Wagner : Die Meistersinger von NurenbergBayreuth, Bayreuth, 1951 (Audio)
Director: Herbert von Karajan
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Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers 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 June 21, 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 an Imperial Free 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 Orfeo, Capriccio, and Wagner's own earlier Tannhäuser, a musical composition in which the composition of music is a pivotal part of the story.
Wagner's autobiography Mein Leben described the genesis of Die Meistersinger. Taking the waters at Marienbad in 1845 he began reading Georg Gottfried Gervinus’ History of German Literature. This work included chapters on Mastersong and on Hans Sachs.
"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.")
Having completed the scenario, Wagner began writing the libretto in 1862, and followed this by composing the overture. The overture was publicly performed in Leipzig on 2 November 1862, conducted by the composer. Composition of Act 1 was begun in spring of 1863 in the Viennese suburb of Penzing, but the opera in its entirety was not finished until October 1867, when Wagner was living at Tribschen near Lucerne. These years were some of Wagner's most difficult: the 1861 Paris production of Tannhäuser was a fiasco, Wagner gave up hope of completing Der Ring des Nibelungen, the 1864 Vienna production of Tristan und Isolde was abandoned after 77 rehearsals, and finally in 1866 Wagner's first wife, Minna died. Cosima Wagner was later to write:
"When future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose."
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. After one 5 hour rehearsal, Franz Strauss led a strike by the orchestra, saying that he could not play any more. Despite these problems, the premiere was a triumph, and the opera was hailed as one of Wagner's most successful works. At the end of the first performance, the audience called for Wagner, who appeared at the front of the Royal box, which he had been sharing with King Ludwig. Wagner bowed to the crowd, breaking court protocol, which dictated that only the monarch could address an audience from the box.
Herbert von Karajan