Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Festival 2011, Photo: Alastair Muir

Synopsis

Setting: Nuremberg, around the middle of the 16th century

Note: The historical Hans Sachs (1494-1576) was the most famous member of the Nuremberg guild of Mastersingers, made up of the city’s craftsmen and tradesmen – part of an amateur artistic tradition that flourished from the 14th to the 17th century in various German centres; the Nuremberg Mastersingers were finally disbanded in 1774. A shoemaker by trade, Sachs produced innumerable poems, songs and plays, many of which survive, though rarely with their original music. Some other characters in the opera – including Fritz Kothner, Konrad Nachtigall and Hans Foltz – also have historical originals.

Act I

At a service in St Catherine’s Church, the newcomer Walther von Stolzing and burgher’s daughter Eva look meaningfully at one another during the final hymn; Eva’s nurse Magdalene tactfully leaves them alone for Walther to pay his addresses. He learns that she is to marry the winner of the Mastersingers’ song contest, to be held the next day. 

David, Magdalene’s boyfriend, is charged with instructing Walther as to the complex rules of the contest, for which a preliminary trial is to follow immediately; he does so while the Mastersingers’ apprentices prepare the room. 

Eva’s father Veit Pogner arrives with the town-clerk Sixtus Beckmesser; the latter attempts to gain Pogner’s support in winning the contest and his daughter’s hand. To Beckmesser’s annoyance, Walther also announces his intention of entering. The Mastersingers assemble, among them the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs. Pogner describes his intention of honouring Art by giving his daughter and his goods as the song prize – though she must approve the winner.  

Sachs rules himself and Beckmesser out as too old to be contestants. Walther bravely presents himself, his trial effort to be marked according to the time-honoured rules by Beckmesser, who scrapes his marker’s slate noisily as Walther’s song proceeds. Sachs stands up for Walther, despite his ignoring of the rules. All ends in uproar as the meeting breaks up, with Walther storming out, the other Mastersingers outraged and Sachs left pondering what he has heard.

Act II

In the street where Pogner’s house faces Sachs’s, the apprentices hymn the eve of St John’s Day. David informs Magdalene that Walther blew his chances with his trial song. Sachs prepares to work outside in the warm evening on a pair of shoes, thinking again of Walther’s controversial singing.

Eva comes to sound him out as to the contest’s likely winner. She hints that Sachs could enter to save her from Beckmesser. He demurs. Will he then help the hopeless Walther win? Sachs appears to refuse this too.

Magdalene tells Eva that Beckmesser is planning to serenade her with his song. Eva proposes that Magdalene sit at Eva’s window instead. 

Walther arrives, disconsolate at his failure, and suggests that Eva elope with him. Sachs overhears, and decides to prevent this. 

Beckmesser arrives and tunes his lute. As Eva and Walther hide in preparation for their flight, Sachs noisily starts up his own song, hammering loudly on his last as he does so. Beckmesser invites his criticism of his proposed song, which Sachs agrees to give by hammering when he hears a fault. Beckmesser starts singing, trying to ignore Sachs’s banging. The noise awakens the neighbours and a general brawl develops, during which David and Beckmesser start fighting, and Sachs manages to push Eva back inside her house before dragging Walther into his. The battered Beckmesser slinks away.

Act III

David enters Sachs’s house next morning to find his master lost in a book; he belatedly remembers that it is Sachs’s own name-day. Left alone, Sachs ponders the illusion and madness of human existence, and whether he can resolve the problem of the song contest. 

Walther is now awake, having dreamed a beautiful dream. Sachs advises him to turn it into his Master-Song; he writes it down as Walther sings it. As they go into another chamber to dress for the contest, Beckmesser enters, finds the written-out song and, assuming it to be by Sachs, pockets it. Admitting that he has done so, he receives Sachs’s blessing to sing it.

Eva arrives, complaining that her shoe pinches her. Walther comes in, dressed for the contest, and sings the final verse of his Master-Song. Eva starts to weep. Sachs bursts out bitterly, comprehending both the temptation of Eva’s desperate proposition and its impossibility. Eva expresses her deep gratitude for his selfless concern, knowing that she is compelled to love Walther. As Magdalene and David appear, all join in a christening of Walther’s new creation before leaving for the competition.

On the banks of the River Pegnitz, the members of Nuremberg’s various guilds arrive and parade. Their apprentices dance with local girls. The Mastersingers themselves process, Sachs being warmly greeted by the populace. 

The contest begins. Beckmesser struggles through his version of Walther’s song, making a fool of himself and eventually running off. Walther now comes forward and sings triumphantly. As Eva proceeds to crown him victor, and her father presents him with the golden chain of a Mastersinger, Walther petulantly refuses to join the Masters. 

Sachs rebukes him, calling for holy German art to be preserved and honoured. As Eva takes the victor’s crown from Walther’s head and places it on Sachs’s, the people hail him.

Words: George Hall

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