as the embodiment of modern decadence.3

Nietzsche’s “break” from Wagner dates from the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876, followed by the publication of the first volume of Menschlisches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human) in 1878. In this work Nietzsche voices implicit criticisms of Wagner’s music and aesthetics, attitudes that would become increasing explicit in the later writings. Hence the book has usually been understood to symbolize Nietzsche’s decisive turn away from his erstwhile mentor, marking the point of departure for his mature philosophy. His own later dramatization of events underlines this narrative, depicting the appearance of Human, All Too Human as sealing an ideological rift with Wagnerism that would become increasingly entrenched in later years.4 Nevertheless, and despite the obvious disparities between the [End Page 253] Wagnerism of The Birth of Tragedy and the critical writings from 1878 onward, we should be wary of taking Nietzsche’s more exaggerated public pronouncements on Wagner too much at face value. Indeed, the commonplace perception that his attitude toward Wagner simply evolved from a position of youthful devotion to one of enlightened opposition is highly questionable. As Dieter Borchmeyer has argued, the idea of a clean break separating Nietzsche’s early and later outlook on Wagner is illusory, based as it is on limited knowledge of the documentary sources: only by taking account of the extensive unpublished writings, letters, and fragments can we begin to appreciate the full complexity of Nietzsche’s critical engagement with Wagner and his music.5

Through analyses of various published and unpublished sources, Borchmeyer has demonstrated how Nietzsche’s thinking on Wagner was inevitably multifaceted from the outset, characterized above all by an ever-present tension between admiration and critique. As he puts it, “The young Nietzsche’s attitude toward Wagner intertwined passion with critique, just as passion is merged with polemics in the late writings.”6 Within this interpretation, Borchmeyer has advanced an overall picture of the various nuances and contradictions defining Nietzsche’s ambiguous relationship with Wagner, addressing such themes as the early exchange of ideas on “absolute” music, the relationship between choral tragedy and music drama, and the idea of Wagner as representative of modern decadence. Beyond these aesthetic issues, however, the full extent of Nietzsche’s critical engagement with Wagner’s music remains to be explored. This is particularly the case with regard to Nietzsche’s early writings on Wagner, opera, and music from the time of The Birth of Tragedy—writings that have often been interpreted in relation to Schopenhauer’s philosophy and to nineteenth-century ideas of “absolute” music.7 Taking as its point of departure this more familiar music-aesthetic framework, the present article examines further Nietzsche’s early involvement with Wagner’s music, relating it...


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