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English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Die…

English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1983)

by English National Opera, Nicholas John (Series Editor), Richard Wagner (Librettist)

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Richard Wagner

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

English National Opera 19

Calder, Paperback, 2004.

8vo. 128 pp.

First published, 1983.


List of Illustrations

‘My most genial creation...’ Roland Matthews
A Musical Commentary Arnold Whittall
Wagner's Nuremberg Timothy McFarland

Thematic Guide

‘Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg’ Poem by Richard Wagner
‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’ English translation by Frederick Jameson revised by Gordon Kember and Norman Feasey.

Translators' Preface

Act One
Act Two
Act Three



The comic side of Richard Wagner is disgustingly neglected. Even his most deeply serious works do contain occasional, admittedly brief, moments of farcical relief. Almost the whole opening scene of Das Rheingold consists of it. At other parts of the Ring, Siegfried and the Wanderer, not to mention Loge, regularly make jokes. In Tristan und Isolde, when Kurwenal tugs his master with the words “Hab acht, Tristan! Botschaft von Isolde” (“Watch out, Tristan, an envoy from Isolde”), or when Tristan himself, delirious with his love for Isolde in the end of the same Act I, asks “Welcher König?” (“Which King?”), these are pieces of pure comedy, although I imagine much depends on the way they are acted. With a suitable staging, even the cheerful chorus of the Sailors that opens Act III of Der fliegende Holländer may well pass for a comical episode (an effective counterpoint to the brooding music of the Dutchman). Once and only once, however, did the Master try his hand seriously at comedy.

Apart from his earliest and now well forgotten works, Die Meistersinger is Wagner’s only comic music drama. Many people would not accept it as such. They insist on the old dictum that “brevity is the soul of wit”, therefore an opera that stretches to some five hours cannot possibly be a comedy. It is often described with derisive labels like “portentous”, “ponderous”, “Germanic” and “nationalistic”. It is, to some extent, all these things. But it is a comedy nonetheless for that. Like every great comedy, it is intensely serious and profoundly disturbing. It combines smiles and tears in so ingenious a way that, if you are of a happy nature, you might miss the latter.[1] Deryck Cooke once described Die Meistersinger as “a curiously Shakespearean comedy, in a Twelfth Night sense, both mellower and more richly comic than Verdi's Falstaff”[2]. Bullseye!

The essays by Messrs Matthews and McFarland are veritable treasure trove of stimulating insight about the history of composition and the historical background of the work. With the proviso that I’m only scratching the surface, I would like to point out some of the most interesting points.

What I personally find most compelling about Die Meistersinger (sounds much better than “The Mastersingers”, doesn’t it?) is Wagner’s attempt to create an idealised community of people who are at once disinterested artists and practical craftsmen. It’s all very well if you can write beautiful poems and sing prize-winning songs, but it is so much better if you can make shoes as well. Significantly, Beckmesser, the clerk, and Walther, the outsider, are the only people who produce nothing of practical value. The rest of the Meistersingers are rather successful at both fronts, none more so than Hans Sachs of course. This complete symbiosis between the spiritual and the practical, between the mind and the flesh, or between art and science if you like, is the only utopia I can think of that is entirely free of dystopian elements. I doubt it is possible, though.

Wagner succeeded so well in his endeavour that Hans Sachs is his most lovable character. The only serious competitor is Wotan, but his foolish stubbornness makes it more difficult to love him, however much one may identify with him. Unlike other Wagnerian wise men – Gurnemanz comes to mind first – the resignation of Hans Sachs is not pathologically developed to the point of inactivity. He observes, reflects and acts. And he has the singular spiritual power to put the happiness of others, especially others to whom he is far from indifferent, above his own. Mr Matthews is very stimulating on the subject:

The development over the years in Wagner’s conception of Hans Sachs, his most original, most complete creation, is paralleled closely by the changes wrought on his other great baritone protagonist, Wotan in The Ring. Both gain in dramatic prominence and achieve tragic greatness by renouncing a claim that is no longer in tune with the natural order. But Sachs is also an active force of redemption and in this respect he anticipates Parsifal who by coming to a full understanding of man’s suffering is able to restore order to the world.

