Wagner: Die Meistersinger Overture

Richard Wagner was a German composer of opera. As well as writing The Mastersingers his other great operas include Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal. He also wrote the opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner not only wrote the music to his operas, but also the libretti, and he supervised all aspects of the production in order to achieve the effects he desired. He founded an opera theatre at Bayreuth in Germany, which still presents his operas.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is Wagner’s only comic opera and is partly based on a historical figure from the sixteenth century called Hans Sachs. It tells of an annual competition staged by the Guild of Master Singers, at which entrants can submit new songs to win a prize and are judged on the merits of their composition and performance. The story relates how Walther von Stolzing, who is in love with Eva Pogner, decides to enter the competition when Eva tells him that her father has arranged to give her hand in marriage to the winner of this year’s contest. Despite his lack of proper training, and the fact that his song completely fails to conform to the Guild’s rules of composition, Walther is eventually declared the winner, with the aid of Hans Sachs, one of the most respected of the Master Singers.  Walther’s rival for Eva’s hand, Sixtus Beckmesser, is humiliated when he steals Walther’s song but cannot sing it effectively. Wagner makes good use of leitmotifs (musical themes) to portray the particular characters or symbolic themes.

In the overture, Wagner begins with the ceremonial music accompanying the procession of the Master Singers and Guilds of Nuremberg. Then he introduces a theme based on Walther’s prize song, followed by a staccato section depicting the comical Beckmesser. The overture then combines the various themes using different groups of instruments, and concludes with the triumphant finish of the opera, in which the crowd cheers for the worthy Hans Sachs. The overture was written shortly after Wagner completed the libretto in 1862 and was performed in Leipzig on 2nd November of that year, with the composer conducting. It took Wagner another five years to complete the opera itself.