Review of Nietzsche et la musique by Georges Liebert (1995), translated as Nietzsche and Music by David Pellauer and Graham Parkes, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL, 2004, x+291 pages including index, ISBN 0-226-48087-9.

(I was invited to write this review, but when I submitted it, the editor said that it was "too negative," and rejected it. In my opinion, that editor was politically correct, and pusillanimous, and several other things that begin with a P.)

This book falls short of every expectation that it arouses. The disappointment begins immediately, with the few measures of music notation placed as a sort of frontispiece opposite the title page, showing the beginning and ending of Tristan und Isolde, connected and arranged by Richard Strauss. Since the whole point of the Tristan harmony is the avoidance of the resolution of the "Tristan-chord" until the very end of the opera, the connection shown is self-evident. The authority of Richard Strauss is not required to ratify such a statement of the obvious. Further perusal will reveal that this is merely decoration -- neither the resolution of the "Tristan-chord" nor the reference to Richard Strauss are relevant to anything in the body of the book -- and that this musical red herring is the only bit of music notation in a book that purports to deal with music.

Then one begins to read, only to discover that Liebert's idea of writing is to string together as many quotations as possible. There are more direct quotations in the text than words written by the author. The fact that much important information is relegated to inflated endnotes serves to aggravate the opacity of the style. Having penetrated this jungle, one is displeased to discover that most of the book is not about "Nietzsche and music" at all, but about Nietzsche's quarrel with Wagner. But even on this over-expounded subject, there is hardly a ray of illumination, hardly a glimmer of insight.

Chapters 1and 2 deal with Nietzsche's early musical education, his love of music, his ability as an amateur pianist and composer, and his discovery of Wagner. Chapter 3 is a tiresome replay of Wager's garbled ideas about the theater of ancient Greece, together with an attempt to convince one that Nietzsche adopted Wagner's misconceptions in The Birth of Tragedy. Chapter 4 describes Nietzsche's Wagnerism.

Chapter 5 introduces the inquiry that occupies approximately half the book: why did Nietzsche turn against Wagner? Liebert begins by explaining that Nietzsche was disgusted by the philistines in the audience at Bayreuth. He continues by proposing the ludicrous idea that the reason was Nietzsche's ill health. Lest this reviewer be accused of misunderstanding or exaggerating, here are Liebert's own words (page 69):

               Confronted with the experience of the four dramas of the Ring, compelled to the 
               sustained, multifaceted attention they demanded, Nietzsche now suffering pain in his 
               eyes and violent migraines, retracted his earlier statements.

In Chapter 6, Nietzsche turned against Wagner because the drama limited the development of the music. This leads Liebert into a rehash of the ancient fruitless polemic about the primacy or non-primacy of music among the arts. In Chapter 7 it is Wagner's endless melody that turned Nietzsche against him. In Chapter 8 it is the religiosity of Parsifal to which Nietzsche objected. In Chapter 9 it was all a misunderstanding. (Most of this chapter is taken up with a totally irrelevant discussion of Wagner's attitude toward Schopenhauer.) Finally, in Chapter 10 Nietzsche returns to classic ideals, and becomes fond of Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Mozart, and Offenbach.

In short, the book is misnamed. Only Chapters 1, 2, and 10 deal with Nietzsche himself and his relationship with music. Most of the book -- Chapters 3-9 -- is about Nietzsche's infatuation with Wagner and his subsequent recantation: matters that had already been trampled to death before Liebert began to meddle with them.

In spite of the misleading title, there is almost no hard information about Nietzsche's own compositions. There is no catalog of works. A few of the compositions are mentioned here and there, even described in general terms, but one can seek them out only with the help of the index. The few facts given are confined to the Preface and its endnotes. A discography of sorts is also given in the Preface and one of its endnotes, but there is no way of knowing if it is complete.

The author's superficial accounts of a few of Nietzsche's works are inadequate. For example (page 23):

               In Schmerz ist der Grundton der Natur, the introductory counterpoint quickly turns into 
               a disorganized and quasi-expressionist succession of alterations, chromatic 
               progressions, and sharp dissonances.

This passage cries out for illustration with a few staves of music notation, but there is none. It is obvious that no musicologist was involved, together with the several philosophers, in the writing, translation, and production of the book.

