Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Opera in three acts (1868)
Music and text by
The soloists and the choir, and especially the full-scale orchestra, developed an extraordinary tonal splendour. This can be felt immediately in the overture to the first act, with its C major radiance and its large upswings filled with vigour and lightness, as well as notably in the final scene at the fairground, which features virtually everything that could conceivably take place on an opera stage. It is not only the sheer overpowering nature of the tonal presence that is astonishing, but also the tremendously high compositional level that Wagner achieved here, and which proves just as impressive in the lyrical, interiorised passages. Since the opera’s triumphant world premiere in Munich in June 1868, »Die Meistersinger« has been one of the pillars of European musical theatre – as a work that demonstrates what opera (and musical drama) can achieve beyond the ordinary on-stage routine.
The honorable citizens of the city prepare in the church for the Feast of St. John the Baptist taking place the coming day, while the youth of the city eagerly await St. John’s Eve, the heathen night of lovers, of great wishes, miracles and heavenly inebriation.
The country aristocrat Walther von Stolzing, a recent arrival in the city, spends the night at the church wooing the daughter of his business partner, the goldsmith Pogner. The evening beforehand, the two met for the first time, and it seemed to be love at first sight. But Stolzing learns from Eva’s nurse Magdalene that Eva can only marry a mastersinger, ideally the one to win the singer guild’s song contest the next day to honor the Feast of St. John.
Stolzing has no choice but to win the honor of mastersinger the next day, since he otherwise can no longer woo Eva. The apprentice to the famous mastersinger Hans Sachs, David, who is the favorite of Magdalene, is to help Walther and teach him in the art of the mastersingers. David teaches the knight extensively about the endless knowledge and skills in singing and rhyming required to pass all the tests to become a mastersinger. But it is impossible for Stolzing to learn all the rules in the short time left, but there remains a chance for those who “create a new song to words and rhymes of his own creation to be recognized as mastersinger.” The singer can sing his own words and melody, but the form of the song has to be maintained exactly according to the rules. This is the condition to achieve the honor of mastersinger, and to be taken into the guild.
In the meantime, preparations for the meeting of the mastersingers are fully underway. In the process, Pogner is harried by the city scribe Beckmesser that he should abandon the competition for his daughter’s hand and instead support him in his wooing of Eva. Stolzing interrupts the two mastersingers and, to the visible pleasure of Pogner and unconcealed anger of Beckmesser, declares it to be his urgent desire to be accepted that very day into the guild of mastersingers. As the twelve mastersingers gather, Pogner declares that his daughter and his business would be the prize for the winner of the competition. The mastersingers are to choose the winner, but his daughter should have the last word: but she would never marry a man other than a mastersinger from the guild.
Hans Sachs, the most successful and powerful mastersinger, does not trust the circle of mastersingers to reach the right judgment that Eva will also agree to, because it is about art and love. He thus suggests in this case for the first time naming the listening crowd to be the judge of the prizewinner, since the crowd, like Eva, will be equally unimpressed by the rules of the mastersingers and will follow their hearts, making the right choice.
But this is too bold and unusual for the mastersingers, for it violates all tradition. They reject Hans Sachs’ suggestion. Beckmesser rejects the proposal with a particular vehemence. He sees Sachs as a competitor and fears his popularity as a poet of popular songs.
The masters return to the ordinary course of events, and this is the moment for Stolzing, supported by Pogner and Sachs, to introduce himself and to request acceptance to the guild. He is allowed to present his song. Stolzing places all his chances in his singing and poetic gifts of improvisation, relying on the stirring quality of his emotions, but the strict rules ensnare him, and he becomes hopelessly trapped. Beckmesser meticulously notes the countless violations of the rules and then even interrupts Stolzing’s singing. Hans Sachs, however, is so touched and moved by this new singing that he at least is able to ensure that Stolzing finish his new song despite the protests of the other masters. But under the mockery of the apprentices, a crushing verdict is delivered on Stolzing’s singing: “Mis-sung!” Things look dire for Stolzing’s happiness and Eva’s future.
The apprentices walk through the streets of the nightly city, longing for the night of wonder, in search of adventure. The secret couple David and Magdalene is just the thing for them. Full of mockery and envy, they make fun of the two and begin to argue with the furious David. Sachs disperses the crowd and orders his apprentice home.
Pogner has also stepped out of his house with Eva. Pogner wonders whether his plan was well-conceived and good, and is in search of Sachs’ advice. Eva only wants to learn from her father what happened to Stolzing. Pogner says nothing, leaving Eva in ignorance. Magdalene tells her that Stolzing has failed. In her desperation, she hopes to obtain advice from Sachs.
Sachs asks David for the cobbler’s bench. He wants to fix Beckmesser’s shoe on his own, but Stolzing’s performance leaves him no rest, for his song was incomparable to his own and touched him deeply. Sachs enjoys the new, and finds his own peace in acknowledging the quality of the other. Now he can return to Beckmesser’s shoes.
