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There is nothing in the natural world, or in the inner and outer life of man, that does not find its counterpart in the all-embracing realm of tones. Music as symbol is the whole of all things…

“They who were two and divided now became one and united.”

—Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan and Isolde

erosI come before you this evening not as a Wagner scholar but as a tutor from St. John’s College and a lover of music. At St. John’s, students read and discuss works by some of the greatest minds in the Western tradition. Music has a central place in our program. Freshmen spend a year singing great choral pieces, and sophomores study the elements of music through the close examination of works by Palestrina, Bach and Mozart, to name a few. Wagner is on the program. Seniors, in their seminar classes, discuss Tristan and Isolde along with other great works by authors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tristan is the signature musical work of the senior year, just as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion enjoys that distinction in the sophomore year and Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the junior.

As my title indicates, I plan to combine reflections on Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will from his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, and Wagner’s portrayal of erotic love in Tristan and Isolde. I take my cue from Nietzsche, who called Wagner’s drama “the actual opus metaphysicum of all art.”[1] What is the meaning of this pronouncement? In what sense is Wagner’s musical rendition of death-devoted love metaphysical?

It is well known that in the middle of working on his epic Ring cycle, the composer read Schopenhauer’s book at the urging of a friend and was enthralled. Wagner had found in the philosopher’s cosmic pessimism a perfect articulation of what he, Wagner, was feeling at the time and what he thought was the ultimate truth about life. The musical genius had found his philosophic muse, and the pessimistic Schopenhauer, whom Wagner called “a gift from heaven,” replaced the utopian Feuerbach as Wagner’s intellectual hero.[2] The offspring of this conversion was Tristan and Isolde.

Schopenhauer, as it turns out, had no use—and no ear—for Wagner’s chromatic harmonies. Wagner sent him a beautifully bound copy of the Ring with the inscription, “from respect and gratitude.” The grouchy philosopher was not impressed. He instructed the Swiss journalist, Franz Wille, to convey a message to his friend Wagner: “but tell him that he should stop writing music. His genius is greater as a poet. I, Schopenhauer, remain faithful to Rossini and Mozart.”[3] The response was rude but not surprising, since Schopenhauer, who played the flute (not, like Nietzsche, the piano), was a lover of diatonic catchy tunes. My concern in this talk, however, is not with personal stories but with the philosophic teaching of the one man and the Tristan music of the other. Where do the teaching of Will and the music of Eros meet, and where do they part company? What light can Schopenhauer cast on music, a phenomenon at once familiar and mysterious? And how might music and Eros reveal each other’s elusive depths?

My talk has three parts. In the first, I present Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will, with special attention to music and a few tonal events in Tristan. In the second, I turn to Wagner’s depiction of Eros and its connection with Schopenhauer. In the third, I offer a brief final reflection on Wagner’s metaphysics of Love.

Music, World and Will

The World as Will and Representation is Schopenhauer’s masterpiece. It has two volumes, the second being a further explication of the main parts and themes of the first. The principal volume is divided into four books. Thomas Mann, the greatest admirer of Schopenhauer in the twentieth century, called the book “a symphony in four movements.”[4] Mann, himself a cosmological pessimist and self-styled “musician among the poets,” was keenly sensitive to the central role that music plays in the work. In his lengthy essay on the philosopher, Mann observes that Schopenhauer, who was very musical, “celebrates music as no thinker has ever done” by making music metaphysically significant.

As its title indicates, The World as Will and Representation depicts the world as having two distinct sides or aspects. One side, representation, is the topic of Book One. As representation or Vorstellung, the world is everything that is vorgestellt, “placed before” us and made present in the daylight of consciousness. Although a more accurate rendering of the word would be “presentation,” which suggests original coming-to-presence rather than the imitation of something original, I have chosen, for the sake of ease, to keep the traditional term. Representation is the realm of perceived objects—finite determinate things that appear in space and time and interact according to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, through the relation of cause and effect. Representation is the world as a well-ordered surface.

