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The History of 'The Mastersingers'
(German title: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg)
An Opera by
Richard Wagner

Wagner sketched out "The Meistersingers" at Marienbad in 1844, soon after he had finished "Tannhäuser." The latter was a serious opera; "The Meistersingers" was to be a comic pendant to it. The notion of Wagner writing a homely comic opera seems almost as incongruous as the notion of the author of "Don Quixote" writing a Bible Commentary. It is the very last thing we should suspect Wagner of doing. Yet he did it, and did it purposely, too. He wanted to show, as he has expressly avowed, that however visionary his ideas of the music-drama might be, he could nevertheless turn his hand successfully to the composition of a work founded on the simplest materials; a work which anybody could understand; a work at which even the commercially-minded manager need not shy. In a word, Wagner meant "The Meistersingers" to be an essentially popular opera, and he realised his intention.

Louise Grandjean as Magdalena in Richard Wagner's opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (Source: Le Theatre, Number 1 , January 1898.)

But what a process of evolution it passed through! Sketched out, as we have said, in 1844, it was not completed until 1867, twenty-three years after the subject had taken shape in the composer’s mind. The poem itself was finished in Paris in 1862. The music, too, was begun in that year; but Wagner had shortly afterwards to fly from his creditors, and it was not until he had secured the protection and practical help of the "mad" Ludwig that he was able to bring the opera to a hearing. Eighteen years of enforced exile had been patiently endured while "The Meistersingers" was maturing -- years of bitter struggle with Fate and finances; years when the very necessaries of life were often wanting, and Hope, the medicine of the miserable, showed hardly one of those "pleasures" of which the neglected poet has sung. "I am in a miserable condition, and can with difficulty persuade myself that I can go on like this. Would it not be better to put an end to this disgraceful kind of life?" Thus the composer, deep in despair, wrote to his friend Liszt.

And while he thus wrote, the charming music of this, one of the very best comic operas of modern times, was filling his mind! He had almost decided to throw up his profession and seek his bread in India as a tutor; yet, in the midst of all that despondency, all that distress connected with the sordid affairs of the material life, he manages to perfect this great opera of "The Meistersingers," as great in its own particular vein as the "Ring" itself! Truly has one said. "Never was the might of Wagner’s genius more apparent."

Ludwig, as we have learned, "took up" Wagner in 1864. This was two years after he had finished the poem of "The Meistersingers." Under the happy conditions which the King thus established, the score of the opera was proceeded with. But it was not all plain sailing. Even kings (mad kings) have their troubles. Ludwig was charged (such is the actual truth) with endangering the interests of the State by his advocacy and protection of this revolutionary composer. On the other hand, Wagner himself was popularly supposed to be encouraging Ludwig in his wild extravagances -- a delusion which seemed to gain support from Ludwig’s project of building a special theatre for the production of Wagner’s works. Bayreuth, as we all know, was the practical result of that idea.

Meanwhile, Wagner found things becoming so uncomfortable for him at Munich that he left for Switzerland in 1865, and once more became a wanderer. The "Ring" appears to have been the chief cause of the trouble. Here is an interesting quotation from Wagner himself:

Now that I and my project had been placed in broad daylight, all the ill-will that had hitherto lain in ambush made an open attack in full force. I even tried to divert public attention from the whole affair by spending a hard-won and much-needed rest on the completion of "Die Meistersinger," a work with which I should not appear to be quitting the customary groove of performances at the theatre.

Thus "The Meistersingers" was now awaiting the favourable time when the absurd, ill-founded feeling against its composer should have died down. That time came in 1868. Wagner then returned to Munich to superintend the rehearsals of the work, and the first performance took place at the Royal Court Theatre on the 21st of June. It was a great success -- peculiar indeed, among Wagnerian music-dramas, being a success from the start. Von Bulow conducted (he whose divorced wife was presently to become Frau Wagner), and that same Dr. Hans Richter who is still happily with us was the chorus-master. It is well known that the first complete score of "The Meistersingers" was copied out by Richter, who stayed with Wagner for the purpose. Next year (1869) the opera was heard at Weimar and Dresden. Berlin staged it in 1870, and after that fresh towns were continually added to the list. The first London performance took place in May 1882, when Richter was conducting a season of German Opera. Strangely enough, it was not given at Bayreuth until 1888.

There is so much to be said about every individual music-drama of Wagner’s, and one feels the imbecility of trying to say everything under a section heading! One certainly wants to note how Wagner, in "The Meistersingers," is supposed to have reproduced himself in the character of Walther. He has not, in set words, given us any ground for such an idea. Nevertheless, we may readily agree with an acute American critic that the composer really designed Walther to represent, like himself, the spirit of progress in music; while, in the Mastersingers, he embodied the spirit of pure pedantry.

"These two powers," says the American critic, "have always been at war in the world of art, and always will. Theoreticians and critics publish rules which they deduce from the practice of the great artist. The next original genius who arrives has something new to say, and says it in a new way… Wagner, in ‘The Meistersingers,’ has shown us the spirit of progress in its jubilant youth, scoffing at the established rule of which it is ignorant. One of the first lessons of the symbolism of the comedy is that a musician, or any other artist, must master what has already been learnt of his art before he can advance beyond it." But who wants to think of symbolism in listening to a comic opera? Critics and commentators may debate themselves blind as to whether Hamlet was mad or only feigning madness. What cares the spectator? The play’s the thing -- or the opera!


Die Meistersinger poster

Stage Design For Richard Wagner's Opera Meistersinger Von Nurnberg, 1929.
Stage Designer: Fedor Fedorovich Fedorovsky
Size: 24 in x 18 in.
Giclee Print.

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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