THE best definition of the true purpose of comedy which I know is that it is to “chastise manners with a smile” (Ridendo castigat mores) ; and it has no better exemplification in the literature of opera than Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.” Wagner’s mind dwelt much on Greek things, and as he followed a classical principle in choosing mythological and legendary subjects for his tragedies, so also he followed classical precedent in drawing the line between tragedy and comedy. “Tannhäuser,” “Tristan und Isolde,” “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” “Parsifal,” and, in a lesser degree, “Lohengrin,” are examples of the old tragedy type. To them the restrictions of time and space do not apply. They deal with large passions, and their heroes are gods or godlike men who are shattered against the rock of immutable law the “Fate” of the ancient tragedians. His only significant essay in the field of comedy was made in “Die Meister-singer,” and this is as faithful to the old conception of comedy as the dramas mentioned are to that of tragedy. It deals with the manners, vices, and follies of the common people ; and, therefore, it has local environment and illustrates a period in history.
It was conceived as a satyr-play following a tragedy (“Tannhäuser”), and though there can be no doubt that it was designed to teach a lesson in art, it never the less aims primarily to amuse, and only secondarily to instruct and correct. Moreover, even the most cutting of its satirical lashes are administered with a smile.
As a picture of the social life of a quaint German city three and a half centuries ago, its vividness and truthfulness are beyond all praise; it is worthy to stand beside the best dramas of the world, and has no equal in operatic literature. The food for its satire, too, is most admirably chosen, for no feature of the social life of that place and period is more amiably absurd than the efforts of the handicraftsmen and tradespeople, with their prosaic surroundings, to keep alive by dint of pedantic formularies the spirit of minstrelsy, which had a natural stimulus in the chivalric life of the troubadours and minnesingers of whom the mastersingers thought themselves the direct and legitimate successors. In its delineation of the pompous doings of the mastersingers, Wagner is true to the letter. He has vitalized the dry record to be found in old Wagenseil’s book on Nuremberg,’ and intensified the vivid description of a mastersingers’ meeting which the curious may read in August Hagen’s novel “Norica.” His studies have been marvellously exact and careful, and he has put Wagenseil’s book under literal and liberal contribution, as will appear after a while. Now it seems best to tell the story of the comedy before discussing it further.
Veit Pogner, a rich silversmith, desiring to honor the craft of the mastersingers, to whose guild he belongs, offers his daughter Eva in marriage to the successful competitor at the annual meeting of the mastersingers on the feast of St. John. Eva is in love (she declares it in the impetuous manner peculiar to Wagner’s heroines) with Walther von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight ; and the knight with her. After a flirtation in church during divine service, Walther meets her before she leaves the building, and asks if she be betrothed. She answers in the affirmative, but it is to the unknown victor at the contest of singing on the morrow. He resolves to enter the guild so as to be qualified for the competition. A trial of candidates takes place in the church of St. Catherine in the afternoon, and Walther, knowing nothing of the rules of the master-singers, some of which have hurriedly been outlined to him by David, a youngster who is an apprentice at shoemaking and also songmaking, fails, though Hans Sachs, a master in both crafts, recognizes evidences of genius in the knight’s song, and espouses his cause as against Beckmesser, the town clerk, who aims at acquiring Pogner’s fortune by winning his daughter. The young people, in despair at Walther’s failure, are about to elope when they are prevented by the arrival on the scene of Beckmesser. It is night, and he wishes to serenade Eva; Sachs sits cobbling at his bench, while Eva’s nurse, Magdalena, disguised, sits at a window to hear the serenade in her mistress’s stead. Sachs interrupts the serenader, who is an ill-natured clown, by lustily shouting a song in which he seeks also to give warning of knowledge of her intentions to Eva, whose departure with the knight had been interrupted by the cobbler when he came out of his shop to work in the cool of the evening ; but he finally agrees to listen to Beckmesser on condition that he be permitted to mark each error in the composition by striking his lap-stone. The humorous consequences can be imagined. Beckmesser becomes enraged at Sachs, sings more and more falsely, until Sachs is occupied in beating a veritable tattoo on his lap-stone. To add to Beckmesser’s discomfiture, David, Sachs’s apprentice and Magdalena’s sweetheart, thinking the serenade intended for his love, begins to belabor the singer with a club; neighbors join in the brawl, which proceeds right merrily until interrupted by the horn of a night watchman. The dignity and vigor of Wagner’s poetical fancy are attested by the marvellous close of the act. The tremendous hubbub of the street brawl is at its height and the business of the act is at an end. The coming of the Watchman, who has evidently been aroused by the noise, is foretold by his horn. The crowd is seized with a panic. All the brawlers disappear behind doors. The sleepy Watchman stares about him in amazement, rubs his eyes, sings the monotonous chant which publishes the hour of the night, continues on his round, and the moon shines on a quiet street in Nuremberg as the curtain falls.
