The ‘Telephone of the Beyond’: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ethical Critique of Richard Wagner’s Artistic Program


  • Herbert Hanreich
Keywords: Wagner, Nietzsche, art, aesthetics, opera, ethics, morality


[In English]

Even before his first personal encounter with R. Wagner, Fr. Nietzsche had already been inspired by the composer’s tragic music epos Der Ring des Nibelungen and by Tristan und Isolde in view of an ethical concept which he would further develop and, finally, turn against Wagner himself. The plots of those operas – designed by Wagner as a critique of the social values of his time that later received a metaphysical touch – lay bare mechanisms of moral corruption that poison human relationships in which egotist and material interests prevail. 

Nietzsche agreed with Wagner’s diagnosis. The life he envisaged as ideal was to be built on ethical values similar to those of the ancient Greek tragedians: a life of individual moral rigor and uncompromising truths in a world without  transcendent meaning. Nietzsche called such recognition ‘tragic insight’ upon which ‘true’ life was to be built. 

Nietzsche first believed that the person Wagner was the incarnation of such a ‘true’ life which he hoped would also become the paradigm of the cultural-ethical fundament of the newly founded German empire; during their friendship they developed plans accordingly. Nietzsche had to learn, however, that his mentor was more interested in his own person than in their common intellectual program; he felt that Wagner’s metaphysical turn inspired by Schopenhauer was just a cheap trick feeding his personal vanity. The process of this gradual discovery led to the end of their friendship. 

I reconstruct this story mainly on the basis of Nietzsche’s notes published nearly seven decades after his death, leaving aside the well-discussed role of Nietzsche’s ‘aesthetical existence’.


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How to Cite
Hanreich, H. (2015). The ‘Telephone of the Beyond’: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ethical Critique of Richard Wagner’s Artistic Program. Topos, (1), 129-141. Retrieved from
Ethics and Politics in Aesthetical Spectrum