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

Dramatis Personae

WALTHER VON STOLZING, Knight of Franconia (Bass)
EVA, Pogner’s Daughter (Soprano)
MAGDALENA, her Nurse (Soprano)
DAVID, Hans Sachs’ Apprentice (Tenor)
- Hans Sachs, Shoemaker and Poet (Bass)
- Pogner, a Goldsmith (Bass)
- Beckmesser, the Town Clerk (Baritone)
- Vogelgesang, a Furrier (Bass)
- Nachtigal, a Tinsmith (Bass)
- Kothner, a Baker (Bass)
- Ortel, a Soapmaker (Bass)
- Zorn, a Pewterer (Tenor)
- Moses, a Tailor (Tenor
- Eisslinger, a Grocer (Tenor)
- Folz, a Brazier (Bass)
- Schwarz, a Weaver (Bass)
A Night Watchman (Bass)
Chorus of Apprentices (Altos and Tenors)
The Congregation in Church (Chorus of Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, and Basses)
Chorus of Neighbours, Old Citizens, Shoemakers, Tailors, Bakers, and the General Populace

1933 German postage stamp on Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg [The Mastersingers of Nuremberg])



The period is the middle of the sixteenth century. When the curtain rises, we see interior of St. Catherine’s Church at Nuremberg. The choir is in front, and the scene is so arranged that the last rows of seats in the nave are visible at the back of the stage. The precise time is the afternoon of the eve of St. John’s feast (Midsummer Day), and the assembled congregation are singing the last verse of a hymn to the Baptist. During the singing a quiet flirtation is going on between Eva Pogner, the daughter of Veit Pogner (a rich goldsmith, one of the most substantial members of the Meistersingers’ guild), and Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia. We see Walther leaning against a pillar, evidently paying scant heed to the service. He has fallen in love at first sight, and the charming Eva is by no means averse to his advances.

When the congregation has dispersed, Walther approaches Eva, enters into conversation with her, and asks if she is married. Her maid, Magdalena, explains that she is to be married on the following day, though she does not yet know who is to be the bridegroom. It must be understood here that one of the usual singing contests has been arranged. Walther has already made the acquaintance of Eva’s father; but Pogner, concerned about the dignity of the Mastersingers’ craft, has declared that his daughter shall marry the successful candidate in the coming vocal competition.

Walther decides that he will enter the lists, if necessary. Meantime he will approach the maiden herself directly, if clandestinely. Eva shows herself not unwilling to listen. With womanly ingenuousness she feigns to have left her scarf behind, and Magdalena (for "two’s company but three’s none") sets off to find it. She returns before the lovers have had their talk out, and is dispatched once more, this time in search of a brooch. The brooch is secured, but still the lovers are whispering in each other’s ears. Magdalena accordingly goes away a third time -- now for a hymn-book. Then, when she has finally returned, Walther openly avows his passion for Eva. Magdalena is somewhat shocked that a love affair should be conducted in church in so unblushing a manner; and she interposes to say that until the singing competition has been held it will be impossible to tell who is to be Eva’s husband.

At this stage David, an apprentice to Hans Sachs, the shoemaker and poet, arrives with other apprentices of the Mastersingers to prepare seats for the forthcoming examination in song. David, let it be remarked, is Magdalena’s lover. Walther realizes that, if he is to have the slightest chance of gaining Eva’s hand, he must enter the contest. He announces this intention, and Magdalena refers him to David, who, she says, in effect, will coach him up for his examination by the Mastersingers. After the two women have left the church David begins his instructions, rattling off a ludicrous description of the various technicalities required to produce a correct "mastersong." The candidate, it seems, must become a singer and recognise at sight all the different tones: the "short," the "long," the "fragnant hawthorn," the "frog," the "cinnamon stalk," the "faithful pelican," and so on -- fanciful names given by the cult to the various musical notes. Next, he must show himself a poet and write words to the air. Finally he is required to produce something in which both words and music are his own, and in which only seven breaches of recognised rule are allowed.

Before the "coaching" business is finished, the booth usually erected for the "marker" in the contest has been set up, and the Mastersingers now enter. First come Pogner (Eva’s father) and Beckmesser, a pompous elderly widower, who presumes to aspire to the hand of Eva. Beckmesser, being the eldest of the Masters, has been appointed marker for the occasion; his duty being to sit in a curtained box and note every infraction of established rule which may occur in the candidate’s song.