In the third act Walther, who had been taken into his house by Sachs and spent the night there, sings a recital of a dream ; and Sachs, struck by its beauty, transcribes it, punctuating it with bits of comments and advice. Beckmesser, entering Sachs’s shop when the cobbler-poet is out for a moment, finds the song, concludes that it is Sachs’s own composition, and appropriates it. Sachs, discovering the theft, gives the song to Beckmesser, who secures a promise from Sachs not to betray him, and resolves to sing it at the competition. The festival is celebrated in a meadow on the banks of the Pegnitz River, between Fürth and Nuremberg. It begins with a gathering of all the guilds of Nuremberg, each division in the procession entering to characteristic music a real masterpiece, whether viewed as spectacle, poetry, or music. The competition begins, and Beckmesser makes a monstrously stupid parody of Walther’s song. He is hooted at and ridiculed, and, becoming enraged, charges the authorship of the song on Sachs, who coolly retorts that it is a good song when correctly sung. To prove his words he calls on Walther to sing it. The knight complies, the mastersingers are delighted, and Pogner rewards the singer with Eva’s hand. Sachs, at the request of the presiding officer of the guild, also offers him the medal as the insignia of membership in the guild of mastersingers. Walther’s experience with the pedantry which had condemned him the day before, when he had sung as impulse, love, and youthful ardor had prompted, leads him to decline the distinction ; but the old poet discourses on the respect due to the masters and their work as the guaranty of the permanence of German art, and persuades him to enter the guild of mastersingers.
“Die Meistersinger” is photographic in many of its scenes, personages, and incidents ; but so far as the stage pictures which we are accustomed to see in the opera-houses of New York and the European capitals are concerned, this statement must be taken with a great deal of allowance, owing to the fact that opera directors, stage managers, scene painters, and costumers are blithely indifferent to the verities of history. I have never seen a mimic reproduction of the church of St. Catherine on any stage ; yet the church stands to-day with its walls intact as they were at the time in which the comedy is sup-posed to play. This time is fixed by the fact that its principal character, Hans Sachs, is represented as a widower who might himself be a suitor for Eva’s hand. Now the veritable Sachs was a widower in the summer of the year 1560. I visited Nuremberg in 1886 in search of relics of the mastersingers and had no little difficulty in finding the church. It had not been put to its original purposes for more than a hundred years, and there seemed to be but few people in Nuremberg who knew of its existence. It has been many things since it became secularized : a painter’s academy, drawing-school, military hospital, warehouse, concert-hall, and, no doubt, a score of other things. When I found it with the aid of the police it was the paint-shop and scenic store-room of the municipal theatre. It is a small building, utterly unpretentious of exterior and interior, innocent of architectural beauty, hidden away in the middle of a block of lowly buildings used as dwellings, carpenter shops, and the like. That Wagner never visited it is plain from the fact that though he makes it the scene of one act of his comedy (as he had to do to be historically accurate), his stage directions could not possibly be accommodated to its architecture. In 1891 Mr. Louis Loeb, the American artist, whose early death in the summer of 1909 is widely mourned, visited the spot and made drawings for me of the exterior and interior of the church as it looked then. The church was built in the last half decade of the thirteenth century, and on its water-stained walls, when I visited it, there were still to be seen faint traces of the frescoes which once adorned it and were painted in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries ; but they were ruined beyond hope of restoration. In the Germanic Museum I found a wooden tablet dating back to 1581, painted by one Franz Hein. It preserves portraits of four distinguished members of the mastersingers’ guild. There is a middle panel occupied by two pictures, the upper showing King David, the patron saint of the guild, so forgetful of chronology as to be praying before a crucifix, the lower a meeting of the master-singers. Over the heads of the assemblage is a representative of the medallion with which the victor in a contest used to be decorated, as we see in the last scene of Wagner’s comedy. One of these decorations was given to the guild by Sachs and was in use for a whole century. At the end of that time it had become so worn that Wagenseil replaced it with another.
