A Flock of Nightingales: Wagner’s Music and German Philosophy

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 2 November 2012 | 7:27:00 pm

Originally published in the, I believe now extinct, Canadian Aesthetics Journal, Volume 7, Autumn, 2002

 "My title, “a flock of nightingales”, is taken from an entry in his wife Cosima’s diary: 4 February, 1883 (about 10 days before his death): “R. tells me the nice dream he had: he was with Sch., who was extraordinarily cheerful and friendly. ] Then R. drew Sch.’s attention to a flock of nightingales, but Sch. had already noticed them.” Steven Burns

A Flock of Nightingales: Wagner’s Music and German Philosophy


Richard Wagner, composer of music dramas, reflected or interacted with major philosophical figures in nineteenth-century Germany. Some of the main intersections, especially those with Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, are described in this paper as an illustration of how one artist engages with abstract issues such as consciousness, knowledge and justice.

Richard Wagner was the most revolutionary artist of the nineteenth century. He transformed theatre, pushed music to new limits, and composed what remains the mightiest multi-media work ever: The Ring of the Nibelung, a 15-hour tale of gods, giants, dwarves, dragons—and the liberation of humankind. He is also remarkable for his interaction with some of the greatest philosophers of his time over questions of aesthetics, politics, epistemology and metaphysics, and these relations between music and philosophy are the subject of this lecture.

As a contribution to a public lecture series on aesthetics and justice, this paper is anomalous, since it is mainly preoccupied with wider philosophical questions than political justice. I shall begin, therefore, with a statement about one important way in which aesthetic judgement is related to justice, and how this may be related to my main subject.

Wagner conceived his Ring cycle as a direct contribution to the discussion of aesthetics and justice which the St. Francis Xavier lecture series was intended to provoke. It was to employ all the resources of art to express the greatest of all truths about justice: that the ancient conception of justice as adherence to the laws of the governing lawgiver needs to be overthrown, and that the freedom of the individuals in a community must become the prerequisite of a new account of justice. This is to be a democratic account, one that somehow balances the wills of free individuals in order to create a harmonious society. The freedom of art, in which harmony is nonetheless achieved among the various parts which contribute to the whole, is the model of the sort of politics and the sort of justice for which Wagner struggled most of his life—in his own eccentric fashion. Although this paper aims to make a more general point, about the relations between Wagner’s music and philosophy more broadly conceived, the relation of music to justice is an inevitable sub-theme. Those who love harmony are best suited to live in harmony.

It is often claimed that unlike much Anglo-American philosophy, nineteenth-century German philosophy is in constant dialogue with literature, theology, and politics, and that a full understanding of this period cannot be realized by attending to the officially philosophical works alone. My topic is the dialogue between philosophy and music; and I am going to approach it from the side of music, or at least of one musician: Richard Wagner. I shall begin at our end of the story: with cinema.


A film almost always has words—even the early silent films had captions printed out; and almost always they have music—even the silent films had a piano player to accompany them. Film is the great multi-media art form of the twentieth century, and perhaps of the twenty-first as well; at its best it merges authentic dialogue with sophisticated music with the imagery of a visual artist with the craft of actors with the lighting and stagecraft of theatre technicians with the narrative skill of the story-teller, and so on.

When you go into a movie theatre you sit in a seat that faces the front, there are no pillars to block your view, the lights are turned down, everything is focused on a rectangle where the story will be presented. Richard Wagner is responsible for all of that. Recollect what theatres were like in the eighteenth century. They were shaped like a horseshoe with tiers of boxes and galleries. Half the seats were in boxes that faced across to the boxes on the other side, lights were left on and people chatted, or they observed the people in the other boxes with their binoculars; lunches were served. Wagner changed all that: he built his theatre at Bayreuth so that there would be no distractions from his work of art: every seat faced the stage, lights were turned down, and so on. He did not have electricity to work with, so instead of amplifiers he had a big orchestra, but in a stroke of genius he put the orchestra beneath the stage, so the music seeped out and filled the hall as if from nowhere, or everywhere. The stage was enormous, a continuation of the hall instead of a little opening to look through; it offered wide-screen and surround-sound, if you like. So Wagner was a man of the theatre to whom we owe a great deal.

