Skip over navigation

The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapter 19

Chapters 17 & 18

Chapters 20 & 21

Summary

The modern manifestation of the Socratic culture is the "culture of the opera." In opera, speech is melded with music to form a half-song, intended to intensify the pathos of the words. But, because the singer is torn between speaking clearly and showcasing his musical talent as a singer, his art is neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. The operatic endeavor to affect both the conceptual faculties and the musical sensibilities of the hearer is unnatural and inartistic. Ironically, the inventors of this style of recitation imagined that opera heralded the reawakening of the Old Greek music. The longing for the idyllic, pure man of ancient times drives this mentality. The recitative form used in opera was regarded as the rediscovered language of this primitive man. This art was created to fulfill an unaesthetic need, in the optimistic glorification of man, and thus cannot truly be called art. Opera does not represent the birth of the artist, but of the theoretical man, the critical layman.

Opera's Socratic impulses can be seen in its subjugation of music to the text. The operatic man cannot understand the Dionysian depth of music, and so he relegates music to the background. This action represents the "idyllic tendency of the opera," which seeks to see the primitive man in his ideal state at the heart of all men. The creators of opera fundamentally misunderstood the essence of that Old Greek music which they sought to bring back to life.

Opera does not concern itself with the elegiac sorrow of eternal loss, but rather with the cheerfulness of eternal rediscovery. While at first this seems a delightful picture of reality, one soon realizes that this reality is nothing but "silly dawdling," a mere phantom in the face of the terrible seriousness of true nature. This parasitic art form quickly degenerates into dilettantism, having divested music of its Dionysian-cosmic mission and setting it on a course toward empty joy.

There is hope, however for the awakening of the Dionysian spirit in the modern world. Those who champion the cause of simple, superficial beauty in art will quake before this new form: German music. Just as the German philosophers Kant and Schopenhauer exposed the limits of Socratic thought, German music promises to reverse the disgusting trend of modern music and bring it back to its roots in Dionysus. In fact, this rebirth of the tragic age in German culture simply means "a return to itself of the German spirit." By comprehending and embracing the true nature of Greek tragedy, Germany is returning to its own true origins, finally free of the intrusive influences that had stifled it.

Analysis

Nietzsche opens his critique of modern artistic culture with a fierce attack on opera, which he sees as a completely degenerate form of music. The three elements of opera that he finds offensive can be defined as follows. First, opera, as a recitative art, combines text with music in such a way that the music must always be slave to the text. Second, opera champions an idyllic conception of primitive man that sooths us with its quaintness but that cannot satisfy our metaphysical needs. Third, opera suggests that every man is an artist, and thus it must cater to the cheerful tastes of the laity.

The emotional nature of operatic half-sung speech is, in Nietzsche's view, hollow and fundamentally inartistic. Nietzsche, as we have seen from his critiques of other art forms, has a purist view of art that will not permit individualistic songs of woe. He goes so far as to call opera's tendency to mix representative text with music "unnatural." Nietzsche responds fiercely to the claims of opera's creators, who believed that they were reawakening the spirit of Old Greek music. On the contrary, he said, opera cannot even be considered art, let alone a reawakening of old Greek forms. The flaws inherent in the operatic style stem from a fundamental misconception of the Greek spirit of art—a misconception that Nietzsche strives to correct in his essay.

This misconception is the idea that 'primitive man' existed in an idyllic state of nature, wherein he was naturally good and artistic. Thus, opera is motivated by the entirely unaesthetic need to optimistically glorify the primitive man. Nietzsche's scorn for the common man is evident: "The premise of the opera is a false belief concerning the artistic process, in fact, the idyllic belief that every sentient man is an artist." Nietzsche identifies a dangerous trend in opera that seeks to satisfy the artistic demands of the laity, who should have no business defining artistic trends.

Having established his framework for what is artistic and what is not artistic, Nietzsche continuously frames that which he criticizes in the terminology of non-art. When discussing the operatic imitation of Greek art forms he writes, "what a cheerful confidence there is about these daring endeavors, in the very heart of theoretical culture!" The creators of opera were doomed to failure because of their Socratic mind-set, as Nietzsche explains it. Their "cheerful optimism" in their ability to restore Greek art forms is reflected in the optimism of opera itself. We may point out that Nietzsche himself is cheerfully optimistic about his ability to discover the "true" nature of Greek tragedy by means of analysis. By writing his essay as he does, he condemns himself to be bound to the very Socratic tendencies that he despises.

Nietzsche makes an extreme case against the "fantastically silly" reality represented by opera in order to lay the ground for his staggering revelation: German music will bring about the rebirth of tragedy. Furthermore, German philosophers (Kant and Schopenhauer) have already laid the groundwork, as they have attacked the Socratic certainties of science. He describes German music as "a demon rising from the unfathomable depths," in order to contrast it with the superficial beauty of other musical developments. This demon cannot be made to speak, and thus is aligned with the Dionysian. Nietzsche reserves the rediscovery of the dark, universal spirit of Dionysus for German music alone, setting it apart from all other cultural art forms. Nietzsche does not specify the ways in which German music is more 'demonic' and less 'silly' than music from other countries, as he takes it as a given. Furthermore, this rebirth of tragedy in German music is not a function of Germans imitating Greeks, but rather, Germans rediscovering the tragic spirit within them what has been overshadowed for so long by intrusive, foreign influences. Nietzsche's aesthetics are strongly nationalistic.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us