Nietzsche Illustration

Friedrich Nietzsche: gifted composer or a wannabe?


Friedrich Nietzsche is primarily noted for his philosophical work, but as André Schaeffner said: “In the whole history of philosophy it would be impossible to find another philosopher who frequented musicians to such an extent”. Besides being friends with musicians, such as Wagner and von Bülow, Nietzsche frequently contemplated music. He alludes to music in many of his literary works. A lesser-known fact is that he was an aspiring composer himself.  In an overview of his work, thoughts, and contemporary reviews, we’ll attempt to find an answer as to why he never became as famed a composer as he was a philosopher. 

Nietzsche began composing when he was nine, but, as he wrote, those were “efforts of an excited child to transfer chords and sequences of tones to paper and to sing Biblical texts with a fanciful piano accompaniment”. Comparing this wunderkindism to Mozart, for example, one wouldn’t exactly label Nietzsche a ‘’child prodigy’’. But as a young man, he continued pursuing his musical path, and some years later he founded a musical society named Germania with Wilhelm Pinder and Gustav Krug. Besides exchanging ideas and compositions, they aimed to keep in touch with up-to-date musical courses, so they subscribed to Die Zeitschrift für Musik, the only Wagner-friendly music magazine at the time. After an introduction to Wagner’s works, the gentlemen bought von Bülow’s piano transcription of Tristan und Isolde and spent entire days playing it. That marked the beginning of Nietzsche’s admiration of Wagner and his music (admiration being an understatement, but that’s an entirely different story). Nietzsche, albeit not as talented, was a prolific composer – the sheer number of works he composed by the tender age of nineteen was not to be overlooked – The Book of Contemplations from 1863, testifies of his commitment to composing, containing numerous songs, a piece for violin and piano, the Allegro and Adagio of a sonata to be played as a duet. That was the year Nietzsche decided what path he wanted to pursue in life, and he announced to his mother that he had decided to become a composer because the “thought of going to a university bored him”. The following year he moved to Bonn, the center of Schumannism. Feeling inspired, he wrote “eight charming musical settings” (as he himself described) of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso and Sándor Petőfi, directly influenced by Schumann’s style. When he sent them to his family, they replied with the score of Manfred. This piece was probably an inspiration for his later piano Manfred-Meditation (1872), which turned out not to be meditative for the composer at all. Namely, Nietzsche sent the score to his friend, von Bülow, who replied with strident criticism: “Your Manfred-Meditation is the most extreme case of fantastic extravagance, the most unedifying and anti-musical instance of notes placed on music paper that I have come across in a long time. Several times I had to ask myself: is the whole thing a joke?”. Also, in all politeness and with “no offense intended”, he called it “a crime in the moral world”. Well, friends can be cruel sometimes. After three months of silence, disenchanted Nietzsche decided to apologize for his alleged ‘’musical crime”. However, such harsh words didn’t deter him from composing, although he took breaks from it ever so often. 

Nietzsche never managed to overcome his perpetual boredom, and he enrolled at the University in Leipzig in 1865.  Whilst pursuing a University degree, he abandoned his music career, but having in mind he wasn’t a terribly successful composer, that was probably the best move. His professor, philologist F. W. Ritschl, considered him a gifted young man, but he wanted his talents focused on his field of study, so Nietzsche gave the music the go-by, and focused on semantics. Despite this dissociation, music was still a big part of his life: “In comparison to music all communication through words is shameless. The word diminishes and makes stupid; the word depersonalizes. The word makes what is uncommon common”. He drew analogies with music in his literary works as well, comparing his The Genealogy of Morals to a sonata and Thus Spoke Zarathustra to a symphony – more precisely he equaled its first book to the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Quite a daring comparison, don’t you agree?  

His musical ‘’rest’’ lasted for a few years and then… well, he fell in love. Even though he was not a relationship guy (although he was in love with Cosima Wagner, another ‘Nietzsche–Wagner’ thing), Nietzsche proposed to psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé (twice) in 1882, but he got friend-zoned, hard. When his (over)protective sister Elisabeth heard about his infatuation with her, she did her best to keep him away from that “immoral woman”. This affair, though, blossomed into his first piece after the pause – the Hymn to Life for chorus and orchestra that was supported by the second stanza of Lou Salomé’s poem Lebensgebet. However, Nietzsche’s contemporaries were not impressed by the flower. Namely, Bayreuth conductor, Felix Mottl, offered to perform the piece, but the audience was less than delighted. The score, for which Nietzsche hoped to be remembered and which he regarded as a testament of sorts, was sent to Brahms. His reply was incredulously polite: “Johannes Brahms begs to present his sincerest thanks to you for what you have sent him, as also for the honor he esteems it to be, and the great stimulus he derived from it. With his most respectful compliments”. Nietzsche was profoundly flattered and wrote that “nobody else has acknowledged receipt of the Hymn, except Brahms”. Nietzsche probably never questioned his conspicuously favorable feedback, but Brahms’ actual opinion of his work, as Max Kalbeck reports, wasn’t as embellished: “I’ve done it! I’ve extricated myself beautifully from this Nietzsche business. I simply sent him my visiting card and thanked him politely for the stimulus he had given me. The amusing thing is that I quietly avoided mentioning the music at all!” 


Nietzsche’s another attempt at music (equally unsuccessful), was Hymn to Friendship. This piece represents a synthesis of all his musical influences, making it a peculiar mosaic of plagiarism: thematic material was taken from the Hymn to Life, harmonies that allude to Brahms and Wagner, echoes of Chopin and Schumann, and plenty of fill-ins in the form of keyboard ramblings – a quirk of his that marked his entire musical career (after the mental breakdown in 1889, as a patient at Jena Clinic, he still improvised at the piano). This work represents a paradigm of non-originality, influences poignantly obvious in its comprehensive output. His admiration for certain composers, however, was usually intense, but short-lived. According to Josef Viktor Widmann, Nietzsche’s views and opinions were rather inconsistent. After the accident in 1889, it could’ve been attributed to Nietzsche’s mental illness, but before that, it was… well, Nietzsche. A rare case of everlasting love that “represents a continuity of musical taste only temporarily interrupted by successive infatuations for Schumann, Wagner and Brahms” was with Bizet’s music. At first, Nietzsche didn’t know anything about the author of “the best opera at present existing”, so when he found out that Bizet had been dead for some time, he was crushed. After seeing Carmen for the first time, he wrote to his sister enthusiastically: “So strong, so impassioned, so graceful, so Southern!” and he claimed that “I was very ill, but I am well again, thanks to Carmen”. Despite his enthusiasm, Bizet’s influence isn’t evident in his music. 

Nietzsche was demonstrably devoted to music, he was a listener, lover, and composer. But was he truly gifted or merely a wannabe? Well, in his own words:

“When for any length of time I am allowed to think of what I choose, I seek words for a melody I possess, and a melody for words I possess, but the two together will not harmonize, despite the fact that they both come from one soul. But that is my fate”.

He probably was aware of the mediocrity of his works, as he once said:

“You see I am really, as Wagner said, an unsuccessful musician, just as he is an unsuccessful philologist”.

Was it due to the lack of talent, commitment, originality, or the inability to understand the essence of the compositional process? Likely a combination of all the above-mentioned factors that ultimately resulted in him failing as a musician. However, since music is an expression of one’s inner yearnings and emotions, we should do nothing but salute Nietzsche’s attempt to compose his soul out.