2013 is coming to an end and we are going to remember the BEST of this year: Verdi vs Wagner, the Operas!
Celebrating Wagner’s bicentennial!!!
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (“The Master-Singers of Nuremberg”) is an opera in three acts, written and composed by Richard Wagner.
It is among the longest operas still commonly performed today, usually taking around four and a half hours.
It was first performed at the Königliches Hof- und National-Theater in Munich, on 21 June 1868.
The conductor at the premiere was Hans von Bülow.
The story takes place in Nuremberg during the middle of the 16th century. At the time, Nuremberg was a free imperial city, and one of the centers of the Renaissance in Northern Europe.
The story revolves around the real-life guild of Meistersinger (Master Singers), an association of amateur poets and musicians, mostly from the middle class and often master craftsmen in their main professions.
The Mastersingers developed a craftsmanlike approach to music-making, with an intricate system of rules for composing and performing songs.
The work draws much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the Nuremberg of the era and the traditions of the Mastersinger guild.
One of the main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure: Hans Sachs (1494–1576), the most famous of the historical Mastersingers.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg occupies a unique place in Wagner’s oeuvre.
It is the only comedy among his mature operas (he having come to reject his early Das Liebesverbot), and is his only opera centered on a historically well-defined time and place rather than a mythical or legendary setting.
It is the only mature Wagner opera to be based on an entirely original story, devised by Wagner himself.
It is also the only one of Wagner’s mature operas in which there are no supernatural or magical powers or events.
It incorporates many of the operatic conventions that Wagner had railed against in his essays on the theory of opera: rhymed verse, arias, choruses, a quintet, and even a ballet.
Die Meistersinger is, like L’Orfeo, Capriccio, and Wagner’s own earlier Tannhäuser, a musical composition in which the composition of music is a pivotal part of the story.
I had formed a particularly vivid picture of Hans Sachs and the mastersingers of Nuremberg. I was especially intrigued by the institution of the Marker and his function in rating master-songs….I conceived during a walk a comic scene in which the popular artisan-poet, by hammering upon his cobbler’s last, gives the Marker, who is obliged by circumstances to sing in his presence, his come-uppance for previous pedantic misdeeds during official singing contests, by inflicting upon him a lesson of his own.
Gervinus’ book also mentions a poem by the real-life Hans Sachs on the subject of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, called “Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall” (“The Wittemberg Nightingale”). The opening lines for this poem, addressing the Reformation, were later used by Wagner in act 3 when the crowd acclaims Sachs: “Wacht auf, es nahet gen den Tag; ich hör’ singen im grünen Hag ein wonnigliche Nachtigall.”
In addition to this, Wagner added a scene drawn from his own life, in which a case of mistaken identity led to a near-riot: this was to be the basis for the finale of act 2.
Out of this situation evolved an uproar, which through the shouting and clamour and an inexplicable growth in the number of participants in the struggle soon assumed a truly demoniacal character. It looked to me as if the whole town would break out into a riot…Then suddenly I heard a heavy thump, and as if by magic the whole crowd dispersed in every direction…One of the regular patrons had felled one of the noisiest rioters…. And it was the effect of this which had scattered everybody so suddenly.
This first draft of the story was dated “Marienbad 16 July 1845”. Wagner later said, in “Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde” (1851) that Meistersinger was to be a comic opera to follow a tragic opera, i.e. Tannhäuser. Just as the Athenians had followed a tragedy with a comic satyr play, so Wagner would follow Tannhäuser with Meistersinger: the link being that both operas included song-contests.
Influence of Schopenhauer
In 1854, Wagner first read Schopenhauer, and was struck by the philosopher’s theories on aesthetics. In this philosophy, art is a means for escaping from the sufferings of the world, and music is the highest of the arts since it is the only one not involved in representation of the world (i.e. it is abstract). It is for this reason that music can communicate emotion without the need for words. In his earlier essay Opera and Drama (1850–1) Wagner had derided the staples of operatic construction: arias, choruses, duets, trios, recitatives, etc. As a result of reading Schopenhauer’s theories on the role of music, Wagner now re-evaluated this prescription for opera, and hence many of these features can be found in Die Meistersinger.