He was also a musician, a largely self-taught composer of great originality and power. Just as he idolized Shakespeare as the pinnacle of theatre, he thought of Beethoven as the pinnacle of music. He tried to teach people to listen to Beethoven in a new way, not just as a great composer in the tradition that he inherited from Haydn and Mozart and passed on to Brahms. No, Beethoven was a revolutionary composer. His last symphony, the Ninth, is called the “Choral” Symphony because it ends with soloists and a great chorus singing the “Ode to Joy”, Beethoven’s setting to music of a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Wagner’s thesis was that this was a revolutionary work and changed the history of music not because it added words to music, but because it had to. [2] The language of the traditional symphony — “absolute” music as it is sometimes called, just instruments and no voices—was exhausted. The Ninth shows Beethoven straining to express more but running up against the very limits of music. He was forced, Wagner thought, to break into words. When you next listen to the opening minutes of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, try to listen to it as Wagner wants us to: see if you can feel the music straining to express something that only becomes clear when, with great relief, the music breaks into song.

Wagner intended to carry this revolution to fulfilment. His calling, or so he thought, was to make the next great art form: music drama which combined the theatrical imagination of Shakespeare with the expressive power of Beethoven’s music.

Nineteenth Century revolutionaries

The nineteenth century may seem to be the boring bit between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. In the French one, the new bourgeois classes (who worked in professions, or amassed capital so that they owned the key means of production, the factories) overthrew the landowners and hereditary aristocracy, thus replacing one ruling class with another. In the Russian one, the exploited workers in those factories overthrew the capitalist owners of the means of production and ushered in the classless society, in which everyone owned the means of production, and all participated democratically in decision-making. Or at least that’s how Karl Marx wanted the plot to work. Of course the Russian revolution was not that at all, but a peasant revolt against a hereditary landed aristocracy. But that is another story.

1848 is the crucial year in my story. In 1848, when Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, armed revolutions broke out in many countries of Europe. They all failed, were put down by force. The people who revolted, however, thought that these revolutions would be great steps in human progress, ushering in new and more democratic forms of social organization, liberating whole classes of people who were exploited and oppressed. Wagner not only took part in one of these uprisings (in Dresden), but was forced into exile because of it. In the same year, he conceived a huge music drama. It would tell the story of the mythical prehistory of humanity—of a world in which gods and giants, dwarves and dragons, fought for supremacy. Power was symbolized by a magic ring, made of gold from the bottom of the Rhine River. There were also a few timid hobbits—humans, one should say—who were often frightened and who wondered what life was all about. A hero, named Siegfried, would come to defeat all the other powers and lead the human race to liberty by returning the ring to its place of origin.

This work is the Ring of the Nibelung (the Nibelung was the chief of the Dwarves, who started things off by stealing the gold and forging the ring). It took 6 years for Wagner to write the stories and turn them into poetry, and another 22 to finish composing the music. When it was finally performed in 1876 at his new theatre in Bayreuth, it consisted of 4 operas, was 15 hours long, and took a week to listen to all at once, because it was so strenuous that the singers needed a day off after each of the operas to recover.

It should be obvious from this sketch that Wagner had revolutionary ambitions not only for his art but also for European politics. I shall now turn to philosophy. My main theme is that Wagner’s music intersects with many of the highest achievements of German philosophy during the century in which Wagner was a dominating figure.


The greatest figure in German Idealism was G.W.F. Hegel. In a kind of hierarchalism that is not popular nowadays, he ranks the arts higher than religion in the final gesture of his Phenomenology of Spirit, but lower than philosophy. This is a hierarchy of accessibility: almost everyone can get some truth from religion, many can get some from the arts, but philosophy, the most articulate of them all, is accessible only to a few. Within the arts he builds a subsidiary hierarchy: he ranks poetry above the other arts. The visual arts have an object to contemplate. Music is not a physical object in space, but passes through the listener’s subjective consciousness in time. It is the most Romantic of the arts, because of its subjectivity. Poetry, however, is above them both, because it can evoke both the objective and the subjective. [3]

I shall return to this business of ranking the arts, but first I want to point out that it is founded on Hegel’s epistemology. It is through this theory of knowledge that I shall draw my first connection between Wagner and Hegel. I have recently translated a book by Otto Weininger, whose chief artist-hero is Wagner. Here is his description of the opening music of the Ring.