Schopenhauer turns to the other, inner aspect of the world in Book Two. He uses terms from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: whereas representation is the world as appearance or phenomenon, will is the world as thing-in-itself or noumenon. Will, here, is not a psychic faculty and does not refer to choice. It is not my will or your will, or God’s will, since for Schopenhauer there is no God. Will is the universal force and infinite striving that underlies all things and rises to self-awareness in man. Schopenhauer calls the will “eternal becoming, endless flux” (164). As the world’s “innermost being” and “kernel” (30-31), will is the source of meaning (98-99).[5] Viewed from the standpoint of will, life is more than the perception of objects; it is also feeling and care. Objects of representation are the vessels of my care. They are meaningful and important to me in all sorts of ways. This object I desire and strive to possess; that one I avoid. This event I hope for; that one I dread. This human being I love; that one I despise. My body, for Schopenhauer, is the embodiment of my care. It is the seemingly concrete reality to which I am intimately joined and which I care about in a thousand ways. My living body reminds me that I am constantly in the condition of seeking to preserve my life and to stave off harm, pain, frustration and death. My being and my life consist in striving to be and to live. I cannot escape striving, not even when I sleep, for it is more obvious in dreams even than in waking life that representations matter to me and are the creatures of my care. Dreams are my hopes, fears, anxieties and desires made into a private movie, often a surreal one. I might be tempted to say that as a human being with a certain nature I am subject to this care. But Schopenhauer goes further. For him, I am this care, this infinite striving to be and to live as this individual with this body.

Dreams are to desire what the whole phenomenal realm is to the noumenal will. Schopenhauer reminds us repeatedly that what we call life is no more than a dream. The will is not the cause of the world, since causality operates only within the dream world of phenomena or appearances. There is no intelligible principle or creator God that is responsible for the natural order. Nature is unaccountably there, just as human beings are unaccountably there, “thrown” into existence. The will does not cause nature but objectifies itself as nature—just as our care objectifies itself in dreams. Hence the phrase, “the world as will and representation.” Will objectifies itself in a fourfold way: as inorganic nature, plant life, animal life, and human life. The self-manifestation of the will is especially noteworthy in the case of our bodily parts, which are so many ways in which the will objectifies itself: “Teeth, gullet, and intestinal canal are objectified hunger; the genitals are objectified sexual impulse; grasping hands and nimble feet correspond to the more indirect strivings of the will which they represent” (108).

The identity of will and meaning shows why music is metaphysically significant. For Schopenhauer, music, especially melody, “speaks not of things but simply of weal and woe as being for the will the sole realities.”[6] From the standpoint of the will, being is meaning. Music is unique among the arts because it depicts the inner world of care, or rather the world as care. Music is pure meaning apart from all objectivity. It is the artful, intuition-based revelation of the world heart. That is why music is not an elitist who speaks only to her learned inner circle but rather the “universal language” that is “instantly understood by everyone,” intuitively and without the aid of concepts (256).

To exist as a human being is to be, for Schopenhauer, an egocentric individual afflicted with insatiable desire; in particular, sexual desire. To be is to be subject to what he calls “the miserable pressure of the will” (196). In the third act of Wagner’s drama, Tristan suffers this pressure at great length. It is the living hell into which the love potion, or rather Love itself, has thrust him. The will, as I noted earlier, is infinite striving—striving with no ultimate good or end. Moments of contentment and joy appear, to be sure, but only as passing tones, ripples in a sea of frustration, ennui and renewed desire. To live is to suffer. Schopenhauer here reveals the hard edge of his pessimism and “tragic sense of life.” He cites approvingly poets like Calderón who define original sin as “the guilt of existence itself” and affirm that it would be better never to have been born.[7] Viewed in this light, death becomes a positive good—the correction of an error. It is, as Schopenhauer puts it, “the great opportunity no longer to be I” (vol. 2, 507). Wagner’s lovers in Act 2 give musical utterance to this longing for non-individuality.

Schopenhauer’s recurring image of life as suffering is the wheel of Ixion. Ixion was King of the Lapiths. After being shown hospitality by Zeus, he lusted after Hera and tried to seduce her. For this attempted outrage Zeus bound Ixion on a wheel of fire and consigned him to Tartarus. Only once did the wheel of torment stop—when Orpheus descended to the Underworld and charmed its inhabitants with his song.[8] This relief from suffering, for Schopenhauer, is the psychic therapy that all fine art offers, in particular the art of music. Music represents the will as thing-in-itself, meaning apart from all things, words and pictures. But music also gives us momentary relief from the fiery wheel on which we are bound, the wheel of infinite longing. In music, as in all aesthetic contemplation, we are no longer self-interested individuals but “pure, will-less subject[s] of knowing,” subjects who are “lost in the object” (209). In art, as Schopenhauer puts it, “[w]e celebrate the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still” (196).

