Beyond Good and Evil

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzshe and Music, performed on March 8, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on twentieth-century thought can hardly be overestimated. During his lifetime his popularity among his contemporaries was remarkable. Also sprach Zarathustra (1885) was to the fin de siécle generation what Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) had been to young people at the end of the eighteenth century. Nietzsche’s thought was later instrumental in providing the framework for the criticism of the nineteenth century that became central to modernism after 1914. His work celebrated the subjective, the power of the human individual and the triumph of the spirit. Precisely these ideas, however, permitted his work to be appropriated by pre-fascist and fascist movements. In editions skillfully edited by his sister, Nietzsche’s work was rendered popular in a manner fundamentally at odds with its own philosophical positions, and became a rich source of intellectual justification for the Nazis. It took many decades for English-speaking readers to shed the distorted view of Nietzsche as a proto-fascist. French readers, however, saw through the distortion more readily, and immediately following World War II, found in Nietzsche a key forerunner of existential philosophy. Indeed Nietzsche’s influence on Heidegger and Jaspers in the 1920s and 1930s sparked a revival of interest years later in Nietzsche as the father of existentialism. A related aspect of Nietzsche eventually emerged in American intellectual thought in the 1960s, when the image of his troubled brow became an icon for younger generations, and his famous epigraph “God is dead” found its way to many a graffiti-covered wall. This perspective on Nietzsche’s work is perhaps just as distorted as the fascist appropriation, but it clearly demonstrates the one consistent feature of his work: its profound elusiveness, and its shifting and enigmatic rhetoric that seem to lend themselves so easily to a variety of agendas. That protean rhetorical quality has more recently caused Nietzsche once again to occupy center stage in intellectual life, as literary theorists take delight in his breathtaking ability to “deconstruct.” Nietszche’s life has in no small way added to the ongoing fascination with him. He never married, became enmeshed in several triangular relationships, and finally suffered madness as a result of syphilis. Insofar as madness itself has been a category of analysis and criticism in contemporary thought, that fact alone has only inflamed the controversy about the seemingly infinite attributions of meaning behind his words.

What made Nietzsche so popular and electrifying in his lifetime, and what made his writing so important in the twentieth century to groups holding diametrically opposing views, is the fact that, with few exceptions, Nietzsche did not write philosophical treatises. He was first and foremost a poet–a poet in prose and verse. Nietzsche’s aphoristic prose, as rhetorically complex as any poem, was particularly inspired by Emerson, who used a dynamic rhetorical strategy to undermine explicitly the notion of an all-encompassing, logically constructed system. Thus two composers as diverse as Strauss and Delius can find radically contrasting sources in Nietzsche, contrasts which speak to the elusive and almost chameleon-like quality of Nietzsche’s work. It is often asserted that Strauss was no intellectual and could not possibly have understood Nietzsche, yet Strauss’s grasp of the irony, sarcasm, and inversion of conventional wisdom which are the hallmarks of Nietzsche’s writing suggest the deep affinity between philosopher and composer.

Indeed, it seems inevitable that Nietzsche’s philosophy should have a strong connection to music, since his writings are so much about language and the collapsing of those artificial oppositions that underlie our precious systems. What better language than music to escape the tyranny of a certain kind of logical thought? Nietzsche wrote extensively about music and musicians. He harbored ambitions to be a composer and was himself a pianist. He never lost his awe for musicians and for the power of music. In this sense he is a successor to E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) and Jean-Paul Richter (1763-1825), who saw in music an instrument of consciousness, expression, and meaning that eluded, transcended, and overpowered mere reason. Nietzsche was clear about his own debt to Artur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who privileged music above all other artistic creations in his philosophical analysis of human thought and action.

The one figure who seemed to hold the promise of the realization of music’s cultural power for the young Nietzsche was Wagner. Nietzsche understood Wagner all too well, and later came to revile and parody him. Much has been written about his ambivalent relation to Wagner, but as Kyle Gann correctly points out, Nietzsche’s musical training was (as was also the case with Schopenhauer) the result of a response to pre-Wagnerian romantic music that of the generation of Schumann and Mendelssohn. Wagner’s explosion onto the scene must have looked to Nietzsche like a violent new day, which later darkened into a realization of the dishonesty of Wagner’s aesthetic ambitions and philosophical pretensions. In his later life–his post-Wagnerian phase–Nietzsche greatly admired Bizet: he never lost his affection for Viennese classicism.

However, more important than Nietzsche’s own engagement with music is the blend of poetry and philosophy that constitutes his writings. There is a mystical side to Nietzsche, an affinity for the transcendent and reoccurring. Nietzsche’s fiery prose has remained an inspiration to those who seek to puncture the pieties about progress, religion, morality, and politics. To his readers it is evident that Nietzsche took no prisoners, as it were. In Also sprach Zarathustra he spares no profession of modern faith, including the conceits of science and the purveyors of political utopias. But as he exposed hypocrisy and the limits of language and reason, he reminded his readers that what is to be celebrated is the potential of the human being. He was the psychologist who anticipated Freud in a profound exploration of the complex and counterintuitive geography of the mind. He led a fanatical crusade against the internal mechanisms each of us develop to denigrate ourselves, to feel guilty, to submit to the authority of others, to imitate, to cower before self-proclaimed expertise, and to turn our potential individuality into a docile slavery to convention. Nietzsche hated the tyranny of modern mass politics and the world of journalism and fashion so aptly attacked by Balzac a generation earlier. He also had little use for his fellow academics and the pretensions of scholars and scientists, who in their confidence in explaining the world, reduce it to sets of useless and constricting categories. Amid this rubble left by unrelenting criticism and argument, the artist and the musician must remain unscathed, in order to make art and more particularly music seem in the modern world a still viable instrument for the realization of genuine individuality and originality. Music especially functions as an antidote to the self-imposed spiritual slavery brought to human kind by the wonders of progress.

These ideas were of course an intense inspiration for composers, and resulted in a long and diverse body of music related to the writings of Nietzsche. It is naturally impossible to catalogue tonight all of the ways in which Nietzsche asserted his influence, no more than it is possible for any one of the works performed here to offer the definitive “Nietzsche.” In tonight’s concert, therefore, we ask you to listen to two aspects of Nietzsche that are evoked by this music: the sheer beauty and power of his language, and the radical assertiveness of his allegiance to the creative individual. He is perhaps the greatest German poet after Goethe, and possibly also the thinker who most effectively argues that the making of art and the aesthetic sensibility are neither trivial aspects of humanity, nor the moral equivalents of a cultivated taste for “fashion.” For Nietzsche, the unique greatness of the human condition is best expressed by the capacity for music. We open with an example from Nietzsche’s own musical imagination, then turn to a great twentieth-century composer’s point of view. We then offer an early work by Frederick Delius especially reconstructed for this performance, after which we return to the twentieth century, and then conclude with one of the most familiar and triumphant syntheses of Nietzschean philosophy and music ever created.