The Rhine Maidens open the cycle, innocently swimming in the sunlight above the magic gold. Their motif, their theme music, represents “the playful innocence of paradise; perfectly monistic, before the Fall [i.e., the biblical ‘Fall of man’], unacquainted with dualism; it is monism without presuppositions, naive, concerned throughout only with itself, delighted with itself. (Before the Fall = [before the Nibelung’s] renunciation of love.)” [4] So when the Nibelung gives up on love and steals the gold he shatters the innocence of the world before explicit consciousness. The Hegelian transition from an original unity of consciousness, to the dualism that allows us to make explicit distinctions, to be aware of our consciousness, is described by Weininger as being put into music by Wagner. [5]

Weininger later describes the musical motif at the beginning of the final act of the final opera as the “motif of complete detachment from the absolute” [i.e., as far as you can get from the monistic starting point], and the final motif as one of redemption from the Fall, from original sin [i.e., reconnects those two opposed points at a higher level]. That is a sketch of how Hegel’s epistemology can be seen reflected in Wagner. I now want to draw a different distinction: Schopenhauer explicitly disagrees with Hegel about the hierarchies I have mentioned, and Wagner comes to agree with Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer on Music

If Schopenhauer opposed Hegel, then a good token of his opposition is the fact that when he got a chance to teach philosophy, he scheduled his lectures at the same time as Hegel’s. Almost all of the students went to hear Hegel, and Schopenhauer very soon gave up university teaching. The key point of opposition, however, is that he disagreed with Hegel’s hierarchy of the arts. Hegel, as I have explained, put poetry at the top of the hierarchy. Schopenhauer did put poetry above architecture and sculpture and painting, but he put music above them all. In fact, he described music as being not even on the same scale as the other arts. [6]

The reason for this is that Schopenhauer claims that the real essence of the world is will, and that music is the art most removed from the material world, the world of appearance, but closest to the real world because music is the immediate objectification of the will.

This needs explaining. Wagner conceived of his Ring Cycle as the story of an emancipation. He believed in a kind of socialist utopian future to which great art should uplift his people, and which required that the palaces of the gods be burned to the ground. He was out to make the world a better place. And the “artwork of the future” that he had invented for presenting this story, was to be a total work of art, combining the other arts: music and dramatic text were to be equal partners, along with painting, dance, and so on.

In 1854, Wagner was part way through writing the second of the four operas when he was given Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation.

This was Schopenhauer’s masterpiece. The book had been conceived by 1814 and was published in 1818. It was thus the work of a young man, written at the time of Wagner’s birth. Schopenhauer himself described his system as the working out of one astonishing thought: that Plato’s Forms, the ultimate intelligible objects which constitute reality, are one and the same as Kant’s Noumena, the ultimate things-in-themselves which constitute reality. [7] This reality Kant had contrasted with the world of appearances, of things as they appear in our experiences. This world, Kant’s world of appearance, Schopenhauer called the world as representation. To this reinterpretation of Kant, he added at the last moment the conviction derived from the Hindu Upanishads that the world of appearances, of the phenomena empirically presented to our senses and consciousnesses—the material world—is Maya, a veil of illusion. [8] Furthermore, when we conceive ourselves as the individual beings who actually experience this world, these selves are merely part of that world of empirical illusion. The world is a torture-rack of unsatisfiable willing. Each satisfaction contains the seeds of another desire, and we can only twist and turn in the grip of the Will. To deny the world, and to deny all desire, to cease striving to be an independent self, is the only salvation. If the normal self is the will to life, then “nothing else can be stated as the aim of our existence except the knowledge that it would be better for us not to exist.” [9]

If we now return to the hierarchy of the arts, we can see why music is not on the same scale as the other arts. The visible and material objects of painting, dance, sculpture, etc., are representations. Music, on the other hand, goes straight to the will. Music is the direct expression of reality.

