The Voice | Meistersinger | Renaissance | Classical
Meistersinger (the singular and plural forms are identical) were German men predominantly from the lower and middle classes who were members of town guilds formed to encourage the composition and performance of songs known as Meisterlieder.
The genre had its origins in the fourteenth century and flourished for three centuries. It was essentially an oral tradition: not all Meistersinger could read music, so they relied on learning their songs by heart.
Meistersinger guilds – celebrated in Richard Wagner’s (1813–83) famous opera – were subject to the control of the municipal authorities and were organized according to strict regulations. Each guild had elected officials, including directors and treasurers, and new members began by being apprenticed to an existing singer. Meisterlieder were educational and edifying in purpose, in keeping with the spirit of the Lutheran Reformation. Many of their texts are based on Luther’s German translations of the Bible, though some took historical themes, including the history of Meistersinger tradition itself.
Just as the structure of the guilds was strictly controlled, so the creation of Meisterlieder was carefully controlled by tradition: there was always an odd number of verses (a minimum of three) and both text and music had to share the same structure – bar form, using a broad AAB format for each verse. Often the specific form used was taken from a work by an earlier Meistersinger. Each line of verse was supposed to be of a length that could easily be sung in one breath. Meisterlieder were performed, without accompaniment, by a solo singer or by a chorus in unison. In the surviving manuscripts only the pitch of the melodies is indicated, not the rhythm, and the assumption is that they were declaimed following the rhythms and stresses of the words.
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