Wagner – Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers fromNuremberg)

by Max Derrickson

Richard Wagner   (b Leipzig, 22 May, 1813; Venice, 13 February, 1883)

Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers fromNuremberg)

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the only comic opera that Wagner wrote during his composing prime.  In truth, however, there are only a few truly comedic moments in this 4½ hour long songfest.  As the American music critic and composer Virgil Thompson humorously put it, in comparison to Wagner’s other über-serious operas, Die Meistersinger “is all direct and human and warm and
[. . .]
none of the characters takes drugs or gets mixed up with magic.”  Wagner completed the opera’s Prelude in 1862 before he began work on the opera’s musical score, which he subsequently finished in 1867.

The story happens in 16th Century Nuremberg and its actions are summed up, again with pith and droll,
[. . .]
The plot may be a bit fantastical, but the “shoemaker” is Hans Sachs, 1494-1576, an actual historical figure of Nuremberg who was a cobbler first and a composer/mastersinger second.  His compositions ranged into the thousands, and he is still memorialized in Nuremberg with a rather magnificent statue.  Two of the other main characters though are fictitious: Walther, the young and brave songster and Eva, the president’s daughter who’s up for grabs.

The sunshine-drenched, stately first theme of Wagner’s Prelude is one of the most delicious musical appetizers in all of opera.  Immediately, it brings the listener into a world of good will and heartfelt benevolence, which is the opera’s enduring message.  Based on the traditional, heralded practice of German Renaissance music making, folk musicians were amateurs who formed guilds,
[. . .]
a near religious intensity was applied to the art – an idea that resonated deeply with Wagner.  Hans Sachs sums up this whole art-as-life business (for Wagner) at the end of the opera, “Therefore I say to you: honor your German Masters, then you will conjure up good spirits!  And if you favor their endeavors, even if the Holy Roman Empire should dissolve in mist, for us there would yet remain holy German Art!”

That first, glorious theme which opens the Prelude (“Prelude” being Wagner’s preferred term over “Overture”) represents the eternal essence of the Meistersingers, referred to as the Meistersinger’s theme, which is then followed by the Lyric motive, a wind and string melody that’s syncopated and full of downward drifting “musical sighs,” representing Walther and Eva’s certain attraction to each other.  Following that is the Banner theme, which is associated with the Meistersingers themselves – a regal march that is as memorable as any of Wagner’s melodies.
[. . .]
until a stroke of the triangle lights the stage for some of Wagner’s most inspired writing.  The Prize song, Meistersingers’ and Banner themes are combined together in a rich fabric of orchestral color.  You can hear the Prize song theme begin in the first violins, harmonized below by the Meistersinger’s theme, while the second and third violins play, cleverly, the Banner theme.  It all leads to a very grand and glorious ending, making this Prelude one of Wagner’s most beloved overtures in the concert hall.