Major Operas | Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Die Meistersinger has often been described as a comedy. This, though, is not ‘comedy’ as found in the operas of Rossini or in Verdi’s Falstaff: what ‘comedy’ means in this context is the bitter ‘human comedy’.

The premiere of Die Meistersinger took place in Munich on 21 June 1868. Wagner based his opera on the real-life members of the Guild of Mastersingers in sixteenth-century Germany. They were the middle-class equivalent of the aristocratic groups whose Song Contest featured in Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The principal character in Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs (1494–1576) was a poet and composer living in Nuremberg. He wrote a poem ‘Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall’ (‘The Nightingale of Wittenberg’) in support of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the Protestant Reformation. Wagner included part of Sachs’ verses in Die Meistersinger. The overture is often played as a separate concert item, as is the ‘Prize Song’ with which the hero, Walther, wins the contest: despite Wagner’s efforts to exclude arias from his operas, this one has become a tenor’s favourite.

Composed: 1862–67
Premiered: 1868, Munich
Libretto by the composer

Act I

Walther von Stolzing has arrived in Nuremberg and fallen in love with Eva Pogner, daughter of a rich mastersinger. She returns his love, but her father has offered her hand to the winner of the forthcoming mastersinger contest. Eva’s companion Magdalene asks her lover David, apprentice to the poet and cobbler Hans Sachs, to prepare Walther for the auditions, since only mastersingers may enter. David, knowing that mastersingers endure years of study, introduces Walther to just a few of the rules stipulated by the contest.

The apprentices prepare for the singing trials. Walther begs Pogner and the other mastersingers to let him enter. He makes an enemy in Beckmesser, the clerk, who also hopes to win Eva’s hand. Pogner announces his intention to reward the winner of the contest with not only his daughter’s hand, but also his fortune, to prove that businessmen appreciate the arts. Sachs suggests that the people and indeed Eva should have some say in the winner. Walter is introduced and sings his freeform trial song. So many of the mastersingers’ rules are broken that he fails before the song is even finished. Only Sachs recognizes the true worth of Walther’s composition.

Act II

David informs Magdalene of Walther’s failure, which she conveys to Eva. Sachs ponders the beauty of Walther’s song and is visited by Eva, who unwittingly betrays her feelings for Walther. Feigning disapproval, Sachs secretly resolves to help the lovers.

Walther persuades Eva to elope. She swaps clothes with Magdalene; Beckmesser is coming to serenade Eva, and Magdalene must take her place. As Walther and Eva make to leave, Sachs shines a light so that they cannot escape. As Beckmesser begins his serenade, Sachs takes up his hammer and starts to sing. Beckmesser asks for silence but Sachs explains that he is working on Beckmesser’s new shoes. They arrange that Sachs will...

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