SFOpera - Beyond the Revolution

Beyond the Revolution

Richard Wagner was among those fired up by the fervor and idealism of the mid-nineteenth century revolutionary mindset sweeping Europe. He had tried to jumpstart radical change in the aftermath of the failed Dresden uprising of 1849 (in which he had actively taken part). After a period spent rechanneling that energy from poetics into art with his new Ring project, Wagner eventually came to recognize the necessity of more gradual transformation

This dawning acceptance, in fact, helps account for Wagner’s sudden renewal of interest in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1861: a topic he had initially pondered sixteen years before.

In March 1861 Wagner was forced to prematurely withdraw the production of his substantially revised Tannhäuser for Paris, which he had hoped would finally earn him respect in Europe’s operatic capital at the time. (The composer’s resentment was intensified by the fact that he had left Paris in defeat nearly twenty years before.) And that was only the latest in a series of humiliating public as well as personal setbacks. Plans to stage Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most recent work—the score of which he had finished in 1859—were facing roadblocks. That premiere, scheduled for Vienna, would be subject to frustrating delays and eventually canceled. (Tristan finally saw the stage in Munich in 1865.)

And since the Ring had yet to be completed (let alone any of it performed), the most recent complete Wagner opera that the public had heard was Lohengrin from 1848. Indeed, the Viennese production of the latter in May 1861 afforded the composer a rare triumph. It also happened to give Wagner his first chance to hear the entire score of Lohengrin performed, since he had been a political exile from German lands by the time of that opera’s world premiere in 1850 in Weimar, and (aside from distant Riga) Lohengrin had yet to be produced in a foreign city. Only recently had partial amnesty been granted—an experience that substantially contributed to the inspiration to write Die Meistersinger. (Wagner would remain an outlaw in the Kingdom of Saxony until 1862.)

With no forthcoming productions in the immediate future of the works that represented his revolutionary new brand of music drama, and facing an ever-growing abyss of debt, Wagner was desperate to create something “practical”—something that would be a success with the public, earn money, and also keep his name relevant. So in October 1861 he promised the publisher Franz Schott that he would wrap up a new score “by next winter.” Wagner added that “the style of the piece, in the poem and the music alike, will be thoroughly light and popular.”

This was not the first time Wagner pitched a project as an easy-to-produce potential hit guaranteed to get the cash happily flowing. He described Tristan und Isolde in similar terms when he decided to put aside the Ring in 1857 with Siegfried only partially composed. As mentioned, Tristan’s world premiere would not be realized until 1865. And it would take Wagner until 1867 to finish Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’s score. The “light and popular” piece had been injected with Wagnerian steroids, mushrooming well beyond the modest dimensions he imagined when he first conceived the work in 1845. This development repeated the pattern of an expanding universe manifested by the Ring cycle, which had started off as a single-cell organism, so to speak, that, through a sort of artistic meiosis, split off to become four operas.

What was the initial spark behind this process back in 1845, when Wagner was enjoying the most securely “bourgeois” position of his entire career as assistant music director of the court opera in Dresden? In the summer of that year, freshly exhausted from completing the score of Tannhäuser—his brand-new opera scheduled to be premiered that fall—and with the season over, the composer was taking a much needed vacation. For Wagner this meant immersing himself in the poetry of Wolfram von Eschenbach and other medieval material, which planted the seeds for Lohengrin and Meistersinger (and, eventually, for Parsifal).

With Tannhäuser still reverberating in his mind, Wagner read the literary historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus’s work on German poetry and became intrigued by the real-life figure of the shoemaker-poet-playwright Hans Sachs (1494–1576), a contemporary of Martin Luther and a leading member of the civic organization of “master singers” in Renaissance Nuremberg. Immediately Wagner was drawn to the potential of another work involving a song contest: this time as a lighter counterpart to the grand tragedy of Tannhäuser that would juxtapose the later middle-class master singers with the medieval minnesingers he had recently dramatized.

The composer had acquired some early experience with comedy in his operatic version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure from 1836, which became Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”). Die Meistersinger in turn is sometimes described as Wagner’s only mature comedy, yet the music drama that ultimately resulted combines a range of humor with some of the tragic themes we usually associate with Wagner’s cosmos.

