Subscribe to Christianity Today
Nietzsche and Music
University of Chicago Press, 2004
304 pp., $52.00
Bruce Ellis Benson
The Dance of Thought
Nietzsche experienced music as authentic reality and colossal power. Music penetrated to the core of his being, and it meant everything to him."1 That Rudiger Safranski opens his monumental biography by focusing on music should almost certainly come as a surprise, probably even for many Nietzsche scholars. After all, isn't the "real" Nietzsche all about such topics as the death of God, the will to power, the superman, and nihilism—topics that have kept the Nietzsche industry humming away? Indeed, the reality is that most scholarship on Nietzsche—even that by first-rate Nietzsche scholars—virtually ignores the prominence of music in both his life and thought. As Georges Liebert notes, "Nietzsche's repeated avowal is often cited: 'Without music, life would be an error,' but almost as though it were a quip. Rarely is the decisive importance music, in fact, had for the economy of his thought recognized." While it would be too much to say that no attention has been given to Nietzsche's relation to music,2 there is no full-scale work on Nietzsche that does this subject justice.
Sadly, that remains true, despite the appearance of Liebert's Nietzsche and Music. Liebert suggests that Nietzsche's oft-quoted aphorism can be taken to mean that "music makes us forget life" or that "life [is] understood only as music." Clearly that first possibility could hardly be what Nietzsche intended. The second possibility is Liebert's ostensible point of departure, and yet he never really gives us a thorough investigation of how music affected Nietzsche's own thought, even though he is thoroughly aware of the profound influence of music in all of Nietzsche's works.
That said, Liebert does provide us with a rich exploration of Nietzsche's relation to music, which was key to his very existence. Some of Nietzsche's most memorable moments were those spent in improvising at the piano. He wrote to a friend that, at such times, he often felt as if he had moved beyond the realm of ...