When Wagner read this he was almost overcome. It was the most powerful thing of the kind that his mind had ever known, wrote his biographer, Ernest Newman. What he felt was that unconsciously he had agreed with Schopenhauer all along, but in his conscious understanding he had failed to grasp this. Now he knew himself, and understood his own music. He would never be the same again. With his new self-understanding came a deeper understanding of his Ring as a metaphysical rather than a political allegory. “I was scarcely aware that in the working out...of my scheme, I was being unconsciously guided by a wholly different, infinitely more profound intuition, and that instead of conceiving a phase in the development of the world I had grasped the very essence and meaning of the world itself, in all its possible phases, and had realized its nothingness....[I]t required the complete subversion of my intellectual conceptions, brought about by Schopenhauer, to...supply me with the only adequate key-stone to my...drama.” [10]

We should also identify here an important influence on the idea of the equality of music and text: the original Wagner theory required a blending of the arts so that each would be enhanced by the others and none have dominance. Schopenhauer argued that music was superior, because it presented reality, the other arts only presented appearances. Here is an ingenious metaphor to explain the whole thing, both the metaphysics of reality and appearance, and the supremacy of music. Begin with the metaphysics of Time and Space. Think of the stage as the analogue of space; there the artist can present the world of objects as representations, as appearance, as visual spectacle, and as conceptual, linguistically articulated drama. Now think of the orchestra pit as the analogue of time; there in the orchestra the artist can express the world as the unfolding of the inner stream of consciousness of the characters and events on the stage. This inner awareness takes place in time, but not outside of us in three-dimensional space; music is not a material object. So, the orchestra presents the audience with the immediate expression of the real nature of things, of the unfolding of the world as will. Taken altogether, Wagner’s complete work of art expresses Schopenhauer’s complete philosophy: The World as Will and Representation. Music, however, is now the predominant art. It is the one that tells the deepest truths, and plays the most important role in the multi-media art form.

Interestingly, although Schopenhauer learned that Wagner felt indebted to him, he seems not to have admired Wagner’s musical abilities, and the two never met. Nonetheless, Wagner was responsible for making Schopenhauer famous, people started reading him again. Wagner’s respect for Schopenhauer even invaded his dreams. My title, “a flock of nightingales”, is taken from an entry in his wife Cosima’s diary: 4 February, 1883 (about 10 days before his death): “R. tells me the nice dream he had: he was with Sch., who was extraordinarily cheerful and friendly. [There is a good example of wish fulfilment.] Then R. drew Sch.’s attention to a flock of nightingales, but Sch. had already noticed them.” I do not need to draw the moral, that Wagner felt he had nothing to teach Schopenhauer, and could not impress him. Schopenhauer was the only other person in the world to whose genius he felt he must defer.

We may think of Wagner as finding in Schopenhauer a kindred spirit, a genius of philosophical articulation who made Wagner whole again by bringing to conscious awareness the unconscious will of his real self, and a theorist of the arts who led Wagner to change the conception and practice of his own musical composition. It was an extraordinary case of a philosopher having a profound influence on an artist.


I want now to discuss the first book of the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy (1872; its original subtitle was: “out of the spirit of music”). I will need to introduce his account of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles in Greek culture and subsequent art. But Nietzsche is not straightforward. He begins on the very first page to associate dreaming with the Apollonian principle of clarity and reason.

Apollo is associated by Nietzsche with the spirit of restraint, harmony and moderation which we associate with ancient Greek architecture and sculpture, while Dionysos is associated with a cruel longing to exceed all norms that found an outlet in the drunken frenzy of the Dionysian festivals and the music associated with them. Again, we have a distinction between the visual arts and music. But what a distinction! Think of a cigarette. Slim, white, cylindrical, symbol of purity and elegance. Used by heroes like the Marlboro man, and by women with the courage to stride into a man’s world holding a phallic symbol. Beauty, idealism, heroism. That is Apollonian. Now think of the devious smoke, of playing with fire, of defying reason, of flirting with the wish for death. That is Dionysian.

