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.
In the first Act, the town goldsmith Veit Pogner announces that the winner of the St. John's Feast Day (Midsummer's Day) song contest will win the hand in marriage of his daughter, Eva. The only stipulation is that the winner must be, or become, a Mastersinger. Walther, a young knight who is already in love with Eva, determines to enter the contest, but his song is too radical, and he fails in his attempt to become a Mastersinger. In the second Act, the town clerk Beckmesser decides to enter the contest and attempts to woo Eva, but unwittingly causes a riot. In the Third Act, the cobbler Hans Sachs helps Walther to compose a Mastersong with which Walther ultimately defeats his rival Beckmesser and wins Eva.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg occupies a unique place in Wagner's oeuvre. It is the only comedy among his mature operas, and the only one 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 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 also intertextual: that is, like Orfeo and Die Zauberflöte, it is 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, ie. 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.
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 (ie. 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."
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 Triebschen 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.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, June 21, 1868|
(Conductor: Hans von Bülow)
|Eva, Pogner's daughter||soprano||Mathilde Mallinger|
|Magdalena, Eva's nurse||mezzo-soprano or contralto||Sophie Dietz|
|Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia||tenor||Franz Nachbaur|
|David, Sachs' apprentice||tenor||Max Schlosser|
|Hans Sachs, cobbler, Meistersinger||bass-baritone||Franz Betz|
|Veit Pogner, goldsmith, Meistersinger||bass||Kaspar Bausewein|
|Sixtus Beckmesser, town clerk, Meistersinger||baritone||Gustav Hölzel|
|Fritz Kothner, baker, Meistersinger||baritone||Karl Fischer|
|Kunz Vogelgesang, furrier, Meistersinger||tenor||Karl Samuel Heinrich|
|Konrad Nachtigall, tinsmith, Meistersinger||bass||Eduard Sigl|
|Hermann Ortel, soapmaker, Meistersinger||bass||Franz Thoms|
|Balthasar Zorn, pewterer, Meistersinger||tenor||Bartholomäus Weixlstorfer|
|Augustin Moser, tailor, Meistersinger||tenor||Michael Pöppl|
|Ulrich Eisslinger, grocer, Meistersinger||tenor||Eduard Hoppe|
|Hans Foltz, coppersmith, Meistersinger||bass||Ludwig Hayn|
|Hans Schwarz, stocking weaver, Meistersinger||bass||Leopold Grasser|
|A Nightwatchman||bass||Ferdinand Lang|
|Citizens of all guilds and their wives, journeymen, apprentices, young women, people of Nuremberg|
After a magnificent prelude, the curtain opens on the interior of St. Katherine's Church in Nuremberg. Mass is just ending as Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia addresses Eva Pogner, whom he had met earlier, and asks her if she is engaged to anyone. Eva is obviously besotted with Walther, but informs him that her father, the goldsmith and Meistersinger Veit Pogner, has arranged to give her hand in marriage to the victor of the guild's song contest on St. John's day (Midsummer's day), tomorrow. Eva's maid, Magdalena, induces her suitor David to instruct Walther in the Meistersinger's art. The hope is for Walther to qualify as a Meistersinger during the guild meeting, traditionally held in the church after mass, and thus earn a place in the song contest despite his utter ignorance of the guild's rules and intricacies.
As the other apprentices set up the church for the meeting, David explains to Walther that he is the apprentice of Hans Sachs, a master cobbler and a well-respected Meistersinger. He proceeds to give a rather confused lecture on the Meistersingers' rules for composing and singing. (Many of the tunes quoted are real master-tunes from the period.) Walther is obviously overwhelmed by the convoluted rules, but is determined to try for a place in the guild.
The first Meistersingers file into the church: Eva's father Veit Pogner and the town clerk Beckmesser. Walther and Pogner engage in conversation much to the latter's amusement, since he sees in Walther a desirable suitor for his daughter. Meanwhile Pogner introduces Walther around, Beckmesser, who is also planning on winning Eva's hand in marriage by winning the song contest, takes an instant dislike to Walther. The other masters arrive, and Fritz Kothner 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 choose a Meistersinger. Another suggestion by Sachs, that the people rather than the guild should be called upon to judge the winner of the contest, is squelched by the other masters. Walther is now introduced. Questioned by Kothner about his background, Walther states that his teacher in poetry were the writings of Walter von der Vogelweide 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 his topic for his song and therefore is to be judged by Beckmesser alone, the "Marker" of the guild. Walther launches into a novel free-form tune, obviously breaking all the Meistersingers' rules, and his song is constantly interrupted by the scratch of Beckmesser's chalkboard, maliciously noting one error after another. Walther is interrupted by Beckmesser, arguing that his mistakes are so many that there is no point in letting him finish his song. Though Sachs insists Walther be allowed to continue, the rest of the group rejects the knight.
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 offering 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 obviously unenthusiastic about Beckmesser, who appears to be the only eligible contestant. Eva hints that she would not mind if Sachs, a widower, wins 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, obviously upset, 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 at the bedroom window.
Just as Eva is about to leave, Walther appears. He tells her about the fiasco at the meeting, 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 foiled 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, while hammering away at the half-made shoes. Annoyed, Beckmesser tells Sachs to stop, but the cobbler feigns ignorance and tells him that he has to finish the shoes, which Beckmesser himself had ordered, by tomorrow. Beckmesser, who has spotted someone at Eva's window (Magdalena in disguise), has no time to argue. He reluctantly agrees to Sachs' proposal to play the role of Marker, indicating each mistake in the serenade with a thump on the shoes. Beckmesser begins, but makes so many errors that from the repeated knocks Sachs finishes the shoes. The entire neighbourhood is awakened by the noise. David, seeing a figure serenading Magdalena, grabs a cudgel and sets upon Beckmesser. The other apprentices rush into the fray, and the situation degenerates into a full-blown riot. In the confusion, Walther endeavours 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.