Although Die Meistersinger is a comedy, it also elucidates Wagner’s ideas on the place of music in society, on renunciation of the Will, and of the solace that music brings in a world full of Wahn (which may be translated into English as “illusion”, “madness”, “folly” or “self-deception”). It is Wahn which causes the riot in act 2 — a sequence of events arising from a case of mistaken identity, which can be seen as a form of self-delusion. Many commentators have pointed out that Sachs in his famous act 3 monologue Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn is paraphrasing Schopenhauer when he describes the way that Wahn, or self-delusion, drives men to behave in ways which are actually destroying them.
…in Flucht geschlagen, wähnt er zu jagen; hört nicht sein eigen Schmerzgekreisch,
wenn er sich wühlt ins eig’ne Fleisch, wähnt Lust sich zu erzeigen!
(driven into flight he believes he is hunting, and does not hear his own cry of pain:
when he tears into his own flesh, he imagines he is giving himself pleasure!)
Following the completion of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner resumed work on Die Meistersinger in 1861 with a completely different philosophical outlook from that he held when he first drafted his comedy. The character of Hans Sachs becomes one of the most Schopenhauerian of all Wagner’s creations. Wagner scholar Lucy Beckett has pointed out the remarkable similarity between Wagner’s Sachs and Schopenhauer’s description of noble man:
We always picture a very noble character to ourselves as having a certain trace of silent sadness… It is a consciousness that has resulted from knowledge of the vanity of all achievements and of the suffering of all life, not merely of one’s own. (Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation)
The other major facet of Sachs’ personality – his renunciation of his hope of winning Eva’s love – is also deeply Schopenhauerian. Sachs here denies the Will in its supposedly most insistent form, that of sexual love. Wagner marks this moment with a direct musical and textual reference to Tristan und Isolde: “Mein Kind, von Tristan und Isolde kenn’ ich ein traurig Stück. Hans Sachs war klug und wollte nichts von Herrn Markes Glück.” (My child, I know a sad tale of Tristan and Isolde. Hans Sachs is sensible and does not wish to share King Mark’s fate.)
The premiere was given at the Königliches Hof- und National-Theater, Munich, on June 21, 1868. The production was sponsored by Ludwig II of Bavaria and the conductor was Hans von Bülow. Franz Strauss, the father of the composer Richard Strauss played the French horn at the premiere, despite his often-expressed dislike of Wagner, who was present at many of the rehearsals. Wagner’s frequent interruptions and digressions made rehearsals a very long-winded affair.
As the other apprentices set up the church for the meeting, David warns Walther that it is not easy to become a mastersinger; it takes many years of learning and practice not only of the music and poetry involved in the composition of a Lied but also in the practice of a trade, which is unthinkable for a Nobleman such as Walther. David proceeds to give a confusing lecture on the mastersingers’ rules for composing and singing. (Many of the tunes he describes were real master-tunes from the period.) Walther is confused by the complicated rules, but is determined to try for a place in the guild anyway.
The first mastersingers file into the church, including Eva’s wealthy father Veit Pogner and the town clerk Beckmesser. Beckmesser, a clever technical singer who was expecting to win the contest without opposition, is distressed to see that Walther is Pogner’s guest and intends to enter the contest. Meanwhile, Pogner introduces Walther to the other mastersingers as they arrive. Fritz Kothner the baker, serving as chairman of this meeting, calls the roll. Pogner, addressing the assembly, announces his offer of his daughter’s hand for the winner of the song contest. When Hans Sachs argues that Eva ought to have a say in the matter, Pogner agrees that Eva may refuse the winner of the contest, but she must still marry a mastersinger. Another suggestion by Sachs, that the townspeople, rather than the masters, should be called upon to judge the winner of the contest, is squelched by the other masters. Pogner formally introduces Walther as a candidate for admission into the masterguild. The mastersingers are not quite impressed with the knight and as he is questioned by Kothner about his background, Walther states that his teacher in poetry was Walther von der Vogelweide whose works he studied in his own private library in Franconia, and his teachers in music were the birds and nature itself. Reluctantly the masters agree to admit him, provided he can perform a master-song of his own composition. Walther chooses love as the topic for his song and therefore is to be judged by Beckmesser alone, the “Marker” of the guild for worldly matters. Walther launches into a novel free-form tune, obviously breaking all the mastersingers’ rules, and his song is constantly interrupted by the scratch of Beckmesser’s chalk on his chalkboard, maliciously noting one violation after another. When Beckmesser has completely covered the slate with symbols of Walther’s errors, he interrupts the song and argues that there is no point in finishing it. Sachs tries to convince the masters to let Walther continue, but Beckmesser sarcastically tells Sachs to stop trying to set policy and instead, to finish making his (Beckmesser’s) new shoes, which are overdue. The decision by majority of the masters is to reject the knight.