But what are we to make of the association of the Apollonian with dreaming? If we think of Plato’s metaphysics, we will recognize the intelligible Forms as the realm of clarity and reality, and the images of the senses as the shifting realm of illusion and dreams. We will not associate dreams with the Apollonian, but with the Dionysian. This, however, is quite wrong. In Nietzsche, dreams and illusions are the characterization of the Apollonian. How did this get upside down? The world of appearances is linked to both sense experience and concepts, so while it appears that Apollo should have been the god of the Forms, he is actually the god of the dream world, the world of clarity and individualized objects. The real world is the world of flux and endless striving.

It is clear throughout the Birth of Tragedy that Nietzsche had been having frequent long talks with Wagner. Let me pause to recall some details of the surrounding decade. In 1864 the 18-year-old Ludwig became King of Bavaria, and settled Wagner’s many debts. Wagner was already estranged from Minna, his first wife, and deeply attached to Cosima, Franz Liszt’s daughter, who was then married to Hans von Bülow. By 1866, Minna had died in Dresden, Cosima and Richard were settled at Ludwig’s expense in Switzerland, in Haus Tribschen on Lake Lucerne. Thus began the eight happiest years of Wagner’s life. At the start he finished Die Meistersinger, he and Cosima had a second daughter, he finished the prose draft of Parsifal. In 1870 they married. By 1874 he had returned to the Ring, completed it, built the Festspielhaus and was about to move to Bayreuth to live. It was near the beginning of that period of happiness, in 1868, when Nietzsche came into Wagner’s life. He was 24, about to take up an appointment (without having finished a doctorate, let alone a habilitation) as professor at the University of Basel. He visited the Wagner home on dozens of occasions, falling under the spell both of Richard and of Cosima, later to call these the happiest days of his life. Nietzsche dedicated his first book to Wagner, as a tribute to his inspiration and friendship. One sees immediately the marks of those conversations with Wagner, there are elements of Wagner’s attitude to Greek tragedy in the first part, and then we get to the parts which Wagner insisted Nietzsche rewrite, since he felt that there was not enough in the first draft about him and the future of music!

The simple story of the birth of Ancient Greek tragedy is that something startlingly new and powerful appeared with Aeschylus, was brought to perfection with Sophocles, and entered its decline with Euripides. The first 15 Sections of the Birth of Tragedy give Nietzsche’s explanation of this astonishing phenomenon. We have been left only 33 plays, but this slender evidence is all we need in order to know that we were preceded by an extraordinary culture. Nietzsche’s book is one of the few really powerful explanations of the central art of that culture. The last 10 Sections of the book do something quite different—they discuss the possibility of a rebirth of such an art form in contemporary (nineteenth century) Europe. Nietzsche intimates that Wagner is the genius whose work constitutes that rebirth.

What we moderns notice as most striking about Greek tragedy are the heroes and the chorus. So, Nietzsche explains, it is the union of the Dionysian chorus and Apollonian hero which contributes the essence of Greek tragedy. “By a metaphysical miracle...they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollonian form of art — Attic tragedy.” (§1)

But they are not really equals. Apollo stands for the dreamlike image of the individual hero, and the Dionysus “for the terrifying but intoxicating glimpse into the cruel world underlying individuation, which will destroy the hero.” §16: Music “knows how to find the symbolic expression for its unique Dionysian wisdom”: viz., tragedy. Music is not about appearance and beauty, but about rejoicing in the annihilation of the individual. “The hero...is negated for our pleasure, because he is only phenomenon, and because the eternal life of the will is not affected by his annihilation.” (§16) The plastic arts, on the other hand (sculpture, painting, architecture...) have another aim entirely: “Apollo overcomes the suffering of the individual by the radiant glorification of the eternity of the phenomenon.” That, however, is the glorification of an illusion. [11]

The concept of ‘individuation’ bears a great burden through this text. We know that it is supposed to be opposed to the ‘undifferentiated’ ground of all being. There is the primal oneness of being from which we came, and back to which we shall return. In it we lose all that we are, all our individual characteristics, accomplishments, thoughts and actions, memories and life itself. That is whence we came and whither we shall return. So the entire history of our effort to be a person, to have a character to be the agent of some actions, to be a distinct entity in the world, is included in individuation. Or consider it from an epistemological point of view: original womb consciousness, we may imagine, is mere harmony, with no contrasts between warmth and cold, between hunger and satiety, between motion and rest. So this consciousness is not OF anything, it is undifferentiated. It may be wrong even to imagine that there is consciousness here. At some point, however, distinctions are drawn. Let us dramatize this by imagining the moment of birth. Suddenly there is pain in place of comfort, then cold and bright in place of warm and dark. With these DIFFERENCES come undisputed consciousness, and with that an awareness of the difference between the subject having the experience and the object of consciousness. This, of course, invokes my earlier mention of Weininger’s interpretation of Wagner’s Rhine Maidens.