The Masters being all assembled, Pogner tells of his intention to bestow his daughter on the victorious candidate in the ensuing contest. Beckmesser is naturally anxious, and when Walther is presently brought forward as a candidate, the marker eyes him with uneasy suspicion. Pogner, it should be said, has left his daughter the option of refusing the hand of the successful contestant, but he insists that she must marry inside the Mastersingers’ guild. This plan of his gives rise to discussion-some approving it; others, Beckmesser among them, disapproving. Hans Sachs, now one of the assembly, quizzes Beckmesser on the point, remarking that they at least are too old to be seriously considered as aspirants for Eva’s hand. There is much noise and commotion over this discussion, especially on the part of the apprentices.

But now Walther is about to be heard. He intimates that love and nature have been chosen as his theme, and proceeds to sing his song. Being self-taught and quite unfamiliar with the traditional rigid rules, he proves himself entirely incorrect according to the laws of the guild. Beckmesser, who has been very busy over his slate, declares that he never heard such a disgraceful exhibition; that there are positively more mistakes than he can keep note of. The genial, sympathetic Sachs wishes to hear Walther out to the end, insisting that, though not according to rule, his song is truly poetical; but the youth is declared to have "mis-sung and failed," and the meeting dissolves in confusion. Walther vainly endeavours to make himself heard: Sachs intercedes for him, the other Masters protesting; Beckmesser scolds and points out more faults; and Pogner shows himself deeply distressed lest his daughter’s already engaged affections make it impossible for him to carry out his novel scheme. Such is the situation when the curtain falls.


The Second Act passes in one of Nuremberg’s quaintly picturesque streets, with Pogner’s house on one side and Sachs’ on the other. It is now the eve of St. John’s festival, and the summer night is advancing. The apprentices are putting up the shutters, singing and chaffing each other (particularly David) the while. Pogner and Eva enter, returning from a walk; and in the conversation that follows Pogner discovers the state of his daughter’s affections. From Magdalena, her attendant (Pogner having now gone into the house), Eva learns of her lover’s failure. She determines to ask Sachs for advice.

Presently the shoemaker seats himself at his work in the door of his shop. "The balmy air of the evening, the scent of the elder tree, turn his thoughts to the poetry which he heard at the trial. What though it outraged the rules of the Masters, and even puzzled him? Within it lay real power. The singer (Walther) sang not to meet rules, but because utterance was demanded by his feelings. Let the Masters rage; Hans Sachs is well pleased." Such is the substance of the famous monologue in this Act.

Eva emerges from her father’s house, and, in a delightful scene with Sachs, suggests that, to escape marriage with the vain old Beckmesser, she would gladly marry Sachs himself. (It is well known the real Sachs, when past middle age, was attracted by a very young girl, whom he married, and that he lived happily with her till he died.) The shoemaker (though he loves Eva) discourages the idea and leaves her after learning, what he has suspected, that she is really in love with Walther. Next moment Eva is in the arms of the Franconian knight. Walther, full of resentment against the Masters, proposes an immediate elopement. Eva consents, vowing she will have no one but him. Sachs, however, from his shop-door, has overhead much of the conversation. He has other plans for compassing the happiness of the pair, and he resolves to thwart their present scheme. Consequently, as they are about to depart, he throws the strong light of his lantern on them where they are standing. They slink into the shadow, and just as they are proceeding to retire down another street, Beckmesser, lute in hand,

Approaches for the purpose of serenading Eva. As the old "marker" begins to tune his instrument, Sachs brings his bench into the doorway and starts work, singing lustily, and pounding vigorously at his last.

In answer to Beckmesser’s inquiry about this prodigious noise, Sachs replies that he is trying to finish the shoes which Beckmesser himself had demanded of him that very day. Here Magdalena, personating Eva, shows herself at the window, and Beckmesser endeavours to sing his song to her. He is very effectually prevented by the racket still kept up by the shoemaker. This leads to an agreement between the pair: Sachs will act as "marker" while Beckmesser sings, the shoemaker correcting each error by a stroke of his hammer.

A most comical scene ensues. Sachs had remarked that Beckmesser’s shoes would be finished before Beckmesser’s song. And so it turns out. The shoemaker’s blows come fast and furious; Beckmesser, in his rage, sings louder and louder. At last the neighbours, roused by the din, come out to put a stop to it. A general melée follows; and David, realising that Beckmesser has been serenading his sweetheart, Magdalena, attacks the old fellow with a cudgel. In the midst of the uproar Sachs emerges from his shop, seizes Walther by the arm (he had resolved to escape with Eva during the confusion), takes him into his own house, and sends Eva across the way to her father. The night-watchman’s horn is heard in the distance, the crowd disperses, the beaten Beckmesser limps away, and the curtain falls on the quiet moonlight street.