The format is muddled and confusing. There are five inextricably tangled levels: Liebert's own text; direct quotations from Nietzsche; direct quotations from what others have written about Nietzsche; endnotes many of which contain lengthy direct quotations and lengthy expository text by Liebert; and direct quotations of short phrases that Liebert embedded in his own text, apparently because he felt that he could not have said it better himself. This last is especially annoying, and the following example (page 62) will demonstrate how annoying it is:

               To "those who can hear," Wagner asks them to help him discover the culture that his 
               music proclaims because it is the rediscovered language of the "correct feeling" and 
               because this has always been perceptible in the music of the German masters, which 
               is "the enemy of all convention, of all artificial alienation and unintelligiblity between 
               human beings."[11]

And here is the full text of endnote 11:

               11. Richard Wagner in Bayreuth
, 282. If music was the "rediscovered language of right 
               feeling," this was because, according to Nietzsche, who here links up with Rousseau, 
               language was "sick," worn out with overuse, and having removed "itself as far as 
               possible from the vivid emotion that at its origin it knew how to express in total 
               simplicity," in order to "seize the domain of thought, the opposite of feeling," "its force 
               was exhausted in this inordinate extension during the short span of modern 
               civilization." Thus "in the decline of languages," man had become "the slave of words" 
               and conventions.

The result is a toilsome morass of quotations. Some are run into the text and others set off from the text, without any real consistency. There are too many notes: the actual text, 204 pages long, evokes 942 endnotes. There is too much information in these endnotes: both direct quotations and additional text by Liebert. The onus is upon the reader, to navigate this labyrinth and to discover what the author has to say, if any.

Again, lest this reviewer be accused of exaggeration, here follow some statistics on Chapter 6, the chapter concerned mainly with the controversy (mostly irrelevant to the alleged subject of the book) about the preeminence of music. In its 23 pages of text, the chapter contains numerous direct quotations from Nietzsche (on 18 pages) and Wagner (on 11 pages) and Cosima Wagner (on 5 pages). Other authors quoted directly are: E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eduard Hanslick, Anton Schindler, Marcel Beaufils, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rene Ghil, Adolphe Appia, Stephane Mallarme, Andre Schaeffner, and Jean Cocteau. The 23 pages of text call forth no less than 109 endnotes: 63 notes merely identify the source of a quotation, but 46 notes contain additional direct quotations of significant length (some exceed 100 words). Again there are numerous quotations from Nietzsche (in 12 notes) and Wagner (in 10 notes) and Cosima Wagner (in 4 notes) Other authors quoted directly in the endnotes are: Arthur Schopenhauer, Carl Dalhaus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Mattheson, Thomas S. Grey, Franz Liszt, Marcel Beaufils, Robert Bailey, Isadora Duncan, and Jacques Copeau. In 14 of these 46 notes, the author has added expository text of significant length, and 6 other notes contain only such additional text

One of the most unattractive characteristics of this book is the author's pitiful inability to make a statement without grasping at any available authority. For example, on page 88 he apparently does not feel qualified to state, on his own recognizance, the truism that there is no music without form or convention. Instead, he covers himself by writing:

               But, as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger recalls to Walther, there is no music without 
               form or convention.

Another example: on page 16, Liebert, wishing to dramatize the simple fact that Nietzsche began at some point to compose music, but apparently unable to do so without help, writes:

               ...already for some years he had been composing -- generally in haste, with a "kind of 
               frenzy," [quoted from a letter from Nietzsche to his mother] in the grip of that power 
               Goethe calls the demonic, [italics in the original] which, in music, "stands so high that 
               no understanding can reach it." [quoted from Conversations of Goethe with Johann 
               Peter Eckermann

Yet another example: on page 12, Liebert hasn't the courage to tell us that Nietzsche was insensitive, if not actually hostile, to paintings. He attempts to condone, as it were, this trait:

               Like Wagner -- who also did not frequent the museums during his long sojourns on the 
               peninsula -- Nietzsche could have said of the plastic arts and of painting in particular, 
               "It is like a curtain one pulls to conceal the seriousness of things."

The source given in the endnote is "Note by Cosima Wagner in her diary." Whether the quotation is to be attributed to Richard Wagner himself or to his wife Cosima, the opinion expressed is questionable, to say the least. In either case, it in no way explains or justifies Nietzsche's tastes, nor is such justification necessary or relevant.

In some places, despite the dense smoke screen of quotations, a passage of original text by the author is glimpsed. Alas, more often than not one wishes he had stuck to his over-quoting. For example: on page 27, discussing Nietzsche's Lieder, he writes:

               But for one or two exceptions, the texts are not by Nietzsche. He borrowed them from 
               poets, including...[list of five names].

Liebert is apparently unaware that the greatest composers of German Lieder, such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler, hardly ever wrote their own texts for their Lieder, but mostly "borrowed" them from published poetry.

