Christopher Morley explains why the German composer's Die Meistersinger is one of the greatest operas of all time.
The three operas I regard as the world’s greatest all happen to be comedies. Tragic stories tend to concentrate upon one limited scenario (Tristan und Isolde, Madam Butterfly, Carmen), but comedies reflect so much upon the human condition.
So top of my list is Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, fizzing with intrigue, and a world in miniature, and third is Verdi’s Falstaff, rumbustious, farcical, but with moments, too, of great tenderness.
Between these two comes an opera which looks so probingly into personal motivation, into effect and consequence, which can tickle us with slapstick humour at one point and quicken tears at the next. That opera is Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.
It was composed during the 1860s, primarily as a relaxation from the epic planning of the Ring tetralogy which had occupied Wagner for well over two decades.
But in his search for a new simplicity of musical language as an antidote to the heavy chromaticism of the preceding Tristan und Isolde Wagner became bogged down, and it took him in fact four and a half years to complete the Overture and Act One of Die Meistersinger.
Once he had found the right tone, the rest of what is one of the world’s longest operas flowed through his pen in less than 18 months.
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg really existed. They were a guild with members drawn from various trades (Wagner’s cast-list boasts a shoemaker, goldsmith, furrier, tinsmith, baker, pewterer, grocer, tailor, soapmaker, stocking-weaver and coppersmith), with the aim of safeguarding the art of song within a strict framework of structural rules.
They were proud of their vocation, and any newcomer wishing to join their ranks was subject to the closest of scrutiny. In Wagner’s opera this scrutiny took the form of a Prize Song contest, with the attraction of the hand of Eva, the daughter of goldsmith Veit Pogner, who had foolishly offered her as a trophy.
We enlightened ones can grumble here, as we can at the fact that the Nazis adopted the work, with its great concluding paean to the preservation of German culture in the face of marauding foreign might, as their own motto-opera (it’s worth stating that at the time of composition the Franco-Prussian war was looming).
It was a cleansing process that Die Meistersinger was chosen as the opera to re-open the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in 1951 after its de-Nazification (the chief offender there being Wagner’s English-born daughter-in-law, Winifred, with her adulation of Hitler and the Third Reich). Wagner researched his subject thoroughly, with recourse to a 1687 publication by J.C.Wagenseil, The Book of the Master-Singers’ Gracious Art, in which musical motifs appear which can be heard in the opera, not least the assertive, triumphant “Banner-theme” which on its first appearance crowns the splendid overture.