But the music drama isn’t called Hans Sachs. The word community is worth stressing – again. Mr Matthews remarks on the obvious, yet curiously often overlooked, matter of titles. Die Meistersinger is the only one among Wagner’s works for which he chose a title stressing a group of people in precise historical setting, namely the Meistersingers in sixteenth-century Nuremberg. Most of his mature works are titled after the protagonist(s) (Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Siegfried, Tristan und Isolde) and set in mythological or at best quasi-historical times. Those that are not named after single characters, that is Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, can hardly be said to deal with groups of people/gods/dwarfs/whatever. They are entirely concerned with personal relationships, the community being no more than a vague background.

The word “community” is worth stressing for another reason also. This is not society. Mr McFarland observes that the difference between Gemeinschaft (“a traditional community based on custom and familiarity”) and Gesellschaft (“a modern society based on impersonal legal and economic principles”) has existed in the social sciences at least since 1887 and the work of the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. In art it must have existed a good deal earlier. However, the author also notes that even a lifelong Wagner lover as Thomas Mann could, in the end of his life, find the atmosphere in Die Meistersinger “oppressive” and be troubled by the “cosy smugness in the Gemütlichkeit” that permeates the work. The point is worth considering. The world of Die Meistersinger may easily seem restricted or elitist. So it is. But I venture to suggest that this is no defect. There is nothing wrong with elitism if it’s based on the right foundations. Last and least, the Mann episode is the only place where Mr McFarland mentions, fortunately very briefly, the Jewish satire in the character of Beckmesser, yet another insignificant detail often inflated to epic proportions.

How far does Wagner’s Nuremberg correspond to the historical one? Very little, according to Mr McFarland. He draws a fascinating comparison with Shakespeare’s Venice, another fictional but historically more accurate setting. Sixteenth-century Nuremberg, too, was a major trading and financial centre full of merchants and money-lenders, far less artistic and more commercial than Wagner presented it. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, those German cities like Nuremberg, Regensburg and Ulm gradually lost their importance and survived only as charming relics of bygone times. What they couldn’t survive were the momentous events of the nineteenth century, brilliantly summarised by Mr McFarland as “Napoleon, Bismarck and the Industrial Revolution.” By some strange coincidence – if it was a coincidence – the years that saw the end of the German medieval communities, the decade between 1855 and 1865, were exactly the period during which Wagner created his Nuremberg utopia. In Mr McFarland’s words:

Whether he was fully conscious of it or not, Wagner was in fact erecting an idealised monument to a peculiarly German kind of city at the very moment of its historical disappearance. Out of the ashes of the social reality there was arising like a phoenix a potent cultural myth, of which Wagner’s opera is the most complete expression. Everywhere in Europe, a nostalgia for the communities of the pre-industrial age was beginning to emerge at this time, a return to the values of the skilled craftsman in reaction against the new reality of industrial production. But in Germany this nostalgia could be related to a kind of urban community which had survived much later than in the England of William Morris, and in a form which had shaped the childhood experiences of many people.

This is surely the reason why Wagner felt impelled to create a whole urban community in this work, alone of all his operas, and why he was able to claim, when writing to his publisher
[in November 1861], that he was depicting ‘the real nerve-centre of German life’ in its unique originality. More than in England or France, the nostalgia for the tight-knit local community was to be propagated in Germany of the next hundred years, and seen as preferable to the impersonal abstract role of the individual in modern society.

This line of thought leads us quite naturally to – the Third Reich. Mr McFarland has the common sense to discuss this matter but briefly earlier in the essay, and he has the courage to say that Wagner is in no way responsible for the perversion of the Nuremberg myth by the Nazis. Indeed, by the same “logic”, which to some people looks impeccable, you can make Liszt one of the fathers of National Socialism because part of his symphonic poem Les Preludes was used in newsreels at the time of the Third Reich. This is only slightly less ridiculous than Wagner’s crucial involvement in the matter that has been invented by people who should have known better. Mr McFarland does:

As the temper of German middle-class culture became more nationalistic in the later 19th century, the myth of the Nuremberg of Dürer and Sachs (and, more loosely, of Lutheran Reformation) became the hackneyed theme of countless pageants, processions, historical paintings and the like. Hans Sachs himself was the subject of about twenty mediocre plays. The values of warm-hearted and plain-dealing reliability, of solid craftsmanship and community loyalty were enshrined as the German middle-class virtues and celebrated in 16th-century costume. And as German nationalism became more strident, self-assertive and intolerant, the cult of Nuremberg was assimilated into the ideology of the extreme right, leading finally to the place of special honour conferred on the city in the Third Reich.

