A recital of Wagner’s deeds in music becomes an unending tale of marvel. Wagner had conceived the plan of “Die Meistersinger” (completed in 1867, produced 1868) very early, as early as or even earlier than “Lohengrin.” But, though some have claimed that he made early sketches for the quintet from the last act of “Die Meistersinger,” he apparently did not set himself definitely to its composition till the middle of March, 1862. He was, as usual, terrifically in debt, but had settled himself comfortably in Biebrich, in rooms that looked out upon a garden and a flowing river, and the creative mood, as he had hoped it would, descended upon him. In his autobiography he tells us that “As from the balcony of my flat, in a sunset of great splendor, I gazed upon the magnificent spectacle of `golden’ Mayence, with the majestic Rhine flooding its outskirts in a glory of light, the Prelude to my Meistersinger again suddenly made its presence closely and distinctly felt in my soul. Once before had I seen it rise before me out of a lake of sorrow, like some distant mirage. I wrote down the prelude exactly as it appears today in the score, countinue the whole drama. I proceeded at once to continue the composition, intending to allow the remaining scenes to follow in due succession.”
We must consider for a moment the basic dramatic motives of the opera if we are to grasp fully the meaning of this Prelude. The principal characters in the plot are Walther von Stolzing, poet and knight; Eva, daughter of a rich burgher of old-time Nuremberg, whom Walther loves, but whose hand he can win only by proving his genius in song; Hans Sachs, the famous cobbler and Mastersinger, who personifies the wisdom of experience and sacrifice, and the greatheartedness of the people; and Beckmesser, the crabbed clerk, pedant and theoretician, who expects by virtue of his hollow learning and pretense to win Eva for himself. At last Beckmesser and Walther are pitted against each other in a contest of song, when Walther’s genius, youth and love put the now ridiculous Beckmesser to flight. Walther is acclaimed a Mastersinger; Eva is given to him as his bride; the populace enthusiastically salute the poet and the noble Sachs.
Walther, of course, is Wagner himself. Beckmesser is prototype of Wagner’s antagonists among the critics. Hans Sachs is the virtue and wisdom of the people, prompt to recognize the creative artist and find expression in him. The final moral is that the greatest genius must have its roots deep down in the soil of the race that gave it birth, and that the aris taining the clear outlines of the leading themes of the tocracy of genius can in turn raise the people to new levels of beauty and understanding.
The Prelude begins with the first of the two “Meistersinger” themes, a splendid pompous march emblematic of that famous sixteenth-century guild of musician-tradesmen and merchants who practiced art industriously, even though they tended to conventionalize it, and gave poetry and music official importance in the lives of the people. The march theme is followed by phrases that relate to Walther’s Prize Song and his love for Eva. This leads to the second “Meistersinger” theme, also in march rhythm, and, if anything, more weighty than the first. You are to see them, these Mastersingers, as they wend their way to the banks of the river to hold the contest of songthe noble Sachs, the majestical Pogner,, the mincing Beckmesser, clad in rich fabrics and colors, mighty in the consciousness of their own pith And prosperity and worth. Banners fly, the people dance and cheer and crane their necks as the leading citizens of the free and imperial city of the olden time pass by. This second march theme, which Wagner is said’ to have taken from the “Crowned tone” of Heinrich Mugling, is extended with music heard in the festive concluding scenes, the music of the crowd and the holiday. A short, impetuous phrase given the strings speaks of the love of Walther and Eva, and the basic motive of Walther’s Prize Song is developed by the orchestra.
This is the substance of the first part of the Prelude, which propounds all its musical material. The second part comes with the fugal caricature of the “Meistersinger” theme, combined with a motive heard when the populace makes fun of Beckmesser in the last act. The fugue is cackled by the wind instruments, with humorous asides by trilling strings and other similar effects. Thus Wagner makes fun of the pedantry of the Beckmessers. The progress of the fugue is hotly contested, from time to time, by the warm and impetuous motive of Walther and Eva. The two motives oppose each other with increasing obstinacy, which brings the fugue to a climax.
The third part of the Prelude begins when the brasses thunder out in its full grandeur the first “Meistersinger” theme, which disperses the fussy counterpoint, while an exultant phrase wreathes the motive of the sturdy march. Now occurs that sheer explosion of genius, the peroration of the “Meister-singer”. Prelude. Three themes and a fragment of a fourth are heard at the same time, as though it were .impossible to keep them apart and oblige each one to wait its turn. Softly, in the basses, walks along the theme of the Mastersingers. Above sings the Prize Song of Walther. In between may be heard the fan-fares of the second “Meistersinger” motive, and across the strings flits a motive associated with Beckmesser. The glorious hubbub grows, the music swells with lustiness and festivity to the final proclamation, withall possible orchestral brilliancy, of the “Meister-singer” music.