Eva seeks his advice, without betraying her own feelings. The conversation becomes a mutual attempt to pry information from one another. Sachs wants to know whether Eva will agree to accept Beckmesser, the only unmarried mastersinger, as her husband. Eva in contrast, wonders whether the widow Sachs himself might not present himself as a wooer. Sachs refuses Eva, and Eva rejects Beckmesser. It becomes clear to both that Eva could only be happy with Stolzing. Eva leaves Sachs without getting the advice she wanted, but Sachs is now determined to help her and Stolzing.
In the meantime, Stolzing has himself become active for his own cause, and prepares to elope with Eva, and Eva throws herself ecstatically into his arms. But Beckmesser also wants to make use of the night, by trying to win over Eva with a song. Hans Sachs observes all of this from the safety of his house, and intervenes dramatically and with great relish in the nightly events. First, he cleverly prevents Stolzing and Eva from leaving the town unseen, then he takes on Beckmesser, who wants to begin his song, but is overpowered by Sachs’ own singing. He cannot stand up to Sachs’ cobbler’s song, and he loses his own song. Furious, he lets out all his hate of Sachs. Abruptly Sachs suggests to Beckmesser that he sing his song for Eva, but that he would punish any violation of the rule with by striking the shoe last. Beckmesser is forced to agree to the proposal, but he overlooks that standing at Pogner’s house at the window is not Eva, but Magdalene in disguise. Beckmesser sings and Sachs mercilessly marks each of the many errors with powerful blows on the cobbler’s last.
Fascinated, the lovers watch the duel as it gets heated and louder from their improvised hiding place. Beckmesser almost loses all self-control, and it is in just this moment that David sees Beckmesser from his room, singing for Magdalene. David attacks Beckmesser, Magdalene screams for help, everyone awakes, gathers around Pogner’s house, blaming one another for the noise: time to settle old accounts, old feuds are revived, the residents attack one another, and chaos ensues. Stolzing and Eva run danger of getting caught in this maelstrom and being recognized. Sachs realizes this danger, and so he joins in the fracas, separating the couple and pulling Stolzing into his home. At the same time, the more levelheaded residents provide the urgently need cooling down with powerful gushes of water from the surrounding houses. Sobered, everyone toddles off from the battlefield. The city authorities represented by the night guard arrives late to the scene, rubbing his eyes in the face of all the devastation.
Sachs has kept vigil through the night. David cannot tear him from his deep contemplation. Only slowly do the ideas of the mastersinger congeal to form an analysis of the horrors of the past night and his own involvement in them. He was the one who “drew at the threads of madness” that then began to rage St. John’s Eve, seducing the crowd around him, driving them towards and against one another in the night of horrors and magical powers. Now, on St John’s Day, it was left to Sachs to tame his madness and that of the others so that a reasonable life together is possible, banning the wild and destructive.
With Stolzing, his nightly guest, who has been given wonderful hope by a new dream, he considers his possibilities despite all the adversities to participate in the competition. Stolzing’s dream seems to be the proper subject for a song. Stolzing reports of his dream and Sachs forms the song according to the rules of the mastersingers. Stolzing follows the rules, and they come easily to him. The dream is recast as poetry. They decide to dare to use this song in the competition.
Beckmesser comes to pick up his shoes. But instead of his shoes, he finds the manuscript of Stolzing’s song in Sachs’ handwriting. Beckmesser now thinks that Sachs is vying for Eva’s hand. Taking advantage of Sachs’ momentary absence, he steals the manuscript, to then confront the arriving Sachs with his nightly activity. Sachs listens to the accusations, discovers the theft that Beckmesser does not deny, for he thinks he is justified, since Sachs had declared he was not vying for Eva’s hand.
Sachs gives him the song and promises neither to participate in the competition nor ever to claim the song as his own. Exhilarated and sure of victory, Beckmesser dances off.
Depressed and helpless, Eva appears to Sachs using an excuse. Does she want to convince him once again to ask for her hand, or is she solely seeking to be close to Stolzing? Stolzing frees her of her uncertainty. With the third strophe of his prize song, he charms Eva. Sachs confirms that he has created a true mastersinger, whose melody, according to old mastersinger custom he names in the presence of witnesses, David, quickly promoted to a journeyman, and his Magdalene, as “Die selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise” (The Blessed Morning Dream Interpretation Song). St. John’s Day has dawned, and it is time for the festivities to begin.
The city’s guilds gather at the festival square. With the entrance of the mastersingers, the festival begins, opened by Hans Sachs, who is honored by the crowd singing his song “Wach auf,” before he himself honors and opens the eagerly awaited contest.
Beckmesser begins singing, and fails miserably, for in his thoughts he is no match for the text and the melody he has chosen does not fit with text to form a coherent whole. He is ignominiously laughed at and mocked. In his powerlessness, he accuses Sachs of forcing the horrible song on him, and claims that it was by Hans Sachs. Sachs was waiting for this moment, now he can reveal the creator of the song, and the quality it truly has if sung by the right singer. The mastersingers cannot resist the finely spun argumentation, and Stolzing is allowed to present his song and triumphs. Eva has been won over. But the aristocrat Walther von Stolzing refuses membership in the guild of mastersingers.
Sachs now sees his mission endangered: making the mastersingers into an ideal community, a community of German artists who feel a vocation, who are to be the pride and source of well being for the German people. He insists that Stolzing accept this task. Stolzing concedes, without saying a word.