Church and tablet are the only relics of the mastersingers left in Nuremberg which may be called personal. I had expected to find autobiographic manuscripts of Sachs, but in this was disappointed. There is a volume of mastersongs in the poet-cobbler’s handwriting in the Royal Library of Berlin, and one of these is the composition of the veritable Sixtus Beckmesser ; but most of the Sachs manuscripts are in Zwickau. In the Bibliotheca Norica Williana, incorporated with the Municipal Library of Nuremberg, there are several volumes of master-singers’ songs purchased from an old mastersinger some 135 years ago, and from these the students may learn the structure and spirit of the mastersongs of the period of the opera as well as earlier and later periods, though he will find all the instruction he needs in any dozen or twenty of the 4275 master-songs written by Hans Sachs. The manuscript books known serve to prove one thing which needed not to have called up a doubt. In them are poems from all of the mastersingers who make up the meeting which condemns Walther in St. Catherine’s church. Wagner has adhered to the record.’ The most interesting of Sixtus Beckmesser’s compositions is “A New Year’s Song,” preserved in the handwriting of Sachs in the Royal Library at Berlin. This I have translated in order to show the form of the old mastersongs as described by the apprentice, David, in Wagner’s comedy, and also to prove (so far as a somewhat free translation can) that the veritable Beckmesser was not the stupid dunce that Wagner, for purposes of his own, and tempted, doubtless, by the humor which he found in the name, represented him to be. In fact, I am strongly tempted to believe that with the exception of Sachs himself, Beckmesser was the best of the mastersingers of the Nuremberg school.
In Nuremberg the veritable Hans Sachs wrote plays on Tännhauser, Tristan, and Siegfried between three and four hundred years before the poet-composer who put the old cobbler-poet into his comedy. Very naïve and very archaic indeed are Hans Sachs’s dramas compared with Wagner’s; but it is, perhaps, not an exaggeration to say that Sachs was as influential a factor in the dramatic life of his time as Wagner in ours. He was among the earliest of the German poets who took up the miracle plays and mysteries after they had been abandoned by the church and developed them on the lines which ran out into the classic German drama. His immediate predecessors were the writers of the so-called “Fastnacht” (Mardi-gras) plays, who flourished in Nuremberg in the fifteenth century. Out of these plays German comedy arose, and among those who rocked its cradle was another of the mastersingers who plays a part in Wagner’s opera, Hans Folz. It was doubt-less largely due to the influence of Hans Sachs that the guild of mastersingers built the first German theatre in Nuremberg in 1550. Before then plays with religious subjects were performed in St. Catherine’s church, as we have seen, the meeting place of the guild. Secular plays were represented in private houses.
Hans Sachs wrote no less than 208 dramas, which he divided into “Carnival Plays,” “Plays,” “Come-dies,” and “Tragedies.” He dropped the first designation in his later years, but his first dramatic effort was a Fastnachtspiel, and treated the subject of Tannhäuser and Venus. It bears the date February 21, 1517, and was therefore written 296 years before Wagner was born. Of what is now dramatic form and structure, there is not a sign in this play. It is merely a dialogue between Venus and various persons who stand for as many classes of society. The title is : “Das Hoffgesindt Veneris,” or, as it might be rendered in English, ” The Court of Venus.” The characters are a Herald, Faithful Eckhardt, Danheuser (sic), Dame Venus, a Knight, Physician, Citizen, Peasant, Soldier, Gambler, Drunkard, Maid, and Wife. The Knight, Citizen, and the others appear in turn before Venus and express con-tempt for her powers, the Knight because of his bravery, the Physician because of his learning, the Maid because of her virtue, the Wife because of her honor. Faithful Eckhardt, a character that figures in many Thuringian legends, especially in tales of the Wild Hunt, warns each person in turn to beware of Venus. The latter listens to each boast and lets loose an arrow. Each boaster succumbs with a short lamentation. When the play opens, Danheuser is already a prisoner of the goddess. After all the rest have fallen victims, he begs for his re-lease, and they join in his petition. Venus rejects the prayer, speaks in praise of her powers, and calls on a piper for music. A general dance follows, whereupon the company go with the enchantress into the Venusberg. The last speech of Venus ends with the line:
So says Hans Sachs of Nuremberg.
There is but a single scene in “The Court of Venus.” In other plays written in after years, no matter how often the action demanded it, there is neither change of scenes nor division into acts ; and the personages, whether Biblical or classical, talk in the manner of the simple folk of the sixteenth century. Sachs’s tragedy, ” Von der strengen Lieb’ Herrn Tristrant mit der schönen Konigin Isalden” (“Of the strong love of Lord Tristram and the beautiful Queen Iseult”), contains seven acts, as is specified in the continuation of the title “und hat sieben Akte.” It was written thirty-six years later than the carnival play and three years after the establishment of a theatre in Nuremberg by the mastersingers. Each act ends with a triple rhyme. Though Sachs uses stage directions somewhat freely compared with the other dramatists of the period, the personages all speak in the same manner, and time and space are annihilated in the action most bewilderingly. Thus, no sooner does Herr Tristrant volunteer to meet Morhold der Held to settle the question of “Curnewelshland’s” tribute to “Irland” than the two are at it hammer and tongs on an island in the ocean. All the other incidents of the old legends follow as fast as they are mentioned. Tristrant saves his head in Ireland when discovered as the slayer of Morhold by ridding the country of a dragon, and is repeatedly convicted of treachery and taken back into confidence by Konig Marx, as one may read in Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur.” Sachs follows an old conclusion of the story and gives Tristrant a second Iseult to wife, and she tells the lie about the sails. The first Iseult dies of a broken heart at the sight of her lover’s bier, and the Herald in a speech draws the moral of the tale :
Aus dem so lass dich treulich warnen, O Mensch, vor solcher Liebe Garnen, Und spar dein Lieb’ bis in die Eh’, Dann hab’ Ein lieb’ und keine meh. Diesselb’ Lieb’ ist mit Gott und Ehren, Die Welt damit fruchtbar zu mehren. Dazu giebt Gott selbst allewegen Sein’ Gnad’ Gedeihen und milden Segen. Dass stete Lieb’ und Treu’ aufwachs’ Im ehlich’n Stand’, das wunscht Hans Sachs.