Performances of
The Mastersingers, the German festival opera par excellence, and the quintessential expression of the 19th-century myth of Nuremberg, played a prominent role in this development. But the work itself deals with quite different matters, and it can be argued that Wagner was no more responsible for what happened to the idea of ‘Nuremberg’ than were the early Romantics and Goethe, or for that matter Dürer and Hans Sachs themselves. The question is a complex one, and part of the larger and still controversial issue of Wagner’s ideological position, with which we are only concerned here in as far as it affects our view and interpretation of the opera itself.

In short, the Nazis knew good music whey they heard one. It is quite irrelevant that they misused it.

Considerable part of Mr McFarland’s essay is dedicated to Wieland Wagner and his revolutionary staging in post-war Bayreuth, in 1956 to be exact, aptly dubbed by one critic “The Mastersingers without Nuremberg”. True to his principles that sets are largely nonsense that obscures the meaning of his grandfather’s works, Wieland boldly presented a more or less bare stage and emphasised the subtle word-play and Biblical references in the libretto. These include thoroughly fascinating, if somewhat far-fetched, speculations about John the Baptist and the Original Sin (you didn’t think Eva’s name was incidental, did you?). Mr McFarland explains them carefully, clearly and with precise references to the libretto, he states that Wieland “performed a great service by laying emphasis upon such details”, that his “illuminating productions helped to redress the balance”, etc., etc., but he finally concludes that his ideas are “also one-sided.” Wagner’s Nuremberg, the 19th-century myth popularised if not invented by his opera, is too important to be ignored so easily. Die Meistersinger, like La Boheme or Carmen, or A Streetcar Named Desire if you like an example from the non-operatic stage, is one of those works that is inextricably linked to its setting. To present it without its setting is to misrepresent it completely.

Mr Matthews is particularly illuminating on the long and complex, as usual with Wagner, history of composition and the unique place Die Meistersinger occupies in the history of German opera. The work was conceived as early as 1845, “that annus mirabilis when Wagner, on a health cure in Marienbad, conceived the subjects of every music-drama he was to compose in the remaining 38 years of his life.” At the time Wagner thought of Die Meistersinger merely as a “relevant satyr-play” that could be “appended” to his recently finished Tannhäuser, subtitled “Singers’ Contest in Wartburg”. He satirised the Nuremberg community almost savagely and he turned his characters, even Hans Sachs himself, into malicious caricatures of his opponents and critics. By the early 1860s, years of experience and exile, the composition of half of the Ring and Tristan, and Wagner’s immersion into Schopenhauer and Buddhism had changed his initial concept out of recognition. He now developed the concept of Wahn, “a bold attempt to analyse and explain the phenomenon of irrationality in human behaviour”, and treated everybody, even Beckmesser’s Malvolio-like character, much more gently.

Not the least remarkable thing about Die Meistersinger is that it is just as unique in Wagner’s canon as it is in the history of German opera. Though the mixture of tragedy and farce can be traced back to Die Zauberflöte, Mr Matthews argues, there is nothing like a German equivalent to the great Italian tradition of opere buffe; likewise, there are three or four exceptions on the theatre stage, but there is no German Molière. As far as opera goes, in 1840 Lortzing did compose one called Hans Sachs (note the personal title!) with which Wagner was almost certainly familiar, but who remembers it today? It is a telling illustration of Wagner’s genius that even his most unusual creation, so far removed from the rest of his oeuvre, was just as ground-breaking – and just as “ground-ending”, so to say – as Tristan, for example.

The musical commentary by Mr Whitall is not quite so enlightening, but neither is it the valueless junk that often results when authors must write this most ungrateful of all commentaries. Though quite full with tonality shifts and development of motifs (or parts of motifs), most of the essay is pleasantly comprehensible for the layman. Unless you know the score very intimately indeed, I think you can’t fail to fail to profit from Mr Whitall’s remarks. He mentions most of the 37 musical examples in the Thematic Guide, all of them of course numbered and indicated in the libretto, and he discovers many tantalising connections. And he has the common sense, which some Wagnerologists curiously lack, not to praise the orchestra at the expense of the voices:

Thematic statement may be more complete, thematic development more intense, in the orchestra: but the vocal line itself is shaped to ensure that the expressive focus of the music is with the character represented on stage. The vocal line is never merely incidental.

