Nietzsche & Wagner Debate

"Read consecutively, they can leave no one in any doubt, either concerning myself, or concerning Wagner: we are antipodes." -Nietzsche, from Preface to "Nietzsche contra Wagner"

Friedrich Nietzsche & Richard Wagner


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher, considered to be one of the first existentialists - now, considered an Atheistic Existentialist like Jean-Paul Sartre. Nietzsche's father was the town minister, and his uncle and grandfathers were well known Lutheran ministers and scholars (Wicks). Though he grew up with a very strong Christian background, Nietzsche was largely against Christian sentiments. His philosophies largely stressed individual health and wellness, as well as the importance of questioning social constructions and doctrines. Nietzsche preferred to focus on the current world instead of speculating on the nature of any world beyond life. It was while leading a music club at his prestigious boarding school that Nietzsche first discovered the music of Richard Wagner, and the young student became a great admirer.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German composer and librettist, as well as the author of over 230 books and articles covering a range of interests, both aesthetic as well as political (Salmi). Wagner largely followed in the steps of the Romantic composers (see "Total Work of Art" page for more on works). Wagner has been alternately classified as a nationalist, a proto-fascist, an anti-Semite and a socialist, while keeping his status as master composer of both letters and music.

Nietzsche and Wagner met in 1868 and became fast friends. As Wagner was about the age that Nietzsche's father would have been had he not succumbed to a brain disease, Wagner became somewhat of a father figure to Nietzsche. The problems in their relationship were slow to form. Wagner carried Nietzsche through many trials and tribulations such as his first loves and "the happiest days of his life" in Tribschen. However, their relationship soured when Wagner devoted himself to producing music and operas for a Christian audience and then himself became a Christian. Nietzsche grew repulsed by Wagner's ideologies and determined that he "belonged to another world" of his own that Richard Wagner simply did not fit into.

"Nietzsche Contra Wagner"

Written in 1888, "Nietzsche Contra Wagner" was written shortly before Nietzsche's mental breakdown in early 1889. The treatment came after Nietzsche slowly realized that Wagner's ideals and values were diverging from Nietzsche's own, and what he felt was necessary for the renewal of European culture (Ludovici). In 1850, Wagner had published The Jew in Music, an attack against Jewish composers and musicians in German society. It was this anti-Semitic view, as well as Wagner's conversion to Christianity, that troubled Nietzsche most. "Nietzsche contra Wagner" was a critical essay criticizing what he perceived as Christian motifs in Wagner's work. Although many readers were tempted into thinking that the attack on Wagner's music was simply a veiled attack on Wagner himself after the two had a petty fight. Ludovici points out that Nietzsche's disapproval of Wagner's ideologies came at a high price for the philosopher, since the decades during which the two had been close friends and maintained a father-son relationship, had been been put to waste.

Representations in Carmen

The Nietzsche-Wagner conflict essentially represents one person's decision to rise above racism and acknowledge a higher set of principles and another person's decline into social norms. Nietzsche was very much ahead of his time and was not taken in by societal norms and cultural memes that cause some quality individuals to become ignorant to the true nature of the human experience. The main characters in Carmen seem to act in accordance with the preexisting typical behavior displayed by individuals in similar positions. More over, they behave in a way that ignores rationality. The lack of logic and belief in superstition lead to behavior that appears self-destructive and dangerous. The level of ignorance in Carmen is an extreme example of this; however, the pattern of ignoring reason in an effort to fit into a style of behavior, culture, or simply selfish narrow-minded wants and desires, is comparable to Wagner's decision to convert to Christianity. To cease to think and adopt mindless patterns based on nothing more than ease and simplicity is a great show of weakness, which is why Nietzsche criticized this submission to religion as giving up autonomous thought. As an Atheistic Existentialist, Nietzsche believed humans have to carry their own burden of assigning meaning to life, even if that meaning were to be "wrong" somehow. Because Wagner took the burden off his shoulders and placed it on religion, as T.S. Eliot also eventually did, he has no courage or free life to live while others like Carmen do.

external image Opera%20Australia%20Carmen%201.jpg


Ludovici, Anthony M. "Translator's Note." The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, and Selected Aphorisms. Free eBooks from Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. 2010. Web. 28 May 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Online Reader: The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, and Selected Aphorisms". Free eBooks from Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. 2010. Web. 28 May 2011. See full text: Project Gutenberg

Salmi, Hannu. Richard Wagner Archive, Richard Wagner Archive. n.p. Web. 28 May 2011.

Vargas, Vincent. "Biography: Richard Wagner." Wagner Operas, n.p. 2011. Web. 28 May 2011.

Wicks, Robert. "Fredrich Nietzsche." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 29 Apr 2011. Web. 28 May 2011.