Monday, January 17, 2005

Friedrich Nietzsche in Concert!

Tell me my faults and mend your own.--Poor Richard

This last week I borrowed a friend's recording of some classical musical compositions by Friedrich Nietzsche. Those familiar with the 19th C. German philosopher will recall that he not only sacrificed his academic career for the sake of promoting the work of Richard Wagner (The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music) and then broke with him quite sharply (Twilight of the Idols), but he had immense musical aspirations of his own (to go along with his world historically grand opinion of himself more generally).

A group of musicians gathered for a project affiliated with Concordia University in Montreal to record performances of Nietzsche's musical work in 1993. The album I'm listening to is a two CD set of works for piano, piano and solo voice, and works for chorus released by productions Concordia. This same group has released a recording of the orchestral and orchestral/choral works on a separate disc.

Nietzsche's musical work was only published in 1976. This is one of the first publicly released recordings of his work. Given his stridently opinionated views concerning the music of his time, it is interesting to hear what he himself comes up with. I have to say, there is a reason this music is not more familiar. It has its virtues, but he is clearly not a major composer.

Having said that, his work is not embarassing, either. I've only listened to the disc twice, so my opinion might change, but the piano pieces tend to remind me of Schumann. They share an exploratory, essayistic quality and the lack of pretense that a composition will have an overarching, unifying motif or structure. The most striking thing about the pieces as a whole is the way they develop a mood or tonality for several minutes, make a sharp turn, and veer off into something almost completely different. It is tempting to say that he simply was not well enough-versed in the conventional methods of musical development even to reject them effectively. Still, there are moments of real beauty and interest. There are intermittent flashes of Bach and Mozart in the mix. The compositions on this set are from his youth, so it is probably not fair to be too critical.

Moments in a couple of the choral pieces evoke Rennaissance era works for vocal ensemble.

The last piece for voice sets to music a text by Lou Andreas Salome, the female intellectual who was a significant intellectual and personal influence on Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud. Nietzsche had fantasies of her being some combination of wife and disciple. She wasn't feeling him, though the two of them had a time for a few days that culminated with a picture of her in a cart cracking an unthreateningly short whip over Nietzsche and their mutual friend, Paul Ree, who were out in front of the cart and harnessed to it.

I wouldn't say she was cracking the whip to get him to stop composing, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't so he'd quick write another one. Still, this is an interesting place to get a very earthly and distinct perspective on the phenomenon and legend that was Nietzsche.

This music improves the more you listen. Some of these other discs include later stuff I haven't heard yet.

Nietzsche recordings:
The Nietzsche Music Project
The Compositions of Friedrich Nietzsche, Productions Concordia
Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. II- Compositions of His Mature Years (1864-82)

Lou Salome:
Lou von Salome