Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

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            Many—perhaps, most--of the respected and honored composers left little of themselves behind to speak for them except their immortal music.  And that’s usually enough.  But no great composer found the time to write, speculate, theorize, philosophize, and generally inflict his ideas expressed through the written word, as did Wagner.  Much was brilliant and influential—and some was simply evil rubbish.  His theories and the model of his own compositions changed the world of nineteenth-century opera in profound ways, brought to fruition in his great tetralogy—the Ring. In those four music dramas of his maturity his use of leitmotifs, myth as a basis for drama, continuous music, the virtual abandonment of set pieces (detached arias, duets, etc.), the absence of the traditional chorus, ballet—all pointed the way to the future.

            By the 1850s he began to enjoy his first major successes with more or less traditional operas:  Rienzi (1842), The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhauser (1845), Lohengrin (1850) and Tristan und Isolde (1865).  But in the midst of creating a successful career as composer of opera, he led a turbulent personal and risky political life, and was constantly reading voluminously in literary, philosophical, political, and aesthetic works from his large personal library.   He wrote essays, libretti for future works, and letters to everyone. How he found the hours in the day to do all of this is a daunting thought.   The philosopher, Schopenhauer exerted a great influence upon his thoughts about the importance and meaning of music, and, yet, he was equally enthused in prospect for a renewed, energetic rôle for a united Germany as a moral, patriotic, and military leader of Europe—in the face of the unsuitable French, of course.   The essays poured forth, including a manifesto for the new kind of opera found later in the Ring; a screed on German virtues as political model; and then the scurrilous attack on Jews in music.  His real life was equally colorful:  escaping across borders in the night with no passports; participation in revolution; abandoning his wife and taking up with another man’s wife; and then proceeding to have a raft of children by the latter, while she was still married.  It amazes one.

            And then, mirabilis dictu, there appears this totally different opera that is so unreflective of the maelstrom of thought and activity.   In all his reading he had followed the history of the Mastersingers in Germany during the Middle Ages, with their strict rules of membership and songwriting.   Historical personages such as Hans Sachs and others he found attractive, and the result was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—a work so different from all that had dominated his life and thinking.  It's a “number opera,” with traditional arias and ensembles; it’s based upon factual history, not myths, no swans, no Valkyries; no swirling, chromatic, advanced harmony, but rather a simple, more diatonic style, but most distinguishing of all:  it’s a comedy—his only one!  Furthermore, he wrote the story completely, rather than his usual extensive borrowing.

            The story is more or less simple:  it centers on the real-life guild of Master Singers--amateur singers and composers with intricate and strict rules for composition.  While there were usually literal masters in the guilds of their livelihoods, “master singing” was a serious avocation for them.  Walther, a nobleman vies for the love of Eva, who will be betrothed to the winner of the Mastersingers contest.  Unfortunately, Walter’s not a member of the guild, and really not much of a musician.  Beckmesser, a pedant, and generally unpleasant guy, is expected to win the contest.  Traditionally, the rôle was infused with “typical” Jewish stereotypes of the nineteenth century.  Walther tries a song and Beckmesser cuts it to shreds.  Hans Sachs, a cobbler and universally acclaimed master, provides Beckmesser with a difficult song for the big contest, but warns him it is not easy.   Sachs also had previously, sympathetically given Walther a song to sing for the big prize, and a little vocal instruction to improve over his first, inept attempt.  The big day arrives, with lots of processions and festivities; Beckmesser makes hash of his attempt, Walther sings his “Prize Song” beautifully, wins it all, and is made a member of the guild. And now--A paid political message:  Hans Sachs delivers a little homily about how new and advanced art can successfully find a legitimate place within traditional culture and go on to enrichen and inform the same.  Which, of course, is the whole raison d’être of Wagner’s life.  The opera ends with general rejoicing and praise for Sachs.

             Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg achieved an immediate success, and was praised for its humanity; it certainly exuded celebration of “Germanic” values and the innate superiority of the nation, but then is flawed by blatant anti-Semitism.  It has been hard during the last few generations to strip the memory of its place as essential triumphal music in Nazi propaganda, but great art can ultimately shed unfortunate cultural appropriations, and this happy, magnificent work continues to do so.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan