” Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg ” or ” The Master-singers of Nuremberg,” Richard Wagner’s only comic opera, was presented in Munich, June 21, 1868, under the direction of Hans von Bülow. The idea of the opera was suggested to the composer in boyhood, as was ” Tannhäuser,” by the reading of one of Hoffmann’s novels and was planned as a kind of ” Mastersinger ” companion-piece to the ” Minnesinger ” contest in ” Tannhäuser.” The sketch was drawn up in 1845, during a summer holiday but soon was set aside for other composition.
Master Singers: Hans Sachs, a cobbler. Veit Pogner, a goldsmith. Kunz Vogelgesang, a furrier. Konrad Nachtigall, a buckle-maker. Sixtus Beckmesser, a town clerk. Fritz Kothner, a baker. Balthazar Zorn, a pewterer. Ulrich Aisslinger, a grocer. Augustus Moser, a tailor. Hermann Ortel, a soap-boiler. Hans Schwarz, a stocking-weaver. Hans Foltz, a coppersmith. Sir Walter Von Stolzing, a young French knight. David, apprentice to Hans Sachs. Eva, Wagner’s daughter. Magdalena, Eva’s nurse. A night-watchman. Burghers of all guilds, journeymen, apprentices, girls and people.
To appreciate this opera and the clever satire conveyed in it, one must have some knowledge of the Mastersingers and the rules that hedged them about. The members of the guild, who were burghers instead of knights like the Minnesingers, held different rank according to their proficiency. When a certain number of tunes had been mastered, the member was a singer; when he could write verses to a given air, he had developed into a poet; when he could set his poetry to music of his own invention, he was worthy to be called a mastersinger. There were no less than one hundred rules which composed the Tabular. Of these, thirty-three were concerning errors to be guarded against. One aspiring to membership must pass an examination and, if the chief examiner or marker chalked up seven mistakes, the candidate failed of admission. Frequent competitive tests with prizes were held.
The scene of ” The Mastersingers ” is laid in Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century. On a Sunday afternoon (St. John’s Day) service is just being completed in St. Catherine’s church. An oblique section of the Church is shown, the last pews in the nave being visible. The good townsfolk are there, among them Eva, the fair daughter of the gold-smith and mastersinger Pogner, accompanied by her nurse and companion, Magdalena. Standing near a pillar at some distance from the worshipers is Walter von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight, who is intently watching the charming girl as she takes part in the hymn which is being sung. Eva is not unconscious of his gaze, for she turns repeatedly to give him a glance of encouragement. The hymn is ended and the people rise from their seats and start homeward. As Eva and Magdalena pass Walter, he addresses the young girl and she, eager to give him an opportunity to speak, makes the excuse of having left her kerchief and her pin in the pew. Magdalena thus is compelled to absent herself for a moment and Walter seizes the chance to question Eva as to whether she is betrothed or free. Magdalena, seeing the drift of affairs, ends by answering his question. Eva is pledged to wed but she knows not to whom. The morrow shall decide that, for on that day the mastersingers are to hold a contest and to the victor, if he be unmarried and Eva be not opposed to him, her hand is to be given. Such is her father’s wish and promise. Walter knows nothing of what being a master-singer means, but Eva’s assurance that she will choose him ” or else no one,” fires him with the determination to become a member of the singers’ guild and thus to win the hand of the maiden whom, although he has known her but a day, he has grown to love passionately.