What really sets Die Meistersinger apart in the Wagnerian canon is not so much the question of genre as that of milieu. With his post-Dresden reforms Wagner had sworn off the legacy of grand historical opera in favor of the timeless, mythic world of the Ring. Yet Die Meistersinger is set in an identifiable time and place: “Nuremberg, around the middle of the sixteenth century,” as Wagner specifies—and he drew carefully from his readings of source and secondary material to distill a sense of the historical atmosphere in his libretto. “Here history is no longer presented as legend but, divesting itself of its ‘wondrous’ mantle, reverts to its secular form,” writes the theater scholar Dieter Borchmeyer.

Even more, the archetypal Wagnerian hero—starting with The Flying Dutchman—had been a social outsider, an “Other” who was incapable of assimilating to the norms of his society. But Die Meistersinger, Borchmeyer points out, “culminates in a paean to the middle-class values of Renaissance Germany, values that the former knight Walther von Stolzing is finally forced to accept, for all his earlier attempts to shock.” You might even think of Walther as the prototypical avant-garde artist who has discovered that there actually are values in the tradition he once scorned that will not compromise but in fact will enhance the integrity of his original vision. This is how he succeeds in winning the hand of Eva Pogner together with the approbation of the Nuremberg community.

These aspects make Die Meistersinger an unusual work among Wagner’s mature operas, yet we should not take that status to imply a “regression” in his thinking. True, the musical language retreats from Tristan’s hyper-chromaticism into “stabler” tonal idioms, and the score’s dazzling fabric makes room for a host of allusions to the past: chorales, marches, the “set piece” song which functions as the plot pivot, a prominent role for the chorus, even a vocal quintet—all practices which break the new “rules” Wagner the revolutionary had established in his reformist Opera and Drama.

Yet Wagner draws these threads together into a brilliant, complex, Romantic polyphony informed by all the advances he had made as a composer. Take the cliché of “ordered chaos” from the Rossinian act-finale of old: in the riot scene at the end of the second act, Wagner transforms this into a hyper-virtuosic, textured climax of orchestral, choral, and dramatic themes that can be counterbalanced only by the public energy that animates the opera’s affirmative conclusion. It is the community-centered counterpart to a similar trajectory in the private world of Tristan: the resolution of the interrupted second-act love duet that is at last achieved in Isolde’s cathartic “love-death.”

Die Meistersinger reconciles the reformist agenda that initially fueled the Ring with Wagner’s subsequent philosophical conversion to the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer. Crudely put, the shift that takes place is from the belief that “only love can redeem a corrupt world” to “only art can bring peace to an unavoidably mad world—a world to whose madness love contributes.”

The key to this profounder dimension underlying Meistersinger’s comedic surface structure is Wagner’s portrayal of Hans Sachs, the most sympathetic and humane character he ever created. Walther might be described as one alter ego of the composer, a portrait of the artist as a young man still driven by idealism and at odds with the establishment. But an even richer self-portrait emerges in Sachs and his insight into Wahn: the impossible-to-translate German word signifying a complex tangle of ideas about the folly that is the human condition.

Wahn variously means self-deception, foolish choices, collective illusion, the midsummer madness that sets the townspeople to riot the night before the song contest. It also means the suffering that is caused by love: a topic Wagner had just treated in anguished depth in his previous opera, Tristan und Isolde. The “large folio” Sachs is perusing so intently at the start of the third act stands as a metaphor for Wagner’s own pivotal discovery of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, and for the liberating wisdom he believed it gave him by revealing the truth about Wahn as the unconscious force that has driven human behavior across all the patterns of “world history."

It is the third act of Die Meistersinger — the longest single act in Wagner, exceeding even the prologue and first act of Götterdämmerung—in which the opera’s metamorphosis from a mere divertissement becomes most evident. (Verdi’s Falstaff traces a somewhat comparable arc in its third act.) In the transcendently beautiful scene before Die Meistersinger can proceed to its public finale, Wagner weaves together these insights as Sachs renounces his love for Eva and “baptizes” Walther’s recently matured, moderated art, with its subtle balance of innovation and tradition.