Scene 1: Evening in a Nuremberg street, at the corner between Pogner’s house and Hans Sachs’ workshop
David informs Magdalena of Walther’s failure. In her disappointment, Magdalena leaves without giving David the food she had brought for him. This arouses the derision of the other apprentices, and David is about to turn on them when Sachs arrives and hustles his apprentice into the workshop.
Pogner arrives with Eva, engaging in a roundabout conversation: Eva is hesitant to ask about the outcome of Walther’s application, and Pogner has private doubts about whether it was wise to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage for the song contest. As they enter their house, Magdalena appears and tells Eva about the rumours of Walther’s failure. Eva decides to ask Sachs about the matter.
As twilight falls, Hans Sachs takes a seat in front of his house to work on a new pair of shoes for Beckmesser. He muses on Walther’s song, which has made a deep impression on him.
Eva approaches Sachs, and they discuss tomorrow’s song contest. Eva is unenthusiastic about Beckmesser, who appears to be the only eligible contestant. Eva hints that she would not mind if Sachs, a widower, were to win the contest. Though touched, Sachs protests that he would be too old a husband for her. Upon further prompting, Sachs relates Walther’s failure at the guild meeting. This causes Eva to storm off angrily, confirming Sachs’ suspicion that she has fallen in love with Walther. Eva is intercepted by Magdalena, who informs her that Beckmesser is coming to serenade her. Eva, determined to search for Walther, tells Magdalena to pose as her (Eva) at the bedroom window.
Just as Eva is about to leave, Walther appears. He tells her that he has been rejected by the mastersingers, and the two prepare to elope. However, Sachs has overheard their plans. As they are passing by, he illuminates the street with his lantern, forcing them to hide in the shadow of Pogner’s house. Walther makes up his mind to confront Sachs, but is interrupted by the arrival of Beckmesser.
As Eva and Walther retreat further into the shadows, Beckmesser begins his serenade. Sachs interrupts him by launching into a full-bellied cobbling song, and hammering the soles of the half-made shoes. Annoyed, Beckmesser tells Sachs to stop, but the cobbler replies that he has to finish the shoes, whose lateness Beckmesser had publicly complained about in act 1. Sachs offers a compromise: he will be quiet and let Beckmesser sing, but he (Sachs) will be Beckmesser’s “marker”, and mark each of Beckmesser’s musical/poetical errors by striking one of the soles with his hammer. Beckmesser, who has spotted someone at Eva’s window (Magdalena in disguise), has no time to argue. He tries to sing his serenade, but he makes so many mistakes (his tune repeatedly places accents on the wrong syllables of the words) that from the repeated knocks Sachs finishes the shoes. David wakes up and sees Beckmesser apparently serenading Magdalena. He attacks Beckmesser in a fit of jealous rage. The entire neighbourhood is awakened by the noise. The other apprentices rush into the fray, and the situation degenerates into a full-blown riot. In the confusion, Walther tries to escape with Eva, but Sachs pushes Eva into her home and drags Walther into his own workshop. Quiet is restored as abruptly as it was broken. A lone figure walks through the street – the night watchman, calling out the hour.
A meditative prelude introduces music from two key episodes to be heard in Act 3: Sachs’ Scene 1 monologue “Wahn! Wahn!” and the “Wittenburg Nightingale” quasi-chorale sung by the townspeople to greet Sachs in Scene 5.
Scene 1: Sachs’ workshop
As morning dawns, Sachs is reading a large book. Lost in thought, he does not respond as David returns from delivering Beckmesser’s shoes. David finally manages to attract his master’s attention, and they discuss the upcoming festivities – it is St. John’s day, Hans Sachs’ name day! David recites his verses for Sachs, and leaves to prepare for the festival. Alone, Sachs ponders last night’s riot. “Madness! Madness! Everywhere madness!” (Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!) His attempt to prevent an elopement had ended in shocking violence. Nevertheless, he is resolved to make madness work for him today.
