Honour Thy German Masters: Wagner’s Depiction of “Meistergesang” in <i>Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg</i>
The music and culture of the sixteenth century Meistersinger is the central topic of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only operatic comedy. Wagner turned to Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s Von der Meister-Singer Holdseligen Kunst for information on the customs of the Meistersinger, and many scenarios within the opera are based on information from this treatise. The inclusion of the famous historical Meistersinger Hans Sachs as a central character further strengthened the drama’s connection with the historical guild. The use of distinct set pieces, a seeming departure from the endliche Melodie of earlier operas, also helped Wagner create an air of authenticity within the music of Die Meistersinger.
As much as Die Meistersinger invokes the sixteenth century, Wagner does not present an accurate musical depiction of Meistergesang in this work. Though Hans Sachs and his role as a Meistersinger is an important element in his drama, Wagner only superficially observed the form and style of historical Meistergesang. None of Walther’s songs, including Fanget an!, Am stillen Herd, or his Prize song, which wins him the admiration of both the masters and the people, completely satisfies the rules set down by Wagenseil. The character of Sachs, in fact, sings no Meisterlied at all. A comparison of Sachs’ Morgenweise and Silberweise with Wagner’s drama reveals that it is actually in the music of Beckmesser, the pedantic, rule-bound antagonist, that Wagner comes closest to the musical traditions of the sixteenth century. Given the historical setting of the opera and the emphasis the libretto places on rules and traditions, this paper sets out to examine how these three characters are musically portrayed, the degree to which they deviate from traditional Meistergesang, and what this reveals about Wagner’s ideas on artistic genius and musical composition.