As morning dawns, Sachs is reading a large book in his workshop. 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.
Walther, who has spent the night in Sachs' home, enters the room. He tells Sachs that he had a pleasant dream, and, with Sachs' encouragement, fashions two sections of a new Prize Song from it. Sachs copies down the verses as they are sung. 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, laid down in Sachs' handwriting, and draws the conclusion that Sachs is joining the contest for Eva's hand. The cobbler re-enters the room, and Beckmesser confronts him with the verses. However, Sachs declares that he has no intention of wooing Eva, and agrees to let Beckmesser take the poem with him; he even promises never to claim the song to be his own. Beckmesser rushes off to prepare for the song contest, ecstatic at the prospect of using verses written by the famous Hans Sachs.
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 playing with his feelings, but 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 Mark (a reference to the subject of another Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde), thus extending 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 Meistersingers, 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 musing on their good fortunes, the group departs for the festival.
It is often believed that the character of Beckmesser, a sour man who judges the Master songs strictly by the book, was consciously devised by Wagner to be a ridiculous caricature of the music critic Eduard Hanslick. In fact, Wagner's original sketch in 1845 was written before he knew of Hanslick, and it seems likely that Wagner's target was music critics in general. Eduard Hanslick did not begin to publish reviews of Wagner's works until 1846, and initially these were highly favourable. Over the years, the musical views of Wagner and Hanslick diverged, with Hanslick becoming much more critical in his approach to the composer. It is likely that this is why Wagner gave the character of the Marker the name "Veit Hanslich" in his second prose draft (October 1861): a weak pun on Hanslick's name. However, by 1862 this had been changed in the libretto to the name Beckmesser. There is no evidence that Hanslick ever knew that his name had been used in early drafts of Die Meistersinger.
It is also frequently believed that during a public reading of the libretto, at which Hanslick was present, he reacted badly when he realised that the Beckmesser character was based on himself. This viewpoint has arisen as a result of Wagner's account of this reading in his autobiography ("Mein Leben"), a work whose veracity and accuracy has often been called into question. Hanslick's own memoirs also recount his experience of this meeting, and he mentions no reaction of this sort and in fact he subsequently praised the libretto for Die Meistersinger. The Wagner scholar Barry Millington has advanced the idea that Beckmesser represents a Jewish stereotype, whose humiliation by the aryan Walther is an onstage representation of Wagner's antisemitism. Millington argued in his 1991 "Nuremberg Trial: Is There Anti-Semitism in 'Die Meistersinger'?" that common antisemitic stereotypes prevalent in 19th-century Germany were a part of the "ideological fabric" of "Die Meistersinger" and that Beckmesser embodied these unmistakable antisemitic characteristics. Millington's article spurred significant debate among Wagner scholars including Charles Rosen , Hans Rudolph Vaget , Paul Lawrence Rose , and Karl A. Zaenker .
Die Meistersinger was enthusiastically received at its premiere in 1868, and was judged to be Wagner's most immediately appealing work. Eduard Hanslick wrote in Die Neue Freie Presse after the premiere: "Dazzling scenes of colour and splendour, ensembles full of life and character unfold before the spectator's eyes, hardly allowing him the leisure to weigh how much and how little of these effects is of musical origin."
John Ruskin described Die Meistersinger in a letter to Georgina Burne-Jones in 1882: “Of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage, … and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiturviest, tongs and boniest doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, so far as the sound went. I never was so relieved, so far as I can remember in my life, by the stopping of any sound – not excepting railway whistles – as I was by the cessation of the cobbler’s bellowing.”
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. As one of the most popular and prominent German operas during the Unification of Germany in 1871, Die Meistersinger became a potent symbol of patriotic German art, and Hans Sachs' final warning at the end of Act 3 on the need to preserve German art from foreign (especially French) threats became a rallying point for German nationalism, particularly during the Franco-Prussian War.
During the 20th century, the opera continued to be used as a German patriotic emblem during the Wilhelmian Reich, the Weimar Republic, and most notoriously, during the Third Reich. At the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1924 following its closure during the First World War Die Meistersinger was performed. The audience rose to its feet during Hans Sachs' final oration, and sang "Deutschland über Alles" after the opera had finished.
Die Meistersinger was frequently used as part of Nazi propaganda. On 21st March 1933 the founding of the Third Reich was celebrated with a performance of the opera in the presence of Hitler. The prelude to Act Three is played over shots of old Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, the 1935 film by Leni Riefenstahl depicting the Nazi party congress of 1934. During the Second world war Die Meistersinger was the only opera presented at the Bayreuth festivals of 1943 and 1944.
The association of Die Meistersinger with Naziism led to one of the most controversial stage productions of the work. The first Bayreuth production of Meistersinger following the Second world war occurred in 1956, when Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, attempted to distance the work from German nationalism by presenting it in almost abstract terms, by removing any reference to Nuremberg from the scenery. The production was dubbed "Die Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg" (The Mastersingers without Nuremberg).
The composer's great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner staged another highly controversial production at Bayreuth in 2007. The Mastersingers were presented as the stuffy teachers at a school attended by the apprentices. Sachs was shown as an anarchist, while the prize contest was presented in the style of American Idol. . This production was streamed on the Internet in a webcast on 27th July 2008..