Magdalena’s admirer and favored suitor is David, a young apprentice to Hans Sachs, the cobbler of the town and most gifted poet among the mastersingers. David and his fellow apprentices begin preparing the church for holding the mastersingers’ meetings. Magdalena and Eva now entrust Walter to David for instruction and directions as to what he must sing and how he must sing it. As soon as the maiden and her nurse have gone, David attempts to keep his promise and to give Walter some idea of the requirements for entering the guild. But he finds the young knight wholly ignorant on every point concerning the matter and, after rattling off a long list of titles of the different kinds of songs and citing some of the rules governing their use, he gives up in despair and, with his fellows awaits the sport that he knows will come from the appearing as a contestant before the masters of such an uninformed singer as Walter. Pogner, Eva’s father, enters accompanied by Beckmesser, the town clerk, a well informed, somewhat pompous and thoroughly self-satisfied old bachelor, who long has been a suitor for Eva’s hand and who is confident that tomorrow will see him the victor. He is eager that a word in his favor be spoken to the girl and this the goldsmith promises to do. Walter comes forward and is given hearty welcome by Pogner at whose house he had been a guest the day before. One by one the master-singers arrive and when all are assembled and the roll has been called, Pogner makes an address, in which he formally announces his decision to give his daughter’s hand and dowry to the man who wins at the contest on the morrow. The question is raised whether it is right thus to dispose of a young girl’s heart, and Pogner states that Eva will not be asked to wed the winner unless she loves him. Beckmesser voices a fling at Hans Sachs that perhaps the cobbler would like to win the girl but Sachs declares that they both are too old for so young and fair a maid as Eva. This incenses the town clerk but he bides his time to get even. Pogner announces Walter’s desire to sing before the mastersingers and, when the young applicant is asked where he had been taught to sing, he declares that from an old book which his sire gave him, he at wintertide beside the hearth read of spring and of returning summer and thus from this book of Walter von der Vogelweide he has learned his singing. The masters are dubious, all save Hans Sachs, who feels that possibly the young fellow may possess powers which are of worth. The trial song is at hand and Beckmesser is appointed ” marker.” He enters the little curtained enclosure and when all is ready he gives the signal for Walter to commence. Walter sings but it is a rhapsody of love and passion for the maiden he loves and hopes to win a song far removed from the formal, rule-bound thing to which the masters are accustomed. Beckmesser marking-board soon is covered over with the record of mistakes made and he is not slow to show his dislike of the singer whom he fears is favored by Eva. Sachs takes exception to Beckmesser attitude and thus further inflames the town clerk, who now turns and twits Sachs with neglecting his cobbling in order to be a poet, citing, as an instance, that he has, himself, waited for days for a pair of shoes which Sachs had promised to finish but had not completed. Sachs laughingly assures him the shoes shall be ready that evening and the mastersingers break up their meeting in something closely resembling a row, all of them being incensed at Walter’s boldness in attempting to sing before them. Only Sachs keeps apart from the general indignation. As Walter rushes away and as the mastersingers and apprentices leave the church, Sachs stands looking at the chair the young singer had occupied. The song, although new and apparently formless, had conveyed to him something of strength and worth. He walks out thoughtfully as the curtain falls.
On the evening of the same day, David is putting up the shutters for the night on Hans Sachs’ shop, which stands just across the street from Pogner’s house. Other apprentices are similarly employed near by and are singing happily, when Magdalena appears and questions David as to the outcome of the trial. He informs her that the young knight was ” outsung and outdone ” and she, angered at the information, refuses to give him the goodies she had brought him in her basket and hurries back into the house. The apprentices, who have watched this meeting, make fun of David and a quarrel is imminent, when Sachs appears and orders the boy into the shop and to bed. Sachs himself enters and prepares for work. Pogner and Eva come slowly up the street, both rather thoughtful, for the father begins to doubt the advisability of the course he has taken in promising his daughter’s hand, while the girl is eager to know the results of the singing-test. They sit down for a few moments in an arbor beneath a lime-tree in front of the door but Magdalena soon appears and the two women speedily manage to get the father into the house. Then the nurse tells Eva what David has had to report concerning Walter’s failure.
Sachs appears at the door of his shop as the women go into their house. He wishes to work but the memory of the song Walter sung still lingers in his mind and spirit. He feels its power yet he cannot classify or analyze it. He knows that it is good but cannot tell why. The poet in him responds to the utterance of genius, strange though that utterance may be. Eva comes and tries by skilful questioning to learn the details of the afternoon. Sachs quickly sees the trend of her inquiries and teases her and amuses himself by disparaging Walter’s work and worth. She leaves in anger, going to Magdalena, who informs her that Beckmesser is coming that evening to sing as a serenade before her (Eva’s) window the song he is to use in the contest tomorrow. Eva says that Magdalena shall sit by the window and receive the serenader when he arrives. Just then Walter comes down the street and Eva runs to him with frank confession of her love for him. They plan to elope but the night-watchman passes just as they start and Sachs, who from the partly closed window of his shop has been noting what has been passing, throws wide the shutters and floods the street with light so that they cannot pass without being seen. They are about to make a dash for it, when Beckmesser appears and begins tuning his lute preparatory for his serenade. Sachs commences a lusty song and a vigorous pounding on his last as the singing starts and, when Beckmesser pleads with him to be silent, he replies that as the honorable town clerk complained of the delay in receiving his shoes the cobbler must of necessity work at night and get them finished for the morrow. Beckmesser finally agrees to Sachs’ proposal that while the serenade is being sung he shall act as ” marker ” and by driving a peg into the shoe every time a mistake is made in the song, they both will be able to accomplish what they wish to do. Beckmesser begins and Sachs indulges in such frequent marking of errors that he has his shoes completed before the serenade is ended. The noise rouses the neighbors and, David looking out of his lattice window, sees Magdalena at her window, receiving Beckmesser’s serenade. He quickly descends to the street and begins to belabor the honorable town clerk. Others join in and a veritable mêlée ensues. Eva and Walter, hidden in the arbor, attempt to make their escape in the confusion but Sachs rushes forward and, pushing the half fainting girl into the arms of Magdalena, who just then appears at the door, seizes Walter by the arm and drags him into the shop. The night-watchman’s horn is heard and the people scurry into their houses, leaving the sleepy and not over-courageous guardian of the night to announce that it is eleven o’clock and that all is well.
