The relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche was of a polarised intensity.  Nietzsche went from being one of Wagner’s closest friends and admirers, to being his an ardent critic and fervent enemy. In his work The Birth of Tragedy (1868), Nietzsche regards Wagner as the redeemer of Greek tragedy and a force of good on the future of music. Yet by The Case of Wagner (1888), Wagner is shown to embody a disease, draining the last remaining life from German music and not only personifying, but actively leading the way in the cultural decadence that Nietzsche saw to be consuming contemporary society.

The Birth of Tragedy

The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music is based on Wagner’s ideas on Greek tragedy and how it could be revived in the nineteenth century. At the time, Nietzsche was a young, unknown 24-year old student, and Wagner an internationally renowned composer, the same age as Nietzsche’s father; the friendship was unequal from the start.

Dedicating the essay to Wagner, Nietzsche focused on two very Wagnerian ideas: the nature of Greek tragedy, and the fusion of the Apollonian and Dionysian. He describes the Apollonian world as the art of dreams and appearance (the arts of sculpture) and the Dionysian as that of intoxication and passion (the arts of music), brought together by Helenic will to form Greek Attic Tragedy. Whilst he believed the balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian to have been eroded with Socrates’s rationality, Nietzsche believed Wagner’s operas possessed the power to re-attain such a balance.

Nietzsche’s focus on the ‘will’ throughout this work, is wholly Schopenhauerian. Having discovered Schopenhauer in 1854, Wagner obsessively followed his ideas of the phenomenal (the world we can physically perceive) and the noumenal (everything beyond our experience). Schopenhauer believed our lives to be driven by will – a continual cycle of dissatisfaction and longing; concepts which Nietzsche builds upon in this work. Schopenhauerian ideas lie both at the crux of Wagner’s operas and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Nietzsche also emphasised the importance of Wagner’s music as a positive force in contemporary society, tracing the course of German music from Bach, to Beethoven, to Wagner. Throughout this work, Nietzsches acts as a mouthpiece for Wagner, revealing both his lack of independent thought and the immense influence Wagner had on the young student. Nietzsche was engulfed: ‘I have made an alliance with Wagner. You cannot imagine how close we are now, and how our plans coincide’.

Wagner as a disease

However, by 1888 Nietzsche had become the antithesis of the young, overshadowed student who first met Wagner and The Case of Wagner made public their developing rift.

The Case of Wagner embodies disillusionment; Nietzsche’s great hero, who held the key to the future of music, now personified the disease of decadence which had gripped Europe. Nietzsche calls Wagner a ‘first rate actor’, debating whether he was ever a musician, and retracting what he said in The Birth of Tragedy about his following the great German composers:

‘Was Wagner a musicians at all?…He belongs elsewhere, not in the history of music: one should not confuse him with the genuine masters of that. Wagner and Beethoven – that is blasphemy and really wrongs even Wagner’.

Indeed he even says that if pressed, he will concede Wagner’s leitmotif to the sole status of an ‘ideal toothpick, as an opportunity to get rid of remainders of food’. For Nietzsche, Wagner came to represent the ‘great corruption of music’, and he questions, ‘Is Wagner a human being at all? Isn’t he rather a sickness? He makes sick whatever he touches – he has made music sick’.

Condemning Wagner is only part of this attack. Condemning what Wagner represents however, is his main purpose, encapsulating the subtitle of this work, ‘ridendo dicere severum’, ‘through what is laughable, say what is somber’. The cultural decline of music and the empowerment of decadence was, for Nietzsche, part of a broader, more catastrophic concern of nihilism.

The phrase ‘One pays heavily for being one of Wagner’s disciples’ appears five times in the postscript to The Case. Throughout this work, Nietzsche questions the nature of Wagner as a musician and thinker, transforming his role from the herald of the future of music, to a proponent of cultural degeneration. Placing Wagner in a broader context of nihilism lends gravitas to what otherwise could have been seen as simply a vitriolic attack. Whether it is a successful disguise is another matter.

Nietzsche’s break with Wagner also led to a break with Schopenhauer. He came to believe that the empirical world is the only one that exists, rejecting Schopenhauer’s concept of the noumenal. And since there is no world other than the one we experience, then the only ‘meaning to life is life’, and we should therefore focus on the quality of our life rather than striving for something more. This is a substantially more optimistic view than Schopenhauer’s eternal striving of the will. The idea of denying the will to transcend the phenomenal world is at the heart of Wagner’s operas; indeed, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, Der Meistersinger and Parsifal – and most of his earlier operas too – are all entirely focused on this idea, and thus contradict Nietzsche’s personal views.