Another example: on page 14 Liebert informs us that Nietzsche familiarized himself with great music by playing piano transcriptions, then embarks upon the following disquisition:

               Before the advent of radio or records, the piano, by way of transcriptions, constituted 
               the principal means of coming to know music. It ordinarily provided a richer and more 
               refined knowledge than does simply hearing a concert or a recording. The amateur, 
               groping his way through a piece, finds himself reconstructing it so as to grasp its 
               internal coherence. As a result, he gets closer to the composer who "hears" his score 
               while he fills in the staves, more so than does the passive listener on whom it imposes 
               itself as something self-contained, with the obviousness of something natural and 

To put the best possible face on this would be to call it arguable. Some might find in it profound wisdom; others, like the present reviewer, might consider it so much snobbish stupidity. In any case, such a dubious thesis ought to be presented as an opinion, and not stated baldly as if it were God's own truth.

In the production of this book, the translators, editor(s), and publisher have also been remiss. There is a certain amount of carelessness which, unfortunately, seems to have become commonplace even in quality academic publications. Thus, the "Preface to the French Edition" begins on page vii. but its endnotes on page 207 are headed "Forward." Occasionally the English translation is ungrammatical or garbled. On page 145 we read: "...this petulant summary of nonetheless is incorrect." On page 69, in a passage quoted in this review, we read: "...compelled to the sustained, multifaceted attention they demanded..." But there are worse things:

Page 8 bears the following: " Wagnerian leitmotifs, which do sometimes have the indiscrete (sic) insistence that he reproaches them for..." And again on page 217, in note 46 to Chapter 3: "...something which Nietzsche may have seen as an indiscrete (sic) revelation of what he was going to say..." Since this error appears twice, it is probably not merely a misprint. Someone does not know the difference between "indiscrete" and "indiscreet": the sort of ignorant mistake one expects to find in a cheap tabloid newspaper.

On page 66, in a quotation from Wagner in the Ellis translation, "Gesamtkunstwerk" is twice translated "common artwork"; on page 94 Liebert writes (or is translated) "the total work of art." Both expressions are awkward and inaccurate. A professional, conversant with the materials, would know that the standard translation (for instance, in Grout and Strunk) is "universal artwork,"

On page 152, there is an amusing paragraph listing several fictional characters who come to grief as a result of listening to Tristan und Isolde. Referring to Thomas Mann's novella Tristan, we read: "...whereas on each hearing the councilor Spatz is threatened with dyspepsia and stomach cramps..." This is wrong on several counts: This character hears excerpts from Tristan only once, and as a result is not merely "threatened with," but actually suffers stomach cramps. But worst of all, the character is not a man but a woman, not a "councilor" but Magistratsraetin Spatz, the wife of Herr Spatz, a member of the town council. Whether this error is the result of ignorance or merely the carelessness of the translators, the point of the reference is blunted. This detail is part of Mann's cruel parody of Wagner's opera. Spinell and Frau Kloeterjahn are analogous to the lovers Tristan and Isolde, and Frau Spatz, Frau Kloeterjahn's constant companion, is analogous to Isolde's handmaiden Brangaene. In the opera the lovers meet secretly while the king and his courtiers are out hunting; in Mann's novella Frau Kloeterjahn plays from a piano transcription of the opera for Spinell while all the patients in the sanitorium are away on a sleigh ride. In the opera Brangaene climbs to the top of a tower to guard the lovers; in the novella Frau Spatz goes up to her room because Wagner's music gives her a stomach ache.

The book was published by the University of Chicago Press, arbiters of style, and the publishers of that holy writ of academic publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style. In the thirteenth edition, on pages 281-2 it is written:

               The temptation to use apt quotations gathered during research may lead, in extreme 
               cases, to self-effacement of the author and irritation of the reader.

And on page 412 it is written:

               It is desirable, however, that the note section not overbalance the text.

Ah, if only the University of Chicago Press had, in the case of this book, taken its own advice!

Sad to say, our conclusions are negative. The author, the translators, the editor(s), and the publisher have all short-changed the reader (and purchaser). It is painfully obvious that all the philosophers involved in the book's production did not see fit to involve a musicologist. Thus, although much philosophical expertise is exhibited, no musical expertise is in evidence.

Academics sometimes cynically take advantage of someone else's spadework, but this book is not even useful for that. One cannot mine it for apt quotations because it is so hopelessly disorganized. It offers neither coherent hard information nor original insight, but only second-hand opinions. The bottom line is, that the book is not only misnamed: it is misconceived and misbegotten.