New Nietzsche Translation: The Greek Music Drama (side by side with Das Griechische Musikdrama)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Das griechische Musikdrama

The Greek Music Drama

Translated by Paul Bishop

Introduction by Jill Marsden

Contra Mundum Press, New York NY, 2013

This is a translation of a text by Nietzsche not previously available in English (or certainly not in print for many years). It is the text of a lecture Nietzsche gave in the Basel Museum in 1870, closely related to his book of 1872, The Birth of Tragedy. So the lecture, along with another two weeks later ‘Socrates and Tragedy’, marks the beginning of the process in which Nietzsche moved from young lion of classical philology appointed to a chair at the University of Basel in his early twenties, to an invalid retired from academia, with no fixed abode, writing books largely ignored by the academic world. These lectures prepare the way for Nietzsche’s approach in The Birth of Tragedy where a philosophy and aesthetics influenced by Schopenhauer and by the history of German aesthetics and philosophy from the Enlightenment to Schopenhauer, is expressed through sweeping synthesising interpretations and bold claims where philological knowledge is used, but is not allowed to get in the way of a striking hypothesis.

I will  not attempt to compare what Nietzsche says  in this essay with what he says slightly later in The Birth of Tragedy, but I may return to that topic since I am teaching (the first half of) The Birth of Tragedy for a philosophy and literature course this semester. I will just note that as in the later text he regards Euripides as less of a tragedian than Aeschylus and Sophocles, at one point grouping Aeschylus and Sophocles with Pindar, and ignoring Euripides. He does also group Euripides with Aeschylus and Sophocles at least once. He does not however come up with an account of how Euripides differs from Aeschylus and Sophocles, or the cultural significance of his shift in the from of tragedies.

Here Nietzsche emphasises the role of music in Greek tragedy, going so far as too suggest that our reading of Aeschylus and Sophocles is deeply limited because we do not have the music that was used in performances. It is as if we are just reading the libretto of an opera Nietzsche suggests. This line of thought is connected with his Wagner enthusiasms of that time, so that in The Birth of Tragedy, Wagner is said to be the heir to the cultural significance of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Mozart is brought in more directly though, when Nietzsche compares the role of the actor in the Greek tragedies with the stone statue of the Commandatore which comes alive in the opera Don Giovanni. This remark in passing could perhaps be taken much further as a way in which the Stone Statue in Mozart’s opera is emblematic of the nature of art in making life out of inert matter. What Nietzsche is arguing in relation to Greek tragedy is that it is the product of a long prehistory in the Dionysian chorus. The anonymous collective experience of Dionysian destruction and rebirth is the inert material from the which characters of tragedy appear, in a way that must have been uncanny to the ancient Greek audience in Nietzsche’s account. The characters, presumably with particular reference to the hero, should not be alive, can only be alive through some strange supernatural event, and are full of a non-living substance. If we think about how the staging of Greek tragedies used drama masks, then we can see confirmation of Nietzsche’s view. The mask of a fixed expression over the face of the actor suggests something like a statue coming alive.

Statues feature in Nietzsche’s discussion when he refers to the ultra-Hellenistic mania (emphasised by Winckelmann)  for insisting on the pure whiteness of Greek statues in their original display, and the difficulty that art historians had in accepting that the statues were painted in a multiplicity of colours. There is a danger of over Hellenising Hellenism, according to Nietzsche, by which he means imposing the ideas of the Hellenic we have now on the past. Since we do not now exactly how the tragedies were staged we are in danger of an invented Hellenism in our ideas about them. We are also prey to a belief that humans cannot be strong enough to stand a pure art form, so may exaggerate the idea of a mixture of art forms in tragedy. The point here, is I presume, to suggest that the different parts of a tragedy and of tragic performance, discussed since Aristotle, should not distract us from seeing tragedy as a pure and absolute art form which makes us see something deeply painful. Nietzsche takes a critical line on Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy, suggesting that it does not apply to Aeschylus. It is certainly true that Aristotle puts forward Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the model, and that his structure of error of judgement followed by a reversal of fortunes for a happy character (ideally accompanied by an episode of recognition) does not apply to all tragedies.

Thşs publication is a welcome event, the dual text approach is one which should be used more widely. Thee is a very useful introduction and notes by Marsden. The translation is a good balance of accuracy and readability.  There is, however, no index, a major drawback. Ideally other early Nietzsche essays which build up to The Birth of Tragedy  would be included. In any case everyone concerned with reading Nietzsche in English should get hold of this book, which is an essential acquisition.


4 thoughts on “New Nietzsche Translation: The Greek Music Drama (side by side with Das Griechische Musikdrama)

    • I can’t agree, it is published as a scholarly book and scholarly books have indexes. Do you deny there is some loss of usefulness to the reader? Would the reader not benefit from having an index?

  1. To someone reading the original text translated into English without an index is comprehensible, though a bit frustrating. Personally I have no official educational history past high school, and I found this to be a refreshing summary of the lecture.

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