Nietzsche tells us that categorization, language, personal identity, political organization, and ethical systems, not to mention the sciences, are all stuff of this differentiation. We are to understand that the human being, in being conscious of its own mortality, can glimpse the primordial undifferentiated state from which each of us arose, and will, at least if he or she is like Nietzsche, be horrified at the contrast between the striving to persist in one’s own being which constitutes a human life and the futility of that striving given that everything accomplished will be swallowed up again into the undifferentiated. Here he clearly has much in common with Schopenhauer and Wagner. The liveliness of their vision of the transitory nature of human life and effort, their sense that it takes heroism to persevere in the face of knowledge of the truth, is painted in large and vivid colours. Anyone whose equanimity gives way even to momentary despair at human squalor or oppression, at environmental degradation or the superficiality of the human vanities, etc., has entered the territory where strength of character, even heroism, are required to carry on. That person has entered Nietzsche’s territory.

§24 gives a quick analysis of the essence of aesthetic pleasure: when we enjoy tragedy, the peculiar pleasure is not the moral pleasure imported from the realm of pity or fear, (it is not Aristotelian, that is, and not Apollonian, the origin of our morality and conventional values), but comes from “the experience of having to see at the same time that [you] long to transcend all seeing”. Again Nietzsche makes the famous claim: “existence and the world seem justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.” What is the content of this elevation of the aesthetic over the merely ethical? My approximation of the thought is that the content of the phenomenal world is dominated by conflict, pain, evil and dissonance; but these are all part of the beauty of tragic art, and only for someone who responds fully to tragedy, who finds aesthetic pleasure in it, is the world sustainable. Otherwise life just seems tragic.

Bieito's Stuttgart Parsifal
Here I have finally made a direct contribution to the subject of the Lecture Series. This claim of Nietzsche’s is a way of expressing the idea that aesthetic judgement is a prerequisite for understanding justice. It echoes my foreword, in which I claimed that the ability to apprehend harmony in music plays a similar role. I am thus in fundamental agreement with Victor Kocay, who had organized this Lecture Series around the idea that “the shape that we give to our ideology and our understanding of society [and thus of justice] is fundamentally an aesthetic question.” I am not entirely in agreement, however, with his corollary, that the aesthetic foundations in question are pure inclinations, a ‘feeling’ about what is right and wrong which is “the same sort of feeling that tells the artist when the world of art is complete.” It is important to replace this feeling in its articulate social context. The question for aesthetics is not ‘is this work finished?’ but ‘why is this work finished?’, and on that question the artist may have the last word. She is the one who decides what is to be exhibited, and what is to count as the complete work. [12] Moreover, she may be expected to have reasons for her decisions; or if she is silent, the critic will be able to articulate reasons why this figure is included, why this word is the right one, why this bass line is correct, why this work is complete. This giving of reasons is likened by Wittgenstein to the presenting of precedents in a court of law, and to the assembling of reminders by setting appropriately similar cases side by side. [13] The priority of aesthetic judgement in questions of social justice is thus not, I would maintain, to be likened to the foundational intuitions, the ‘sense data’, which are the final items in a process of analysis and which cannot be further questioned. Part of what causes our intuitions to change over time and place is the kind of reasoned questioning to which they are subject. Nonetheless, they do, in turn, provide insights and starting points for our questioning of social relations in general and of justice in particular.

