Nietzsche’s Chorus

by Ezekiel Fry

Within the context of Nietzsche’s early work (namely The Birth of Tragedy), particularly when focused on the great Tragedians of Greece, the art form of music is viewed as “the unmediated language of the will,” and “provides immediate insight into the Dionysian ‘truth’ of existence.” Only through Dionysian ambiguities and formless motions, of which music may certainly be considered one, may truth, understanding, and ultimately catharsis be discerned. Music is the unseen conductor of the grand arts of human nature—tragedy and renewal. The Tragic Chorus is a collection of voices raised to describe events and encounters within the course of the play. The Chorus also functions as a sounding board, a responding note, and a grim foreshadowing to the direful events which the protagonists of the play create. The Chorus does not enter into the action of the play per say, but instead acts as a conduit to the audience’s own reaction to the difficult emotions which the play encapsulates.
When looking at these two concepts in conjunction, the relationship between the two becomes clear. If , as Nietzsche states, the form of music, and more specifically “the spirit of music,” is the most efficient way to decipher “Dionysian ‘truth’” then it would seem natural that the musical accompaniment to a Greek tragedy—the Tragic Chorus—would be the “spirit of music.” Music cannot, in the everyday sense, be seen, only felt, and therefore is a truly faceless art form. The Tragic Chorus is very much in the tradition of these musical prerequisites. The inability to stand apart, to show a single face, and, most importantly, the inability to act, defines the Tragic Chorus. Within Aeschylus’ Oresteia the Chorus hears Clytemnestra slaying Agamemnon but cannot act against her cruelty. They can only debate on the validity of such an unfathomable action as truth. By the time the inquiry is complete the action has passed and Agamemnon has been slaughtered. Much like the audience, the Chorus seems unable to believe that such viciousness is reality. Through their sightless musings, their music, the full scope and power of the murder is realized.
As Nietzsche describes, it is through the musicality of this device that the strange nature of existence is quickly pounded home. Again, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the Chorus’ music draws out the great Oedipus’ doom. He functions within his own will, but this will is softly played upon by the Chorus’ notes. The Chorus’ ethereal mass voice wails for justice and relief from pain and Oedipus responds by vowing to find the source of this masked suffering. This vow leads to his ultimate downfall. It is the Chorus, and its music, that create the tone for truth and discovery that only the great kings may discern.