Reading Nietzsche: Philosopher as Troubadour

Nietzsche, Music, and Silent Suffering

Yunus Tuncel

The Agonist


Something that is perhaps little known about Nietzsche by those who don’t read him is that he composed music early in his life—music which was, apparently, quite bad:

Wagner politely reminded him of his poor compositions; Bülow gave a harsh critique to Nietzsche himself on his Manfred-Meditation (your music is “…more detestable than you think”), and Brahms never responded to Nietzsche’s letter. Nor was the audience well disposed towards his music. “He played one of his compositions to an audience in Basel, which was received with displeasure, according to Julius Piccard.”

I must admit, it is strange to imagine Nietzsche singing, based on the common pictures of him deep in thought, with a certain pensive scowl, although it makes perfect sense that he would sing, and do so quite loudly, considering his philosophy; “Without music, life would be an error” is one of his more quoted sayings.

And indeed, that he wrote several sections of quickly repeated sayings indicates how much music informed his work. There’s a reason people remember short, easily quoted lyrics, and Nietzsche perhaps knew better than most that people like to recite what we now call sound-bytes, and so, he must’ve thought, “why not write them for people so they remember what I want them to?” Someone without a deep knowledge of music would most likely not think of employing such a strategy, which takes into account that, for example, Americans know the first and last lines of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, but usually get very hazy in the middle.

Music is culturally important precisely because it’s easy for people to remember and recount; in fact, music, in the form of lyrical poetry, was/is used by many cultures in place of writing as a way of codifying stories of the past, solidifying values and beliefs of the collective, and even announcing current events: all of which we’ve classified generally as forms of “oral history.”

As M.T. Clanchy points out in From Memory to Written Record, even as late as the 11th century in England:

When historical information was needed, local communities resorted not to books and charters but to the oral wisdom of their elders and remembrancers. Even where books and charters existed, they were rarely consulted at first, apparently because habits of doing so took time to develop. Unwritten customary law—and lore—had been the norm… as in all communities where literacy is restricted or unknown.

And as Thomas Wright argues quite persuasively in Political Songs of England (to borrow two English examples): “A single passage of the satirist or poet will sometimes throw more light over the character of historical events than whole pages of research and discussion.”


2 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Philosopher as Troubadour

  1. Quite an interesting post! I was reading Lesley Chambarlain’s biography of Nietzsche yesterday and she quotes a passage where Nietzsche compares the different stages of falling in love with a piece of music with meeting another person. Reading it made me wonder if Nietzsche indeed used his experience with music to make sense of the world, sometimes. His writings often seem to be musical in a highly original way and are best appreciated when read aloud, I think.

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