The anarchic impulses of Wahn affect love and art, the private sphere and the sphere of the community. As Borchmeyer observes: “The fires of poetry and love—which are one and the selfsame thing—point to chaos and unknown terrors. …Sachs gives Walther a lesson in poetics that is entirely Schopenhauerian in spirit, aiming, as it does, to achieve an aesthetic catharsis of this Wahn, whether it finds expression in the aggressions and violence of the Midsummer Night riot, in lovesick passion, or in a poetic ardor that defies all rules. Art is intended to bring ‘peace to Wahn.'”

And here enters in a terrible irony: Die Meistersinger, that warmly humane, generous, and wise vision leavened with comedy, had the misfortune of being singled out by Hitler as a favorite work of the Third Reich, thus inevitably tainting Sachs’ final peroration to the cause of “sacred German art.” Even apart from that awful chapter in its reception history, contemporary scholarship has examined the possibility of a darker undercurrent to Wagner’s utopian vision of Nuremberg for which the composer himself is responsible.

The arguments are complex, but they essentially boil down to interpretations of the portrayal of Sixtus Beckmesser. Does he encode the poisonous anti-Semitism that was undeniably one of Wagner’s obsessions? Barry Millington, a prominent Wagner scholar and among the leading exponents of this interpretation, points out that the grotesque parody that makes Beckmesser a public laughingstock underscores “artistic failings [that] are also precisely those ascribed to the Jews in Das Judenthum in der Musik”—the anti-Semitic pamphlet Wagner had published anonymously in 1850 and republished under his name in 1869, only a year after the triumphant premiere of Die Meistersinger in Munich.

Borchmeyer counterargues that Beckmesser is portrayed as “the most doctrinaire of the Masters”— who, according to Sachs, “embody all that is ‘German and genuine.’” Wagner’s guiding idea for Beckmesser, claims Borchmeyer, was rather that the town clerk embodies “an academic purist critic.” Another view, lying somewhere in the middle, is given by such commentators as the recent German biographer Jens Malte Fischer and local Wagner scholar Thomas Grey. “The possibility remains that  a strain of anti-Semitic ‘coding’ of characters such as Beckmesser, Mime, or Alberich was part of Wagner’s intent, but at a subtextual level,” suggests Grey. “Neither a fully consistent component of the roles nor one available to the general public,  but reserved for initiates.”

What is indisputable about Beckmesser is his function from Wagner’s earliest recorded concept for the opera (the 1845 sketch), in which the clerk embodies the familiar trope found in opera buffa and other classic forms of comedy: the unsuitable suitor vying for the desirable young bride but thwarted, so that the “right” couple wins out in the end. To this is added Beckmesser’s comic role as a pedant and critic incapable of appreciating the need for innovation: the epitome, in other words, of the “conservative” from the perspective of what nowadays is frequently castigated as “the liberal media.”

And it is worth noting that the other mastersingers are also the object of Wagner’s parody in the lengthy scene—one of the most unusual in all opera— n which the composer actually dramatizes what is at bottom a committee meeting. So, too, such smaller roles as that of the Night Watchman. Biographer Martin Geck observes that “the final note of his song ‘Hört ihr Leut,’ F, [is] followed by a dissonant G-flat on his horn, implying a particularly inept official.”

Behind its representations of pageantry, pedantry, and piety—behind its comfortably familiar comic paradigms of young love and of bright new ideas finally winning an audience—Die Meistersinger turns out to be a vastly richer and more complex work than any one perspective can encompass (and indeed more so than Wagner himself could have anticipated).

This complexity of characterizations and points of focus is the theatrical equivalent of the dense, ceaselessly active polyphony that is the hallmark of Wagner’s score for Die Meistersinger. What Wagner created here is “no ordinary comedy” but can actually “help us, as all great art can,” writes the beloved opera commentator M. Owen Lee: “For it ponders the madness that sometimes affects human lives, even as it celebrates the mutual interdependence of our lives and, above all, the importance of art in our civilizations.”

—Thomas May is a longtime regular contributor to San Francisco Opera’s programs and the author of Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama.

Director's Note