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Honour Thy German Masters: Wagner’s Depiction of “Meistergesang”

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 26 November 2013 | 9:17:00 pm

Welsh National Opera's Meistersinger (To be revived 2015)

Originally published in: The Journal Of Musicological Explorations (Vol 11 (2010)

Honour Thy German Masters: Wagner’s Depiction of “Meistergesang” in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Annalise Smith


The music and culture of the sixteenth century Meistersinger is the central topic of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only operatic comedy. Wagner turned to Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s Von der Meister-Singer Holdseligen Kunst for information on the customs of the Meistersinger, and many scenarios within the opera are based on information from this treatise. The inclusion of the famous historical Meistersinger Hans Sachs as a central character further strengthened the drama’s connection with the historical guild. The use of distinct set pieces, a seeming departure from the endliche Melodie of earlier operas, also helped Wagner create an air of authenticity within the music of Die Meistersinger.

In contrast to Walther’s pieces, influenced by Wagner’s compositional technique and only loosely invoking the traditions of sixteenth-century Meitergesang, Beckmesser’s songs reveal many similarities with their historical models.
As much as Die Meistersinger invokes the sixteenth century, Wagner does not present an accurate musical depiction of Meistergesang in this work. Though Hans Sachs and his role as a Meistersinger is an important element in his drama, Wagner only superficially observed the form and style of historical Meistergesang. None of Walther’s songs, including Fanget an!, Am stillen Herd, or his Prize song, which wins him the admiration of both the masters and the people, completely satisfies the rules set down by Wagenseil. The character of Sachs, in fact, sings no Meisterlied at all. A comparison of Sachs’ Morgenweise and Silberweise with Wagner’s drama reveals that it is actually in the music of Beckmesser, the pedantic, rule-bound antagonist, that Wagner comes closest to the musical traditions of the sixteenth century. Given the historical setting of the opera and the emphasis the libretto places on rules and traditions, this paper sets out to examine how these three characters are musically portrayed, the degree to which they deviate from traditional Meistergesang, and what this reveals about Wagner’s ideas on artistic genius and musical composition.

The operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) exist in a world of fantasy, populated by mythic knights, gods and goddesses, and depictions of heaven and hell. The exception is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867). Foregoing the world of myth, Wagner transports the audience back to sixteenth-century Nürnberg, where the city is led by the Meistersingers and, in particular, Hans Sachs. Though still writing in a nineteenthcentury style, Wagner went to great lengths to integrate the actual practices and compositional rules of the Meistersingers into his opera. This attempt at historical accuracy allows for an exploration of the musical correspondences between historical Meistergesangand Wagner’s own depiction of the genre. By comparing Silberweise and Morgenweise, two pieces written by the historical Hans Sachs, to the Meistergesang within Wagner’s opera, it becomes clear that Wagner’s most accurate representations of Meistergesangare sung by Beckmesser, the antagonistic marker. Why then, if the opera purportedly promotes rules and the maintenance of tradition, are Sachs and Walther the heroes? Though this contradiction may seem a hypocrisy, this essay will show that the depiction of Meistergesang in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, while incorporating nineteenth-century compositional methods, expresses Wagner’s belief that musical innovation must be based on tradition.

As charming and believable as Die Meistersinger may be, it too, in its own way, is a fantasy. Wagner’s Nürnberg is not a historically accurate depiction of the town and its populace, but an “idealized monument to a peculiarly German kind of city at the very moment of its historical disappearance.” This idealization was part of nineteenth-century German Romanticism, which longed for a strong, unified Germany. This longing was “inevitably projected to a vaguely medieval past when Germany had seemed powerful and united.” The glorification of medieval Nürnberg inevitably led to a misrepresentation of the Meistersingers. In his opera, Wagner portrays the Meistersingers as both cultural and civic leaders. They are the burghers who run the city, and their festivals are shared by all the people. However, as Peter Hohendahl points out:

[Nuremberg] was anything but a harmonious community in which its citizens enjoyed work and
art.…The Meistersingers clearly did not play the significant role that Wagner assigns them. Their
poetic practices were much more confined to their own social group.

Wagner was not the first to take creative liberties with the cultural and political role of the Meistersingers. The study of Meistersingerswas popular at the beginning of the century, resulting in several studies and narratives through which Wagner became acquainted with the medieval tradition.

Wagner’s first introduction to Hans Sachs and the Meistersingers came from Georgg Gottfried Gervinus’ History of German Literature (1835), a reading that sparked the idea for Die Meistersinger. Wagner was also familiar with Jakob Grimm’s essay Über den Altdeutschen Meistergesang(1811) and the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, particularly his story Meister Martin der Küfner und seine Gesellen(1819). Both of these authors contributed to an idealized picture of the Meistersingers, in which “artists and artisans, hand in hand, march happily together towards a common goal.”

The Meistersingerswere even the inspiration for an opera before Wagner, Albert Lortzing’s Hans Sachs,
which premiered in 1840. The plot similarities between the two operas indicate the Wagner  was
surely  aware  of  Lortzing’s  opera  when  writing the libretto for Die Meistersinger

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