Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - David McVicar

David McVicar. Photo: Alastair Muir

Wagner was born in Leipzig in May 1813. By November of that year the Battle of Nations was raging nearby, the decisive turning point in the war of the Allied Nations against Napoleon. The aftermath of the victory over the French in Germany led to the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and the formation of the German Confederation under Prince Metternich in 1815; the first attempt to create some form of political and cultural unity in Germany since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, the final vestige of which had been dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. This process, after several false starts, culminated in the eventual unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1871, a few short years after the premiere of Die Meistersinger in Munich in 1868.

In the years before the Confederation, there was no single concept of German nationalism other than a shared language, spoken in various dialects throughout many small kingdoms, city states and principalities and a sense of shared cultural identity. Late 18th century writers and thinkers, Schiller, Klopstock, Hölderlin and Goethe amongst them, emphasized this identity in terms of the flourishing of German literature, art and music. The sense of a German people defined in cultural terms was of vital importance during the years of French domination following Napoleon’s final victories over the German states in 1807. French culture and language as well as economic policy and conscription were imposed throughout the conquered territories and Wagner’s own (putative) father, Friedrich Wagner served as Chief of Police for the French Authorities in Leipzig.

The Confederation held sway until 1848, the year of revolution in which Wagner played an active role in the uprising in Dresden. Steered by Metternich, the Confederation developed from a government of modernization and restoration into one of conservative repression. The tension across Europe created by further revolutions in France, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1830 led to ever stricter measures to stamp down free-thought, new political movements and religious freedoms. Decrees issued between 1835 and 1836 were specifically aimed at curbing distribution of the artistic and philosophical works of the self styled 'Young Germans'. This movement was led, amongst others, by the writers Heinrich Heine and Georg Büchner and was committed to the idea of a liberal, united German State. Through the work of Jacob Grimm, Germans became aware of the richness of their native folklore, legends and medieval poetry. The works of the Young Germans were clandestinely circulated and their patriotic verses were sung at choral festivals to popular acclaim. The young Wagner allied himself passionately with this cultural movement and would follow Heine into exile when the revolts of 1848 were stamped out.

The nationalization of German culture would harden into a movement that was altogether more strident and exclusive as the century progressed but at this moment of history, nationalism was equated with liberal principals and a global outlook.

This production of Die Meistersinger moves the action from Wagner’s fantastical recreation of a 16th Century Nuremberg to the world of the early 19th century into which he was born and formed his earliest experiences as an artist.

Words: David McVicar

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