I turn now to discussion of another musical example. My aim is to suggest that Wagner was not summed up by Nietzsche. On the contrary, the real influence went from Wagner to Nietzsche. On the matter of music, Wagner’s conception was that music could express aspects of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian. For consider the musical distinction between the diatonic and the chromatic. (At its simplest, diatonic harmony is achieved by using the 8 notes of the major or minor scale, while “chromatic passages introduce notes not forming any part of the diatonic key prevailing at the moment”, as the Oxford Companion to Music puts it.) The diatonic is the clear, stable Apollo. The chromatic is the constantly shifting, unsettled Dionysus. If you listen just to the opening Prelude of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, you will see the difference brilliantly illustrated. In the opening five minutes you will hear: (a) the theme of Love and Longing, which is wonderfully chromatic; (b) what is called Dresden Amen (after a hymn tune)—it is purely diatonic; (c) the theme of Faith—which is again diatonic. In the final moment of the opera—which arrives some 4 hours later—these elements are brought together in the Redemption music towards which the whole story has been moving. Wagner thus puts into music, I am claiming, the Dionysian / Apollonian distinction, and the whole Nietzschean thesis that only an aesthetic Apollonian viewpoint can make the Dionysian reality of life tolerable.

Nietzsche and Wagner met for the last time in 1876. They met twice that year. The first time was at rehearsals for the Ring, which Nietzsche fled after only one act, tormented by excruciating headaches and eye-aches. He was also tormented, some say, by the way in which Wagner was here in his element, directing scores of people with wit and charm, while Nietzsche, who had had him all to himself in Tribschen, felt left out and totally inferior. They later met a second time, in Sorrento, Italy, where Nietzsche had gone in hopes of relief from his headaches. Here they went hiking, and talked of Parsifal. But when a copy of the newly-printed text arrived in 1877, Nietzsche immediately wrote [to Reinhart von Seydlitz] that it was “too narrow and Christian for me, accustomed [as I am] to the Greeks and universal humanism.” [14] Nietzsche’s writing about Wagner grew increasingly critical, culminating in what amounts at very least to a character assassination, and to a savaging of Wagner’s work, as well.

Bieito's Stuttgart Parsifal
There is something adolescent about both Nietzsche’s idolization of Wagner, and his breaking of the filial ties. To be himself (to become himself) he had to rebel against Wagner’s insistence that Nietzsche think about Wagner’s ideas and works and preoccupations. It must be added, however, that despite the bitterness of the ensuing hostilities, at least from Nietzsche’s side, that he never forgot his “gratitude for that which of all things has refreshed me by far the most profoundly and cordially. That was without any doubt my intimate association with Richard Wagner. I offer all my other human relationships cheap; but at no price would I relinquish from my life the Tribschen days, those days of mutual confidences, of cheerfulness, of sublime incidents — of profound moments.... I declare Wagner to have been the greatest benefactor of my life.” [15] Despite the savage attack on Wagner, and partly because of it indeed, this was “one of the most remarkable friendships in the history of European culture.” [16]

Wagner first thought of composing an opera to the Parsifal story in 1845, when he was 32; he wrote the prose sketch of it in 1865, when Tristan and Isolde was just finished; he completed it the year before he died, and at the last performance in August of 1982 he slipped into the orchestra pit, took the baton from Levi, and unbeknownst to the audience conducted the last 25 minutes of the performance. “The public, according to Levi, broke into wild applause which defied any description.” Wagner refused to appear, but from beneath the stage he addressed the singers, players and staff, thanking them “in his inimitably witty and charming way.” Everyone, reported Levi, “was on the point of tears. ‘It was an unforgettable moment.’” [17] Wagner died, in Venice, on 13 February, 1983.


A more complete account of my subject would also discuss both Ludwig Feuerbach, whose attempt to restore love as an essential characteristic of human beings rather than of God had a great influence on Wagner, and Eduard Hanslick, whose reaction against Schopenhauer’s theory of music and Wagner’s music led him to formulate an important philosophical thesis in On the Musically Beautiful. It would also discuss Wagner’s anti-Semitism, its roots in his theory of art, and its horrible reflection in Hitler and the Holocaust.

Instead, I have told a partial story, the story of a great artist who can serve as a guide to many highlights of German philosophy, precisely because of the way philosophy and the arts enriched one another. He helped to make two philosophers famous, embodied philosophical theories in music, and in the final analysis he remains if nothing else the original composer of music to go with multi-media shows. He is the greatest composer of music for the movies.

But that is where we began.