Religion was another point of contention between Wagner and Nietzsche. Whilst Wagner’s Parsifal was abundant in Christian imagery with its plot based on the Holy Grail, and advocating chastity and redemption through death, Nietzsche was a militant atheist and famously pronounced that ‘God is dead’; his religious views did not come lightly, for Nietzsche’s father and both grandfathers were all ministers, and his mother a devout Christian.

Nietzsche’s philosophical, religious and musical opinions expressed in The Case of Wagner were the exact antithesis of Schopenhauer’s and therefore Wagner’s too. Brian Magee has said that it seems almost that Nietzsche has simply turned Schopenhauer upside down. Exactly why this would be the case is evident given the personal relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche, and some events of the late 1870s.

Why such a change?

Nietzsche had clearly developed from the young idealistic student living in Wagner’s shadow and had formulated his own ideas. But there is also a hysteria at the root of his writings on Wagner which stemmed from something more personal.

The greatest affront between the two occurred in 1877. Nietzsche went to the doctor as he was going blind, commonly considered to be due to masturbation. Wagner went behind Nietzsche’s back to find out about his condition and urged the doctor to tell Nietzsche to restrain himself. When Nietzsche found out, he said that ‘there’s something sick about this man!’ ‘I worshipped him but I was taken in: he betrayed me’. He was intolerably wounded, and he even considered hurting Wagner.  This proved to be a catalyst in their already deteriorating friendship. [The cause of Nietzsche’s blindness has often been linked to syphilis which was commonly thought to be the cause of his dementia, though research is now showing that there was a strong chance of mis-diagnosis and Nietzsche’s symptoms were more suggestive of other diagnoses including frontotemporal dementia or a meningioma.]

During the later years of Wagner’s life, when he was at the height of his fame, Nietzsche felt that Wagner had betrayed his own ideas of having theatre truly subversive of the false values of society. He described the première of The Ring as a sporting event, and when it came to the première of Parsifal in 1882, Nietzsche claimed that he would only come if Wagner personally invited him as an honoured guest. This reaction shows Nietzsche’s jealousy and resentment – for years he had had Wagner to himself, and felt that Wagner was now simply succumbing to the whims of rich patrons. To compound this jealousy, Nietzsche convinced himself that Wagner had ‘stolen’ Nietzsche’s audience and those under his influence. Whilst Wagner was becoming increasing renowned and celebrated, Nietzsche never enjoyed fame in his lifetime. Unfortunately, many of Nietzsche’s comments render it hard to regard him as anything beyond a narcissist who felt under-appreciated.

A one-sided friendship

The relationship between Nietzsche and Wagner was almost a Gesamtkunstwerk in itself, centered on philosophy, religion, and music; the ultimate tenets of nineteenth-century German art and society. It was also entirely one-sided; whilst Wagner was Nietzsche’s greatest influence, and his presence loomed in every one of Nietzsche’s works, Nietzsche had absolutely no perceptible influence on Wagner whatsoever. The asymmetry of their relationship from the outset was a recipe for friction; their ages, positions in life, and temperament were diametrically opposite, and for Nietzsche, Wagner held a position of dominance in every respect. This alone did not necessarily imply such a rift would develop, but by the time of the break, Nietzsche felt he had been betrayed by Wagner both artistically and personally; a betrayal which was never to overcome.

Was Nietzsche’s sense of betrayal justified? Certainly it was on a personal level, although his comments are so marred by jealousy over Wagner’s success and power that it is hard to completely side with Nietzsche. Artistically, Wagner may have deviated from his original conceptions of art, but once he discovered Schopenhauer, his aesthetic outlook was wholly unified. Instead, it was Nietzsche’s views that changed, rather than Wagner betraying his own ideals. Such a powerful attack as that of The Case of Wagner descends from more than straight-forward artistic differences; Nietzsche himself admitted the year after Wagner’s death that it was ‘hard to be for six years the enemy of a man whom one has revered above all others’. Thus, as Brian Magee says, Nietzsche’s encounter with Wagner destroyed the ‘possibility of belief in a certain destiny for himself…he was unable to come to terms with it, and for him the problem was solved only by madness’.


Recommended reading: Brian Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2001)