The third part of Schopenhauer’s book is devoted to the arts, which are beyond the principle of sufficient reason. This is evident in music where tones, though tightly connected, have no causal relation to each other. The opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, does not cause the second.[9] A stranger to causality and deduction, art is the intuitive apprehension of the Ideas, which Schopenhauer takes from Plato. The Ideas are the eternal archetypes of nature—Mineral, Plant, Animal, and Human.[10] The human Ideas are the universals of experience, as we find them depicted, for example, in the plays of Shakespeare.[11] Art is therapeutic because, as the aesthetic contemplation of universal Ideas, art detaches us from the particular objects of our care. To behold the sufferings of Oedipus or Lear is precisely to be taken away from our own.

Art, however, is not an enduring release from Ixion’s wheel and offers only “occasional consolation” (267). The fourth part of Schopenhauer’s book takes us from the artist to the saint, who alone is truly happy—if we can call resignation happiness. The saint has neutralized the will to be and to live through the knowledge that objects of care are nothing but illusion (451). Thanks to this enlightenment, he needs no artworks. The pacification of the will makes the saint good. In the obliteration of his ego, he is released from private suffering—in particular from erotic longing—and free to feel compassion for the suffering of other human beings and even for that of animals (372).

Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music appears in Volume One of his book and again in Volume Two. These chapters contain the most fascinating discussions of music one will ever read. They are an attempt to identify music as a source of truth, indeed the deepest truth: “The composer reveals the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand, just as a magnetic somnambulist gives information about things of which she has no conception when she is awake” (260). Music reveals the world as thing-in-itself, as will. It is, as Schopenhauer puts it, “an unconscious exercise in metaphysics in which the mind does not know it is philosophizing” (264).

Dissonance in music is the phenomenal representation of will as tension. It is the sounding analogue of desire, longing and the erotic in general. Dissonance yearns for its resolution as desire yearns for its consummation. The suspension is a good example of how dissonance works in music. In a suspension, two lines or voices start out in consonance but then produce dissonance when one of the voices moves while the other holds. A resolution then follows. Here is how Schopenhauer puts it: “[Suspension] is a dissonance delaying the final consonance that is with certainty awaited; in this way the longing for it is strengthened, and its appearance affords greater satisfaction. This is clearly an analogue of the satisfaction of the will which is enhanced through delay.”[12]

The term “analogue” is important here. The suspension is not the image or likeness of a specific desire that is eventually gratified but rather a tonal event that communicates, in a purely musical way, a universal truth about the will. When Schopenhauer says that music is the universal language, he is not being poetic. He means that although tones are not words, they function intuitively in the same way that words function conceptually—not as likenesses of the things they signify but as symbols, bearers of universal meaning. In music, this meaning is directly perceived rather than inferred. Listening to music is non-verbal symbol-recognition.

Music as tension or force flourishes in the tradition of modern tonal harmony. This tradition reaches from Bach and Handel, through Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, up to Brahms and Wagner. It experienced a rebirth in the last century in the form of neo-Romanticism, which was a reaction against the twelve-tone music of Schoenberg. Tonal music, as opposed to the mode-inspired music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, exhibits a play of forces—tonal dynamism. This music is friendly to the language of will, for will is tension. The musicologist Heinrich Schenker applied this very term to music: Tonwille, the will of the tones. In tonal harmony, tension is not confined to isolated events, like the suspension, but pervades the whole of a musical work and constitutes its unity. “Tonal” refers to the rule of a single tone, the tonic or keynote, to which all the other tones in a tonal work point or, as some prefer to say, the centrality of the tonic triad, the I-chord. These tensions compose the major scale and cause it to sound like a journey with clearly defined stages and a predetermined end: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.[13] Tension is especially urgent in degree 7, which strives toward 8, as desire craves satisfaction. Degree 4 tends, less urgently, down to 3. Together, degrees 4 and 7 produce the dissonant interval of the tritone. This is the best example of directed tension in music, since the tritone, when combined with degree 5 in the bass, makes up the dominant seventh chord, which points to the tonic triad and so fixes the music in a key. Thanks to their dynamic relations, which operate at many levels, tones and the triads they form generate musical wholes through the artful prolongation and eventual resolution of their will-like tension.

