His mother took keyboard lessons after the death of his father, apparently because music was so important to her son. She wanted to offer it to him as his father did. Soon, Fritz was taking lessons of his own.
He played after only a few lessons (which were then halted possibly for financial reasons) and was perhaps able to improvise even before that, quite naturally imitating what his young eyes might have seen his father’s fingers doing on the keyboard. His powers of observation were always very strong.
In his late teens, a friend of Nietzsche’s tried to introduce him to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde but Fritz didn’t like it. He was more interested in Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt at the time. Nietzsche annually recieved gifts of sheet music for Christmas, both at his own request and at the thoughtfulness of others.
Fritz started composing piano pieces for himself around 1857. Perhaps more than being in nature, music was a major source of enjoyment for him. It is interesting to note that he planned in his teens to write a mass, a requiem, and an oratorio for Christmas. Not much came of any of this grand design, but it was definitely music for the Church that he sought to compose initially. Instead, he did some musical noodling, a few short pieces for piano and for acappella choir.
One such choir piece was “Miserer," a six-minute song composed when he was 16 based upon Psalms 51. This Psalm is specified in the Holy Bible as being written “for the choirmaster.” It is one of the few direct references I know of between Fritz and the Bible. Nietzsche generally leaves out every other verse of the Psalm to shorten it so that it can be sung in the tune he so artistically desired.
Prior to this, a song composed in 1858 used a single verse, Psalms 42, verse 7, as the lyrics for the choir. The lyrics are musically copied from a section of Handel’s Messiah. In effect, this is Fritz taking ownership of piece of music he must have heard often as a child. After all, it was Handel’s Messiah. It was meant to be preformed in Church.
Up to 1861, Fritz focused mainly on his Church trilogy and related music but then a change occurred in his composing style. Increasingly, his compositions became more secularly classical. He used poems and prose instead of biblical references for his choral pieces, beginning – significantly – with the planned for Christmas oratorio. One might compare this moment back with his taking from Handel’s Messiah for his hymn. He wrote a presto and fragments of other common classical music forms. The lyrics for the oratorio fragment are apparently his own.
Nietzsche composed several pieces as gifts, particularly at Christmas time. In the grand exchange of sheet music for Christmas, he made a couple of contributions, often to his sister, Elizabeth. There’s no doubt that Fritz played piano for his family at gathering times like Christmas and Easter. His musical abilities during his student years show maturity and dexterity, with an improvisational flair.
Albumblatt is typical of his improvisational style. It was written during the Nietzsche’s Easter holiday of 1863 while at home with his mother and sister. No doubt he played it for them, perhaps as compensation for not going to communion. Here was the wonderful, art-like, “interpreter of time” for Franziska and Elizabeth to enjoy.
From the liner notes of a CD of Nietzsche’s early compositions: "Nietzsche did not often comment on these activities. This may be in consequence of the fact that he did not have a teacher of composition, and that he had little opportunity to compare his work with the efforts of other aspiring composers. In later years, after he had abandoned composition as a means of self-expression, he made occasional remarks in which he spoke quite well of the creative musical efforts of his younger years."
By 1874, Nietzsche had composed the vast bulk of his work. With few exceptions, only some modifications and revisions of earlier works were made in subsequent years of his life. Most were songs and incomplete fragments of musical ideas, but a few of these later musical works were impressive classical achievements. For example, with the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, Fritz sent several respected musician friends a copy of his composition for piano known as “The Manfred Meditation.”
Hans von Bulow was extremely critical of the work. Wagner and Liszt both thought it was not masterful, but a worthy composition. John Bell Young writes: “The Manfred Meditation is Nietzsche's most famous musical composition, not only due to its revival after its long neglect in the repertoire, but for the controversy it stimulated in its own day. Hans von Bulow, to whom Nietzsche sent a copy of the score, proclaimed the philosopher/composer had, with this work, 'raped the muse of Euterpe.' That was an unfair judgment, one born out of von Bulow's irrational jealousy of Nietzsche's close friendship with Richard and Cosima Wagner; Cosima had left her husband von Bulow for Wagner some years earlier. In fact, the Manfred Meditation is a most persuasive composition…very much an orchestral work, one that cries out for orchestration, something that Nietzsche had very much wanted to do, but never did.”
Another completed composition that shows merit is “Nachklang Einer Sylvesternacht” (Echoes of a New Year's Eve). Fritz finished this piece early in his life, in 1864. He wrote a couple of variations later, including one for a violin accompaniment. John Bell Young writes of the performance of this piece on his CD: “This sprawling work is surprisingly appealing and robust. The Dionsysian middle section, with its Pagan peasant dance, gives way to an almost Schubertian sensibility before the conclusion. The final measures orbit a pedal point of 12 repeated notes in the bass, symbolizing the stroke of midnight and the chimes of a clock. The piece forms part of a 3-work musical autobiography of sorts; he recycles its motive material in his Manfred Meditation (also for piano 4 hands) and a similar work for violin and piano. Composed in 1871 at the height of his friendship with Wagner and his wife Cosima, Liszt's daughter, Nietzsche presented the Nachklang as a gift to Cosima on Christmas Day of that year, which happened to coincide with Cosima's birthday.”
His keyboard experiences and sketchy attempts at composition gave Nietzsche a genuine depth of musical knowledge. He understood the compositional differences between, say, Beethoven and Schumann. Music not only moved him emotionally, it was an idea he understood at a technical level. Beyond this, he frequently impressed others with his improvisational abilities and was often asked throughout his years as a professor to entertain on the piano at parties and social gatherings.
Music, as Nietzsche intuitively understood it, was the highest form of human artistic expression. This prepared him for two further primary influences in his life: Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner.