Apollonian and Dionysian Symbolism

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The Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies mentioned by Nietzsche are two separate art representations. While Apollo is a representation of plastic arts, Dionysos is a reflection of music. So much so that, although these two tendencies are different, they are brother gods in mythology. They are both opposed to each other and also complementary to each other. The book titled “Nietzsche’nin Müzik Üzerine Düşünceleri (Nietzsche’s Thoughts on Music)” is described the relationship in between as follows:

              “The Apollonian taste is necessarily linked to the Dionysian ecstasy, because it is the horror and fear of universal destruction that drives us to dream the eternity through the beauty. But since the reality is before the appearance, the absolute law of formation dominates the eternity of what it will do and its destructors, so Dionysian inspiration precedes the Apollonian one. This means that music gives birth to all other arts.”

They have the characteristics of each other however, their predominant sides determine the understanding which they represent. To illustrate, an artwork that follows the understanding of art of Apollo has features from the Dionysian understanding, and the exact opposite is again prevalent. As a very simple indicator of this, the exchange of thoughts and ideas between the branches of art has existed throughout each and every era and also continues to be. Artworks that contain each other’s characteristics have passed through the filter of the other. While a painter was inspired by a symphony he/she listened to, a composer composed a work on a poem he/she read. And, these inspirations are undoubtedly reflected in their own works.

Although the movements in art change according to the characteristics of the specific period, historical events, or some other effects, the Apollonian and Dionysian arts have been differently affected by these movements, or while one follows the footsteps of one movement, the other traces another one. 

Let’s talk about the symbolism. The symbolist movement, the first examples of which emerged at the end of the 19th century, was an understanding especially directed by painters and poets. However, it is not possible to talk about a symbolist style of music as in painting and poetry even if the ideas support each other among the branches. But of course, we come across examples that are the musical translation of the aesthetics of suggestion advocated in literature or the distinctive quality in painting. 

For instance, what did the silences emphasized by Debussy in the opera of “Pelleas and Melisande” represent? These silences are actually a reflection of the symbolism of the Belgian author Maeterlinck’s play of the same name. Moreover, Debussy wanted to respond to Wagnerian experiences with this work, which is considered one of the most important works of the 20th century, therefore this opera is quite simple and realistic unlike Wagner. Debussy continued to draw inspiration from symbolist works. He composed the songs named “Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire” with poems which are selected from “Les Fleurs du mal” by Baudelaire, one of the leading names of symbolist poetry.

In the meantime, Erik Satie, has the skill of variation within a repetition that comes from to go back and forth on the same route every day, transferred the poetic play of another French symbolist novelist Josephine Péladan named “Wagnérie Kaldéenne“, which is a reference to Wagner, to the notes in his composition named “Le fils des étoile”. Even with these examples alone, we see that many symbolists’ texts lead to musical creations, although symbolist movement is not mentioned in music. 

When we come across another example, the drama named “Salomé” by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde is a work that shows the effect of symbolism on music on a European scale. Richard Strauss uses the real music of this play, whose opera was created in 1915, to transfer it into his own music. From Jacques Coulardeau’s writing on Salomé, it is said that: “Yet the music of a text is not only creating sound patterns and rhythmic patterns. It can have a wider understanding: syntactic music, semantic music and hence symbolical music. Then all musical elements come together. Strauss uses these patterns to create a comprehensive musical world.”

Apart from what we have mentioned above, we cannot ignore the fact that composers were influenced by Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist plays, such as Ernest Chausson‘s “King Arthur” or Paul Dukas‘s “Ariadne and Bluebeard”. Also, it would not be correct to consider the slow melody in Sibelius‘s “Finlandia” independently of the Finnish painter Gallen Kallela.

On the contrary, it was sometimes music that inspired symbolist painters and poets. The French symbolist painter Maurice Denis, who believed that the painting was a flat surface painted in harmonious colors, said: “Music has more and more power over my sensitivity.“. Denis liked the compositions of Schubert and Schumann, and especially Debussy, and their music demonstrates the illustration of musical theme in his works. Towards the end of the nineteen centuries, Samuel Bing, who played a role in the development of the art nouveau style, made a request to Maurice Denis for an art nouveau bedroom decorative frieze. Denis is inspired by Schumann‘s song “A Woman’s Love and Life” in this decoration. Dominating the blue color tone, this decor is a reflection of the existence, passion and love that the song describes.

Another example can be given from the work of the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Choosing the 9th symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven as a theme, Klimt made a frieze. The final part of this frieze, which consists of three parts in total, was freely interpreted to the pictorial form, inspired by the symbolism mode of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy“.

Figure 1: Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt

As it is noticed, the aim of both art tendencies (Apollonian and Dionysian) is to reflect their aesthetic view in the best way. They can reach to higher as they complete each other’s gaps. They necessarily depend on each other and make art as art.


Beethoven Frieze, 1902 by Gustav Klimt. (n.d.). Gustav Klimt: 100 Famous Paintings Analysis & Complete Works. Retrieved from: https://www.gustav-klimt.com/Beethoven-Frieze.jsp

Coulardeau, J., 2010, December 4. Salomé, An Obsessive-Compulsive Myth, From Oscar Wilde to Richard Strauss,OpenEdition Journals. Retrieved from: https://journals.openedition.org/cve/2730

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Flaccus, L., W., 2011, Sanatçılar ve Düşünürler (Artists and Thinkers), Kapı Publishingpp.38-40.

Genty, G., Houssais, L., Jouve, S., Thiébaut, P., Vergne, F., 2013, L’ABCdaire du Symbolisme et de L’Art Nouveau, Flammarion, pp.76-77. 

Laserre, P., 2007, Nietzsche’nin Müzik Üzerine Düşünceleri (Nietzsche’s Thoughts on Music), Pan Publishing, pp.14-15.

Yıldız, D., 2009, Müziğin Kehaneti-Claudio Monteverdi (Prophecy of Music), Sun Publishing, pp.19-20.

Musée d’Orsay: Maurice Denis et la musique., 2008, February 12, Musée d’Orsay: Accueil. Retrieved from: https://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/evenements/concerts/archives/presentation-generale/browse/9/article/maurice-denis-27.html?S=&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=219&cHash=86d822e59a&print=1&no_cache=1&

Musée du Luxemburg, 13 March-30 June 2019, Les Nabis et Le Decor, Retrieved from: https://museeduluxembourg.fr/sites/luxembourg/files/Guide_Visite_NABIS_GB.pdf


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