Wagner’s Tristan takes full advantage of musical tension as a symbol of Eros and Will. Indeed, tension here is thematic. The opera highlights extreme chromaticism, constant unresolved cadences and the deceptive shifting of tonal centers. These phenomena form the tonal analogue of Eros as infinite longing. As others have noted, Wagner’s opera pushes tonal harmony and musical tension to the absolute limit and extends the striving of tones over the course of several hours in what seems like one unbroken arc.[14] The opening phrase of the Prelude, with its famous “Tristan chord” resolving to a dominant-seventh chord, is perhaps the most powerful evocation of tension-as-desire in all of music. The phrase sets up a cadence (or rather musical period) that is not completed until the very end of the opera, when the crashing waves of the orchestra overwhelm the transfigured Isolde before settling into the blissful, post-climactic froth of B major.[15] Richard Strauss attached this final cadence in B major to the opening A minor phrase of the Prelude to reveal in brief the harmonic arc of the whole opera.[16] In Schopenhauerian terms, the immense prolongation of tonal tension in Tristan is the noumenal interior of the lovers’ prolonged phenomenal eroticism. More cautiously stated, it is the analogical, symbolic representation of that interior. The universal undying truth of the story is not in the death-bound lovers but in the tones.[17]

The central teaching of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music is that music is “a copy [Abbild] of the will itself,” not of the Ideas of the will, as in tragedy (257). The notion of music as copy is problematic, since there can be no copy of something utterly indeterminate and therefore uncopiable. How can music, with all its intricate detail, be a picture or copy of the will, which Nietzsche rightly called “the unaesthetic in itself”?[18] But for now let us go with the flow of Schopenhauer’s theory. All the arts, for him, objectify the will, but the non-musical arts do so “only indirectly.” They present universality through the medium of things, whether the Parthenon or the character of Cordelia. Music, by contrast, makes no such appeal and represents the world’s pure subjectivity—the world as process or flux.

By music Schopenhauer means “the sacred, mysterious, profound language of tones.”[19] This signals the primacy of what Wagner was the first to call “absolute music” and we now call instrumental music.[20] For Schopenhauer, music as the language of tones captures the Absolute through non-visual representations. It is the will “speaking” to us through the medium of composers, who are the will’s symbolists, somnambulists and high priests. Because tones are meaningful all by themselves, Schopenhauer can make the astonishing claim that music, in passing over the Ideas and everything phenomenal, “to a certain extent, could still exist even if there were no world at all” (257). The reason is that music, in negating the world as thing, contains that world from the perspective of its deepest interior, its heart. Schopenhauer states this with maximum concision in another work: “Music is the melody to which the world is the text.”[21] In other words, tones all by themselves represent the indwelling, immortal spirit of the world. If we imagined the phenomenal world as a staged opera, or a movie, then the orchestral parts would stand to this world as inner to outer, essence to appearance, truth to seeming. As I observed earlier in the case of Tristan, the real drama, the world-process in its universal truth, would be taking place not in what we see but in what we hear. It would be a drama of tones.

But although music transcends the world of things, it is also deeply connected with that world. The four parts of a string quartet or chorus capture in symbolic form the four natural grades of the will’s self-objectification. The bass part is the analogue of inorganic nature, the tenor and alto parts of plant and animal, respectively. As for the soprano or melody Schopenhauer writes: “in the melody, in the high singing, principal voice, leading the whole and progressing with unrestrained freedom, in the uninterrupted significant connexion of one thought from beginning to end, and expressing a whole, I recognize the highest grade of the will’s objectification, the intellectual life and endeavour of man” (259). Melody, the mythos and symbol of human life, “relates the story of the intellectually enlightened will, the copy or impression whereof in actual life is the series of its deeds.” But melody also goes beyond outward deeds, since it relates “the most secret history [my emphasis] of the intellectually enlightened will, portrays every agitation, every effort, every movement of the will” (259). Even death finds its correlate in the world of tones. Death in music occurs in modulation, where a key-change “entirely abolishes the connection with what went before” (261).[22]

To sum up, there is nothing in the natural world, or in the inner and outer life of man, that does not find its counterpart in the all-embracing realm of tones. Music as symbol is the whole of all things. In Schopenhauer’s words, “we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will” (262-3). Music, if it could speak, would be perfectly justified in proclaiming what Tristan and Isolde say at a climactic moment of their duet in Act 2: “I myself am the world.”

This is the first essay in a two-part series. The second part can be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally delivered as an address to the Wagner Society in Washington D.C (October 2016).  


[1] “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” (8), Untimely Meditations.