One of the most thrilling scenes in “Die Meister-singer” is the greeting of Hans Sachs by the populace when the hero enters with the mastersingers’ guild at the festival of St. John (the chorus, “Wach’ auf ! es nahet gen den Tag”). Here there is another illustration of Wagner’s adherence to the verities of history, or rather, of his employment of them. The words of the uplifting choral song are not Wagner’s, but were written by the old cobbler-poet him-self. Wagner’s stage people apply them to their idol, but Sachs uttered them in praise of Martin Luther; they form the beginning of his poem en-titled “The Wittenberg Nightingale,” which was printed in 1523.
To the old history of Nuremberg written by Wagenseil, Wagner went for other things besides the theatre and personages of his play. From it he got the rules which governed the meeting of the master-singers, like that which follows the religious service in the church of St. Catherine in the first act, and the singular names of the melodies to which, according to David, the candidates for mastersingers’ honors were in the habit of improvising their songs. In one instance he made a draft on an authentic mastersinger melody.
Here we have an exact quotation from the beginning of the first Gesetz in the “Long Tone” of Hein-rich Müglin, which was a tune that every candidate for membership in the guild had to be able to sing. The old song is given in full in Wagenseil’s book, and on the next page I have reproduced a portion of this song in facsimile, so that my readers can observe the accuracy of Wagner’s quotation and form an idea of the nature of the poetic frenzy which used to fill the mastersingers, as well as en-joy the ornamental passages (called “Blumen” in the old regulations) and compare them with the fiorituri of Beckmesser’s serenade.
There is no doubt in my mind but that Wagner’s purpose in ” Die Meistersinger ” was to celebrate the triumph of the natural, poetical impulse, stimulated by healthy emotion and communion with nature, over pedantry and hide-bound conservatism. In the larger study of the opera made in another place, I have attempted to show that the contest is in reality the one which is always waging between the principles of romanticism and classicism, a contest which is essentially friendly and necessary to progress. The hero of the comedy is not Walther, but Sachs, who represents in himself both principles, who stands between the combatants and checks the extravagances of both parties.’
Like Beethoven in his “Leonore” overtures writ-ten for the opera “Fidelio,” Wagner constructs the symphonic introduction to his comedy so as to indicate the elements of his dramatic story, their progress in the development of the play, and, finally, the outcome. The melodies are of two sorts con-forming to the two parties into which the personages of the play can be divided ; and, like those parties, the melodies are broadly distinguished by external physiognomy and emotional essence. Most easily recognized are the two broad march tunes typical of the mastersingers and their pageantry. One of them has already been presented. Like its companion, which opens the prelude, it is a strong, simple melody, made on the intervals of the diatonic scale, square-cut in rhythm, firm and dignified, and, like the mastersingers, complacent and a trifle pompous in stride. The three melodies which are presented in opposition to the spirit represented by the mastersingers and their typical music, are disclosed by a study of the comedy to be associated with the passion of the young lovers, Walther and Eva. They differ in every respect melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic, from those which stand for the old guildsmen and their rule-of-thumb notions. They are chromatic, as see this and this (which is the melody which in a broadened form becomes that of Walther’s prize song) and this, which is peculiarly the symbol of youthful ardor.
Their rhythms are less regular and more eager (note the influence of syncopation upon them) ; they are harmonized with greater warmth and infused with greater passion. In the development of the prelude these melodies are presented at first consecutively, then as in conflict (first one, then another pushing forward for expression), finally in harmonious and contented union. The middle part of the prelude, in which the opening march tune is heard in short, quick notes (in diminution, as the theoreticians say) maybe looked upon as caricaturing the master-singers, not in their fair estate, but as they are satirized in the comedy in the person of Beckmesser.