Sachs gives Walther an interactive lesson on the history and philosophy of music and mastersinging, and teaches him to moderate his singing according to the spirit (if not the strict letter) of the masters’ rules. Walther demonstrates his understanding by composing two sections of a new Prize Song in a more acceptable style than his previous effort from act 1. Sachs writes down the new verses as Walther sings them. A final section remains to be composed, but Walther is tired of words. The two men leave the room to dress for the festival.
Beckmesser, still sore from his drubbing the night before, enters the workshop. He spots the verses of the Prize Song, written in Sachs’ handwriting, and infers that Sachs is secretly planning to enter the contest for Eva’s hand. The cobbler re-enters the room and Beckmesser confronts him with the verses. Sachs declares that he has no intention of wooing Eva, and denies having written the song (although he admits that the handwriting is his, because Beckmesser asks in general terms if the lyrics are his but he uses the word “Hand”, which stands both for handwriting and for work). He gives the manuscript to Beckmesser as a gift. He promises never to claim the song for his own, and warns Beckmesser that it is a very difficult song to interpret and sing. Beckmesser, his confidence restored by the prospect of using verses written by the famous Hans Sachs, ignores the warning and rushes off to prepare for the song contest. Sachs smiles at Beckmesser’s foolishness but expresses hope that Beckmesser will learn to be better in the future.
Eva arrives at the workshop. She is looking for Walther, but pretends to have complaints about a shoe that Sachs made for her. Sachs realizes that the shoe is a perfect fit, but pretends to set about altering the stitching. As he works, he tells Eva that he has just heard a beautiful song, lacking only an ending. Eva cries out as Walther enters the room, splendidly attired for the festival, and sings the third and final section of the Prize Song. The couple are overwhelmed with gratitude for Sachs, and Eva asks Sachs to forgive her for having manipulated his feelings. The cobbler brushes them off with bantering complaints about his lot as a shoemaker, poet, and widower. At last, however, he admits to Eva that, despite his feelings for her, he is resolved to avoid the fate of King Marke (a reference to the subject of another Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde, in which an old man tries to marry a much-younger woman), thus conferring his blessing upon the lovers. David and Magdalena appear. Sachs announces to the group that a new master-song has been born, which, following the rules of the mastersingers, is to be baptized. As an apprentice cannot serve as a witness for the baptism, he promotes David to the rank of journeyman with the traditional cuff on the ear. He then christens the Prize Song the Morning Dream Song (Selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise). After celebrating their good fortune with an extended quintet, the group departs for the festival.
Scene 5: The meadow near the Pegnitz River
The feast of St. John is taking place. The various guilds hold their processions, culminating in the arrival of the mastersingers. The crowd sings the praises of Hans Sachs, the most beloved and famous of the mastersingers. The prize contest begins. Beckmesser attempts to sing the verses that he had obtained from Sachs. However, he garbles the words and fails to fit them to an appropriate melody, and ends up singing so clumsily that the crowd laughs him off. Before storming off in anger, he yells that the song was not even his; Hans Sachs tricked him into singing it. The crowd is confused—how could the great Hans Sachs have written such a bad song? Sachs explains that the song is not his own, and also that it is in fact a beautiful song which the masters will love, when they hear it sung correctly. To prove this, he calls a witness: Walther. The people are so curious about the song that they allow Walther to sing it, and everyone is won over in spite of the song’s novelty. They declare Walther the winner, and the mastersingers want to make him a member of their guild on the spot. At first Walther is tempted to reject their offer, but Sachs intervenes once more, and explains that art, even ground-breaking, contrary art like Walther’s, can only exist within a cultural tradition, which tradition the art sustains and improves. Walther is convinced; he agrees to join. Pogner places the symbolic Master-hood Medal around his neck, and the people sing once more the praises of Hans Sachs, the beloved mastersinger of Nuremberg.
Some historical Trivia:
Within a year of the premiere the opera was performed across Germany at Dresden, Dessau, Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Weimar, Hanover and Vienna with Berlin following in 1870.
It was one of the most popular and prominent German operas during the Unification of Germany in 1871, and in spite of the opera’s overall warning against cultural self-centeredness, Die Meistersinger became a potent symbol of patriotic German art.
Hans Sachs’ final warning at the end of act 3 on the need to preserve German art from foreign threats was a rallying point for German nationalism, particularly during the Franco-Prussian War.
Some different images of different opera versions of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”:
James Morris, is in my opinion, the greatest
Hans Sachs ever!