[2] The influence was so strong that Wagner changed the end of the Ring cycle to reflect a Schopenhauerian view of the world. Instead of a tribute to love, Brünnhilde would sing: “Grieving love’s/ profoundest suffering/ opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end.” Ultimately, however, Wagner returned to his initial idea, in which Brünnhilde’s final profession of love for Siegfried (“In bliss your wife greets you!”) balances and corrects Wotan’s grim resignation and provides the right closing note for the whole cycle. Schopenhauer was dear, but the demands of art were dearer. See Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen: A Companion, Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington.

[3] David Cartwright, Schopenhauer: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[4] “Schopenhauer,” Thomas Mann: Essays, tr. H.T. Lowe-Porter, New York: Random House, 1957, p. 283.

[5] Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the edition by E.F.J. Payne, New York: Dover, 1969.

[6] Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, tr. E.F.J. Payne, Oxford: Clarendon, 1974, p. 430.

[7] Schopenhauer quotes from Calderón’s Life Is a Dream: “For man’s greatest offence is that he has been born” (Vol. 1, 254). This is “the guilt of existence itself”—original sin. Death is, in effect, the correction of an error. Schopenhauer would say to the dying individual: “You are ceasing to be something which you would have done better never to become” (Vol. 2, p. 501).

[8] Ovid, Metamorphoses 10, 42.

[9] Schopenhauer makes this point in The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: “In just the same way, the succession of sounds in a piece of music is determined objectively, not subjectively by me the listener; but who will say that the musical notes follow one another according to the law of cause and effect?” (p. 127, tr. E.F.J. Payne, La Salle: Open Court, 1974)

[10] The Ideas for Schopenhauer differ from how Plato describes them. For Schopenhauer, the Ideas cannot be genuine beings, for that would undermine the ultimacy of the irrational will. They are no more than eternal modes or ways in which the will objectifies itself.

[11] These archetypes recall Vico’s “imaginative universals.” See The New Science of Giambattista Vico, tr. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, (Cornell NY: Cornell University Press, 1988). See Paragraphs 381 and 460.

[12] Vol. 2, 455-6. An even better instance of the connection between dissonance and will is the appoggiatura or leaning tone. This unprepared dissonance on a strong beat delays a tone of the melody and intensifies expectation. It is the perfect tonal analogue of longing. A good example occurs in Tamino’s love song in the Magic Flute. Tamino gazes on a picture of Pamina and falls in love with her. By singing in response to seeing, he moves from the world as representation to the world as will. His repeated leaning tones on the words “I feel it,” “ich fühl es,” embody the universal truth of erotic love.

[13] Victor Zuckerkandl calls these tensions dynamic qualities (The Sense of Music, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, pp. 18-28).

[14] See Carl Dahlhuas: “It is not that Wagner anticipated Schoenbergian atonality; there was never any question of his abandoning the principle of tonality, and he used to attribute emotive and symbolic significances to tonal relationships. Yet the harmonies of Tristan point the way to the dissolution of tonality, the emancipation of melody and counterpoint from preformed chordal associations” (Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 64).

[15] Strauss called this final moment of Tristan “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the history of music” (Dieter Borchmeyer, Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 367).

[16] Reproduced in Borchmeyer, p. 367. Strauss’ reduction of the opera to its simple harmonic period lays bare the most beautiful part of Wagner’s design: the use of the minor subdominant of B major, the E minor chord that binds the opening phrase in A minor to the B major cadence at the end.

[17] “The longing of the lovers is merely objectified in the poem and plot: it is expressed directly in the music” (Elliott Zuckerman, The First Hundred Years of Wagner’s Tristan, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, p. 17). In Kant’s terms, the words and images are the schematism of a pure concept (Critique of Pure Reason).

[18] Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy. David Cartwright puts the problem very well: “Schopenhauer’s account of music ended, however, with a dissonance. Music was said to be the copy of something that cannot be copied—a mirroring of an original that cannot be reflected, a representation in tunes of that which cannot be represented” (p. 318).

[19] Payne, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, p. 432.

[20] See Wagner on Music and Drama, selected by Goldman and Sprinchorn, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988, p. 171.

[21] Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, Payne, p. 430.

[22] Elliott Zuckerman applies this claim about death in music to Wagner’s drama: “If the unexpected movement into a remote key is, as Schopenhauer hyperbolically maintains, like death, then the second and third acts of Tristan represent (as they should) a continuous dying” (p. 19).

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