The Third Act opens in the interior of Sachs’ shop. The shoemaker is seen in reverie, with a volume resting on his knees. It is the morning of the eventful day. David, his apprentice, fails to rouse Sachs out of his brooding humour, though there is a diverting scene between the pair, in which David, being asked to sing the festival lesson, forgets himself so far as to begin the verses to St. John to the tune of Beckmesser’s serenade. When Sachs is left alone, he breaks into the second great monologue of the opera, "Wahn, Wahn; überall Wahn" (Madness, madness; everywhere madness), a fine expressive piece, the entire text of which must be read in order to be understood. At its conclusion Walther enters, descending from the room in which he has passed the night. He informs Sachs of "a wondrous, lovely dream" he has had, in which an idea for a song has been communicated to him. Sachs bids him put it into verse and make a "mastersong" of it. Walther, hesitating at first, obeys. He begins, in fact, the song by which he is subsequently hailed the victor in the contest. Sachs stops him at various points with hints and reproving instructions.

Finally the shoemaker’s entire approval is gained; he puts the song on paper, and the two leave the room together to prepare for the festival. Beckmesser now comes limping by, and seeing the room empty, enters. His eye catches the paper which Sachs has left on the table. He concludes that the shoemaker is the author of the newly-written song -- that by it he means to compete for the hand of Eva. Hearing footsteps approaching, Beckmesser hastily pockets the manuscript, and, on Sachs entering, accuses him of rivalry and treachery. To Beckmesser’s surprise, Sachs tells him that he may have the song, adding that under no circumstances will he claim it as his own.

The old pedant, knowing Sach’s fame as a pot, is overjoyed, thinking himself now assured of success. The events of the previous night, he says had driven his own song quite out of his head. Might he use this one? "Certainly," replies the shoemaker, "but be careful how you study it, for it is not easy." "And you will promise me never to say that it is yours? "Willingly!" And so exit Beckmesser, for the time being a happy man.

Eva, in her betrothal dress, now arrives, protesting that something is amiss with one of her shoes. Sachs, smiling incredulously, pretends to put it right. Walther, richly clad, comes next, standing spell-bound at the sight of Eva. Sachs suggests that a third stanza be added to the prize song. This is done, and Walther sings it. Eva, "deeply moved, throws herself into Sachs’ arms, saying that she has reached a new understanding of him and herself. David and Magdalena enter, and Sachs announces that a mastersong has been made. He promotes David from apprentice to journeyman, that he may hear the song, which an apprentice could not honour, and then he invites Eva to speak."

The company now start for the field of contest, and the scene changes to a meadow by the riverside. Various guilds with their banners arrive; last of all the Mastersingers. Pogner and his daughter appear together, and are assigned the place of honour on the platform. The beloved Sachs, after being greeted by one of his own songs, addresses the assembly, intimating the terms of the competition. Beckmesser, as the senior candidate, is the first to be called. He has been seeking in vain to master the appropriated song, and he is in the last depths of despair, trembling in every limb. He is perfectly certain no one will understand his song, but relies on Sachs’ popularity.

Alas! whether Sachs’ writing was indistinct, or his own brain was muddled -- probably both -- Beckmesser makes such arrant nonsense of the words that at last the listeners burst into a united roar of laughter. Beckmesser, in a fury, turns on Sachs, declaring that, since the song is his, he is the author of the fiasco. Sachs, of course, promptly denies the paternity of the song, adding that Beckmesser best knows how he came by it. It is a very good song when properly sung, says the shoemaker, in effect. And then, looking round the assembly, he picks out Walther and asks him to give the correct rendering.

The young knight comes forward and sings his song. By popular acclamation he is awarded the prize, and with it Eva’s hand. Walther, satisfied with having gained his bride, is for declining the added glory of being invested with the insignia of the Meistersingers’ guild. Sachs, however, points out to him that it would be rude to refuse the honour. The victor yields, whereupon Eva snatches the laurel from her lover and places it on Sachs’ brow; and the curtain descends as the people joyfully acclaim the worthy shoemaker, who is in reality the central figure in the drama.


Die Meistersinger poster

Stage Model for the Opera "Der Meistersinger Von Nurnberg" by Richard Wagner (1813-83)
Size: 24 in x 18 in.
Giclee Print.

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