Classical Music Month: Wagner contra Nietzsche

By Karol Berger, author of Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche

This guest post is in celebration of #ClassicalMusicMonth. Stay tuned for more posts throughout September, and enjoy free access to curated Classical Music articles.


In taking a close look at Wagner’s late music dramas, I followed two aims. First, I wanted to penetrate the “secret” of their large-scale form. From early on, the novelty of Wagner’s formal principles provoked skeptics. Nietzsche, the most perceptive of Wagner’s critics, quipped that the composer was “our greatest miniaturist in music,” thus at once praising Wagner’s ability to capture the most subtle stirrings of his characters’ souls in small but eloquently expressive gestures and blaming him for his inability to weld such gestures into larger wholes. The answer I found to this accusation turned out to be different from what I had expected. I began under the influence of Wagner’s own theories and these naturally emphasized the distance between the composer’s proposed innovations and the current operatic practice. Turning from the theories to the works themselves, I gradually discovered just how deeply indebted to traditional operatic procedures Wagner remained to the end. Today, my admiration for Wagner’s control over unprecedentedly long spans of time is greater than ever, but my understanding of how this control was achieved has been transformed.

Beyond Reason cover
Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche (November 2016)

But Wagner was not only a great composer; he was also a significant dramatic poet and a restless thinker. The second aim that guided me here has been to see the ideological import of Wagner’s dramas against the background of the worldviews that were current in his lifetime and, in particular, to confront his works with Nietzsche’s critique. What connects the two aims is my conviction that a grasp of Wagner’s large forms affords insights into the dramatic and philosophical implications of his works. It turns out that the music dramas of Wagner’s later years reacted to every major component in the complex ideological landscape that emerged during his century, a landscape which, I believe, is still the one we inhabit today. The confrontation with Nietzsche, a rival cultural prophet, takes a particular urgency in this context, since what was at stake in the philosopher’s objections to the artist was precisely the ideological import of Wagner’s works.

Also here the direction my project took surprised me. Like so many people today, I had begun loving the music, but suspecting the message. Having finished the project, I still love the music and still find some aspects of the message disturbing, but disturbing for different reasons and in different works. My understanding of the Wagner-Nietzsche relationship has been transformed too. I had begun convinced first, that Nietzsche’s objections to Wagner were by and large well taken and second, that the study of their encounter would be likely to illuminate Wagner’s dramas, but not Nietzsche’s books. Today I still admire Nietzsche’s critical acumen, but I also see not only that Wagner’s works can defend themselves surprisingly effectively against some of the philosopher’s central strictures, but also that these works implicitly offer an unexpectedly perceptive critique of a number of Nietzsche’s most cherished doctrines. This is why I felt the need to amplify Nietzsche contra Wagner with Wagner contra Nietzsche.


Karol Berger is the Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts, Department of Music, Stanford University. His award-winning books include Musica Ficta, A Theory of Art, and Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow.