Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is an opera in three acts, written and composed by Richard Wagner. It is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and the longest still commonly performed today, usually taking around five hours. It was first performed at the Hofoper, Munich, on June 21, 1868.
The story takes place in Nuremberg during the middle of the 16th century. At the time, Nuremberg was an Imperial Free City, and one of the centers of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The story revolves around the real-life guild of Meistersinger (Master Singers), an association of amateur poets and musicians, mostly from the middle class and often master craftsmen in their main professions. The Meistersingers developed a craftsmanlike approach to music-making, with an intricate system of rules for composing and performing songs. The work draws much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the Nuremberg of the era and the traditions of the Meistersinger guild. One of the main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure: Hans Sachs (1494 — 1576), the most famous of the historical Meistersingers.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg occupies a unique place in Wagner's oeuvre. It is the only comedy among his mature operas, and the only one centered on a historically well-defined time and place rather than a mythical or legendary setting. It is the only mature Wagner opera to be based on an entirely original story, devised by Wagner himself. It incorporates many of the operatic conventions that Wagner had railed against in his essays on the theory of opera: rhymed verse, arias, choruses, a ballet, and even a quintet (the celebrated Meistersinger Quintet.)
Scene 1. The curtain opens on the interior of St. Katherine's Church in Nuremberg. Mass is just ending as Walther von Stolzing, a young knight, enters. He seeks out Eva, whom he had met earlier, and asks her if she is engaged to anyone. Eva is obviously besotted with Walther, but informs him that her father, the goldsmith and Meistersinger Veit Pogner, has arranged to give her hand in marriage to the victor of the guild's song contest on St. John's day (Midsummer's day), tomorrow. Eva's maid, Magdalena, induces her suitor David to instruct Walther in the Meistersinger's art. The hope is for Walther to qualify as a Meistersinger during the guild meeting, traditionally held in the church after mass, and thus earn a place in the song contest.
Scene 2. As the other apprentices set up the church for the meeting, David explains to Walther that he is the apprentice of Hans Sachs, a master cobbler and a well-respected Meistersinger. He proceeds to give a rather confused lecture on the Meistersingers' rules for composing and singing. (Many of the tunes quoted are real master-tunes from the period.) Walther is obviously overwhelmed by the convoluted rules, but is determined to try for a place in the guild.
Scene 3. The first Meistersingers file into the church: Eva's father Veit Pogner and the town clerk Beckmesser. Beckmesser, who is also planning on winning Eva's hand in marriage by winning the song contest, takes an instant dislike to Walther.
The other masters arrive, and Fritz Kothner calls the roll. Pogner, addressing the assembly, announces his offer of his daughter's hand for the winner of the song contest. When Hans Sachs argues that Eva ought to have a say in the matter, Pogner agrees that Eva may refuse the winner of the contest, but she must still choose a Meistersinger. Another suggestion by Sachs, that the people rather than the guild should be called upon to judged the winner of the contest, is squelched by the other masters.
Walther is now introduced, and the masters agree to admit him provided he can perform a master-song of his own composition. He is to be judged by Beckmesser, the "Marker" of the guild. Walther launches into a novel free-form tune, obviously breaking all the Meistersingers' rules, and his song is constantly interrupted by the scratch of Beckmesser's chalkboard, maliciously noting one error after another. Though Sachs insists Walther be allowed to continue, the rest of the group rejects the knight.
Scene 1. Evening in a Nuremburg street, at the corner between Pogner's house and Hans Sachs' workshop. David informs Magdalena of Walther's failure. In her disappointment, Magdalena leaves without giving David the food she had brought for him. This arouses the derision of the other apprentices, and David is about to turn on them when Sachs arrives and hustles his apprentice into the workshop.
Scene 2. Pogner arrives with Eva, engaging in a roundabout conversation: Eva is hesitant to ask about the outcome of Walther's application, and Pogner has private doubts about offering his daughter's hand in marriage for the song contest. As they enter their house, Magdalena appears and tells Eva about the rumours of Walther's failure. Eva decides to ask Sachs about the matter.
Scene 3. As twilight falls, Hans Sachs takes a seat in front of his house to work on a new pair of shoes for Beckmesser. He muses on Walther's song, which has made a deep impression on him.
Scene 4. Eva approaches Sachs, and they discuss tomorrow's song contest. Eva is obviously unenthusiastic about Beckmesser, who appears to be the only eligible contestant. Eva hints that she would not mind if Sachs, a widower, wins the contest. Though touched, Sachs protests that he would be too old a husband for her. Upon further prompting, Sachs relates Walther's failure at the guild meeting. This causes Eva to storm off, obviously upset, confirming Sachs' suspicion that she has fallen in love with Walther. Eva is intercepted by Magdalena, who informs her that Beckmesser is coming to serenade her. Eva, determined to search for Walther, tells Magdalena to pose as her at the bedroom window.