The next morning, Sachs sits in the sunshine in his living-room, reading in an old folio. David comes and finds him so engrossed that he notices nothing. Finally, when aroused, the master has his ‘prentice sing the song that has been learned for the day and then bids him go prepare for the festival. Sachs falls to meditating on the possible reasons and causes for the disturbance of the night before, but can reach no conclusion. Suddenly, Walter appears at the door of the room wherein he has slept since midnight. He greets Sachs heartily and tells him that he has had a wonderful dream. He is asked to relate it and, as he does so, Sachs writes it down, skilfully guiding the recital so that the song, as far as it goes, is formally satisfactory. It is not completed, however, for Walter’s inspiration seems to lag and both he and Sachs leave to dress fox the festival.
Beckmesser peeps in at the window, then slowly enters and peering about finally discovers on the table the manuscript of the poem Sachs just has noted down. He concludes at once that it is designed for the contest and that the cobbler-poet will use it. Sachs surprises him as he is examining it and, when Beckmesser suggests that it is to be sung at the contest, Sachs laughingly presents the manuscript to him with full permission to use it as he may see fit. Beckmesser is delighted and now is sure of winning Eva’s hand. He has scarcely gone when Eva comes, ready for the festivities. She offers as an excuse that one of her new shoes pinches her but Sachs quickly sees that to learn the whereabouts of Walter is the true object of her visit. Walter appears and the cobbler suggests that a little music would lighten the labor of correcting the shortcoming in Eva’s shoe. The enamored young knight sings to his love and thus adds the needed third part to the dream-song. When both singing and shoe are simultaneously finished, Sachs hails the melody and poem as a master-song and declares that it must be christened. David is called in and Magdalena arriving at the same time, the five sing about the song and what it shall accomplish at the contest.
The scene changes and on the banks of the River Pegnitz, outside the gates of Nuremberg, the folk assemble for the festival. The various guilds arrive, there is dancing and jollification. At last the mastersingers approach with all due pomp and ceremony. Hans Sachs is hailed by the populace and, when all have taken their places, he calls attention to the prize that is offered. At last Beckmesser advances to sing for the prize. He attempts the poem that Sachs gave him but so mixes and mangles it that his hearers soon are in shouts of laughter and he is forced to desist. He then accuses Sachs of having written it and Sachs, in defense, declares that the poem is not of his own fashioning, that the song is beautiful and that it needs but to be properly given in order to prove its author a master-singer. He calls for some one to sing it and Walter advances. The melody and words are so beautiful that both common folk and masters are charmed and when it is ended Eva crowns the singer with laurel. Pogner will place the silver chain of the mastersinger order about his neck but Walter motions him away. He will have ” none of the masters.” Sachs, however, with dignity and eloquence points out to him the beauty and value of the art that has given such a prize and, as Walter accepts the chain, Eva removes the laurel wreath from her lover’s head and with it crowns Sachs himself, the people acclaiming him as ” Nuremberg’s darling Sachs.”
Musically ” The Mastersingers ” is conceded the most beautiful and the most inspired of all the Wagner operas. Its prelude is a master work, whether viewed in the light of melodic and harmonic beauty or as a wonder in contrapuntal writing. The three great songs for Walter, “Am stillen Heerd” (” By quiet Hearth “), in which he tells of his having first learned to sing; “Fanget an” (” Now begin”), with which he tries for the mastership, and the immortal ” Prize Song,” which he composes in Sachs’ room and which he sings with such happy results at the contest, are brilliant refutations of the charge that Wagner could not write fluent, beautiful melody. The quintet, sung in the last act at the ” christening ” of the ” Prize song,” remains unsurpassed by anything that Wagner or any of his predecessors have achieved along the line of effective ensemble writing. The musing of Sachs before his shop and his monologue when alone in his room are of supreme interest and loveliness. The address of Pogner before the master-singers is of the finest quality and the entire scene of the serenade of Beckmesser shows Wagner’s great genius as musician, humorist and poet in the most brilliant light.