Burns, Steven. “Kunst, Beweis und Urteil: zu einem Gleichnis bei Wittgenstein”, Ludwig Wittgenstein und die Philosophie des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. Herta Nagl-Docekal. Vienna: Bulgarisches Forschungs­institut, 1989. pp. 87–91.

__________. “The Place of Art in a Reasonable Education”, Reason in Teaching and Education, ed. William Hare. Halifax: Dalhousie School of Education, 1989, pp. 23–40.

Chancellor, John. Wagner. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.

Herbert, James D. “The Debts of Divine Music in Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen”. Critical Inquiry 28, 2002, pp. 677-708.

Janaway, Christopher. Schopenhauer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Lee, M. Owen. Wagner’s Ring: turning the sky round. New York: Limelight Editions, 1994.

Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Moore, G. E. “Wittgenstein’s Lectures in 1930-33”. Harold Osborne, ed., Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 86-88.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, tr. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Paolucci, Anne and Henry, eds. Hegel on Tragedy. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.

Savile, Anthony, “The Place of Intention in the Concept of Art”, in Harold Osborne, ed., Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 158-176.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, Volumes I and II, tr. E. F. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.

Shiner, Roger. “Giving Works of Art a Face”, Philosophy 1978, pp. 304-324.

Wagner, Richard. “Beethoven’s Choral Symphony at Dresden”, Pilgrimage to Beethoven and other Essays, tr. Wm. Ashton Ellis. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994, pp. 239-255.

__________. “The Art-Work of the Future”, The Art-Work of the Future and other Works, tr. Wm. Ashton Ellis. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pp. 69-213.

Weininger, Otto. On Last Things, tr. Steven Burns. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

[1] This lecture was presented in the “Aesthetics and Justice” Lecture Series at Saint Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, on 7 February, 2002. The following relevant dates were offered as a guide to the territory. Kant (d. 1824), Beethoven (d. 1827), Hegel (d. 1831), Schopenhauer (d. 1860), Richard WAGNER (1813-1883), Marx (d. 1883), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Weininger (d. 1903), Hanslick (d. 1904).

[2] See, e.g., Richard Wagner, “Beethoven’s Choral Symphony at Dresden”, especially pp. 251 ff., and “The Art-Work of the Future”, especially pp. 125-28, and 190 ff. Further bibliographical details will be found in the Bibliography.

[3] On this latter point, see Anne and Henry Paolucci, eds., Hegel on Tragedy, e.g., pp. xxi-xxiv.

[4] Otto Weininger, On Last Things, p. 75. Insertions in square brackets are mine. ‘Monism’ in this metaphysical use indicates a unitary, undivided, first state of being. ‘Dualism’ is a competing metaphysical term; two original substances cannot be reduced to unity.

[5] Readers who prefer to find this perspective in more recent commentaries may turn to Owen Lee’s account in Wagner’s ‘Ring’: “A material nature not yet corrupted, harmoniously and perfectly at one…” (p. 38); or to James Herbert, “The Debts of Divine Music in Wagner’s Ring” (cf. pp. 678-79).

[6] I am refereeing especially to §52 of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Volume I.

[7] Schopenhauer, WWR I, §31, especially pp. 170-72.

[8] This is the origin of the idea that Schopenhauer is the ultimate pessimist. Frederick Coplestone’s 1947 book, Arthur Schopenhauer: philosopher of pessimism, helped to solidify this reputation.

[9] WWR II, p. 605.

[10] Quoted by Brian Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, p. 342.

[11] Janaway, Schopenhauer, pp. 102-4.

[12] For a discussion, and justification, of this point, see Anthony Savile, “The Place of Intention in the Concept of Art”, especially section II.

[13] See G. E. Moore, “Wittgenstein’s Lectures in 1930-33”. For an elaboration of this thesis, see Roger Shiner, “Giving Works of Art a Face”. Further discussion can be found in Steven Burns, “The Place of Art in a Reasonable Education”, and “Kunst, Beweis und Urteil”.

[14] John Chancellor, Wagner, p. 264.

[15] Ecce Homo, 1888, quoted in Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, p. 268.

[16] Magee, p. 267.

[17] Quoted by John Chancellor, p. 276.