Scene 5. Just as Eva is about to leave, Walther appears. He tells her about the fiasco at the meeting, and the two prepare to elope. However, Sachs has overheard their plans. As they are passing by, he innocently illuminates the street with his lantern, forcing them to hide in the shadow of Pogner's house. Walther makes up his mind to confront Sachs, but is foiled by the arrival of Beckmesser.
Scene 6. As Eva and Walther retreat further into the shadows, Beckmesser begins his serenade. Sachs interrupts him by launching into a full-bellied cobbling song, while hammering away at the half-made shoes. Annoyed, Beckmesser tells Sachs to stop, but the cobbler feigns ignorance and tells him that he has to finish the shoes, which Beckmesser himself had ordered, by tomorrow. Beckmesser, who has spotted someone at Eva's window (Magdalena in disguise), has no time to argue. He reluctantly agrees to Sachs' proposal to play the role of Marker, indicating each mistake in the serenade with a thump on the shoes. Beckmesser begins, but makes so many errors that from the repeated knocks Sachs finishes the shoes. The entire neighbourhood is awakened by the noise. David, seeing a figure serenading Magdalena, grabs a cudgel and sets upon Beckmesser. The other apprentices rush into the fray, and the situation degenerates into a full-blown riot. In the confusion, Walther endeavours to escape with Eva, but Sachs pushes Eva into her home and drags Walther into his own workshop. Quiet is restored as abruptly as it was broken. A lone figure walks through the street—the night watchman, calling out the hour.
Scene 1. As morning dawns, Sachs is reading a large book in his workshop. Lost in thought, he does not respond as David returns from delivering Beckmesser's shoes. David finally manages to attract his master's attention, and they discuss the upcoming festivities -- it is St. John's day, Hans Sachs' name day! David recites his verses for Sachs, and leaves to prepare for the festival.
Alone, Sachs ponders last night's riot. "Madness! Madness! Everywhere madness!" (Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!) His attempt to prevent an elopement had ended in shocking violence. Nevertheless, he is resolved to make madness work for him today.
Scene 2. Walther, who has spent the night in Sachs' home, enters the room. He tells Sachs that he had a pleasant dream, and, with Sachs' encouragement, fashions two bars of a new Prize Song from it. Sachs copies down the verses as they are sung. A final bar remains to be composed, but Walther is tired of words. The two men leave the room to dress for the festival.
Scene 3. Beckmesser, still sore from his drubbing the night before, enters the workshop. He spots the verses of the Prize Song, laid down in Sachs' handwriting, and draws the conclusion that Sachs is joining the contest for Eva's hand. The cobbler re-enters the room, and Beckmesser confonts him with the verses. However, Sachs declares that he has no intention of wooing Eva, and agrees to let Beckmesser take the poem with him; he even promises never to claim the song to be his own. Beckmesser rushes off to prepare for the song contest, escatic at the prospect of using verses written by the famous Hans Sachs.
Scene 4. Eva arrives at the workshop. She is looking for Walther, but pretends to have complaints about a shoe that Sachs made for her. Sachs realizes that the shoe is a perfect fit, but pretends to set about altering the stitching. As he works, he tells Eva that he has just heard a beautiful song, lacking only an ending. Eva cries out as Walther enters the room, splendidly attired for the festival, and sings the third and final bar of the Prize Song. The couple are overwhelmed with gratitude for Sachs, and Eva asks Sachs to forgive her for playing with his feelings, but the cobbler brushes them off with bantering complaints about his lot as a shoemaker, poet, and widower. At last, however, he admits to Eva that, despite his feelings for her, he is resolved to avoid the fate of King Mark (a reference to another Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde), thus extending his blessing upon the lovers.
David and Magdalena appear. Sachs announces to the group that a new master-song has been born, which, following the rules of the Meistersingers, is to be baptized. As an apprentice cannot serve as a witness for the baptism, he promotes David to the rank of journeyman with the traditional cuff on the ear. He then christens the Prize Song the Morning Dream Song (Selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise). After musing on their good fortunes, the group departs for the festival.
Scene 5. The feast of St. John is taking place in the meadow near the river Pegnitz. The various guilds hold their processions, culminating in the arrival of the Meistersingers. The crowd sings the praises of Hans Sachs, the most beloved of the Meistersingers. The prize contest begins. The first contestant is Beckmesser, who attempts to use the verses that he had obtained from Sachs. However, he is unable to fit the words to an appropriate melody, and ends up singing so clumsily that the crowd laughs. Before storming off in anger, he claims that Hans Sachs was the author of the song. Sachs denies this; as proof, he invites Walther onto the stage.
Walther's performance of the Prize Song breaks more of the Meistersingers' rules than ever, but it is so beautiful that everyone is won over. He has won the contest, and Eva's hand in marriage. The Meistersingers want to make him a member of their guild on the spot, but, to their dismay, he refuses. Sachs intervenes once more. "Scorn not the Masters, I bid you!" he chastises Walther. In spite of their faults, the Meistersingers have cared for German art in their own way, preserving it through years of unrest. Walther finally assents, and the people sing once more the praises of Hans Sachs, the beloved Meistersinger of Nuremberg.
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