I forgot who it was, some German stage director probably, who once said that with a suitable production and a talented director Die Meistersinger could, even today, be staged without the music. Audacious idea! But reading carefully the libretto, Wagner’s longest and meatiest by far, I am inclined to agree with the fellow. I don’t think anybody ever tried the experiment, but it might just work. It remains unclear when Frederick Jameson produced this translation, but the revision by Norman Feasey and Gordon Kember was carried out for the 1968 production at Sadler’s Wells. They were also responsible for the short “Translator’s Preface” which gives some interesting historical facts about the mastersingers but feels rather redundant after the essays of Messrs Matthews and McFarland.

Keep in mind, therefore, that this is a singing translation. Musical considerations come first and the meaning is often sacrificed; “Wahn! Wahn!” hardly means “Fools! Fools!”, but it suits the music. (“Wahn, one of those German words that is virtually untranslatable but which comprises illusion, delusion and madness” as Mr Matthews observes.) That said, the translation lends itself well to silent reading. Certain loss of meaningful overtones is a fair price to pay for not having to fight with Wagner’s quaint ideas (duly retained) of spelling, punctuation, lineation and vocabulary. The German text is quite complete. It follows Wagner’s original poem and, where this deviates from what was actually set to music as well as for all stage directions, the vocal score.

The numerous photos are, as usual, too small and too dark to see much in them. The Discography, again as usual, is brief and superficial. It gives only four studio recordings, Kempe (1956), Karajan (1970), Solti (1975) and Jochum (1976), and one live performance from Bayreuth (Varviso, 1975). I am not familiar with the last one, but the rest are well worth hearing. But so are quite a few others. If you are not averse to somewhat rough mono sound, Jochum’s 1949 recording, with Hans Hotter as Sachs, is preferable to his remake with the eloquent but rather underpowered Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Bearing in mind the same caveat about the sound, Karajan’s legendary 1951 live recording from Bayreuth, with Otto Edelmann (Sachs), Erich Kunz (Beckmesser) and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (Eva), is obligatory. Two other live recordings, one from Bayreuth (Böhm, 1968) and one from Munich (Knappertsbusch, 1955), are almost as fine. Last but not least, one important radio recording (that is, a concert performance recorded more or less live, but in studio) must be mentioned. Made in 1967 but first released (due to some contractual problems, the rumour says) some thirty years later, the set conducted by Rafael Kubelik has a dream cast that includes Thomas Stewart (Sachs), Gundula Janowitz (Eva) and and Sándor Kónya (Walther).

The book is worth having for the libretto alone. If you follow the text closely, or if you know it by heart, you might just be surprised at the unflagging inspiration during these four and a half hours, not to mention the variety and subtlety of the characterisation. I would go as far as to claim that Die Meistersinger, not Das Rheingold, is Wagner’s most perfect fusion of text and music on an equal footing, never mind the heavenly quintet that contradicts his own theories about the music drama of the future. Erudite reviewers may complain that the essays shy away, no doubt deliberately, from the most quarrelsome issues such as the Jewish hues of Beckmesser, the nationalistic overtones of the work on the whole or its influence on the Nazi ideology. For my part, this is the best about them. They skip the irrelevant details and concentrate on the essentials. Certainly, Messrs Matthews and McFarland, and to a lesser extent Mr Whitall, will provide you with a solid foundation on which to build your personal interpretation of this endlessly fascinating score.


[1] When future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose!...
Thus Wagner said on December 9, 1872, according to Cosima’s Diaries. The quote is used by Mr Matthews as an epigraph to his essay.

[2] Deryck Cooke, “Shakespeare Into Music” from Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music, Faber and Faber, 1982. ( )
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
English National Operaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
John, NicholasSeries Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wagner, RichardLibrettistmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Feasey, NormanTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jameson, FrederickTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kember, GordonTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Matthews, RolandContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McFarland, TimothyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Whittall, ArnoldContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714539619, Paperback)

The English National Opera Guides were originally conceived in partnership with the English National Opera and edited by Nicholas John, the ENO's dramaturg, who died tragically in an accident in the Alps. Most of the guides are devoted to a single opera, which is described in detail—with many articles that cover its history and information about the composer and his times. The complete libretto is included in both the original language and in a modern singing translation—except where the opera was written in English. Each has a thematic guide to the most important musical themes in musical notation and each guide is lavishly illustrated. They also contain a bibliography and a discography which is updated at each reprint. The ENO guides are widely regarded as the best series of their kind and excellent value.
Die Meistersinger was enthusiastically received at its premiere in 1868, and was judged to be Wagner's most immediately appealing work.

Eduard Hanslick wrote 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."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:20 -0400)

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