Wrapping your head around all the relationships (friendly or otherwise) among 19th century German intellectuals is a bit like whirling around with your eyes closed and then staggering to the ground. I’m going to butcher and over-simplify this but here goes. Wagner discovered and adored Schopenhauer, who had no use for Wagner. Nietzsche liked Shopey, too, and Nietzsche was a young professor who was psyched about his inside access to the elder Wagner after publishing The Birth of Tragedy, where he praises Wagner to the skies (helpful notes from Kaufmann: Sect 1-6 introductory & inferior stylistically. Heart of book in Sect 7-15, best part of book and can be read alone). Later, N broke off from Wagner’s orbit, eventually writing this treatise, calling Wagner a sickness that has duped the whole of Germany, even calling into question Wagner’s German heritage (“Was Wagner a German at all?”).
Nietzsche even playfully makes fun of Wagner’s vegetarianism. “Definition of a vegetarian: one who requires a diet that strengthens you. To sense that what is harmful is harmful, to be able to forbid oneself something harmful, is a sign of youth and vitality. The exhausted are attracted by what is harmful: the vegetarian attracted by vegetables.” Kaufmann notes that both Nietzsche’s brother-in-law and Hitler copied Wagner’s vegetarianism and antisemitism.
The nature of Wagner’s sickness is his overexcited sensibility, his “taste that required ever stronger spices, his instability which he dressed up as principles…” Oh my, Nietzsche smirks, have you ever noticed that Wagner’s characters never have children, and all his heroines are indistinguishable from Madame Bovary?! “Nothing is cheaper than passion.” Burn!
He continues to eviscerate: “Wagner is admirable and gracious only in the invention of what is smallest, in spinning out the details… our greatest miniaturist in music who crowds into the smallest space an infinity of sense and sweetness.” Continuing a few pages later, “Wagner was not a musician by instinct.” Still later:
To say it plainly: Wagner does not give us enough to chew on. His recitativo–little meat, rather more bone, and a lot of broth… as far as the Wagnerian “leitmotif” is concerned, I lack all culinary understanding for that. If pressed, I might possibly concede it the status of an ideal toothpick, as an opportunity to get rid of remainders of food. There remains the “arias” of Wagner.–And now I shall not say another word.
Nietzsche rages on, Wagner’s an actor, a dilettante, no dramatist, he loved pretty words and pretended he was too superior for the word “opera”, preferring “drama.” But Neitz blasts this, “For one thing, he was not enough of a psychologist for drama; instinctively, he avoided psychological motivation–how? by always putting idiosyncrasy in its place.–Very modern, isn’t it? Very Parisian. Very decadent.”
He saves some bite for cheery Schopenhauer, saying “the old pessimistic counterfeiter” wasn’t more honest than his contemporaries of Hegel & Schelling.
Coming in close for a knockout punch, “Neither taste, nor voice, nor talent: Wagner’s stage requires one thing only–Teutons!–Definition of the Teuton: obedience and long legs.”