Wagner’s talents spanned composing, theatre directing and conducting but he is primarily known today for the thirteen magnificent operas he completed. The overture to the only comedy among these was first performed in Leipzig in November 1862 but it was not until June 1868 that the complete opera was ready for its first public performance. Sponsored by Ludwig II of Bavaria (commonly known as “Mad King Ludwig”), the opera was conducted by Hans von Bülow at what is now the National Theatre in Munich. The lengthy rehearsals were frequently interrupted by Wagner and the orchestra went on strike after one particularly long rehearsal but the premiere was considered a triumph. Despite its association with late 19th and early 20th century German nationalism and subsequently with the Nazi regime, the opera has been widely popular ever since.
The opera is set in 16th century Nuremberg and was inspired by a real Mastersinger of that time, the cobbler Hans Sachs. The hero, Walther von Stolzing, has fallen in love with Eva Pogner. Walther learns that Eva’s father has decided that she will marry the winner of the imminent Guild of Mastersingers’ song competition. To compete, Walther must first gain entry to the guild but his trial song is rejected and he is contemptuous of their ossified traditions. Walther and Eva’s attempt to elope is thwarted by a riot. Mastersinger Hans Sachs helps Walther to write a new song which innovates while respecting the Guild’s formal composition rules. The Guild awards Walther first prize and he wins Eva’s hand in marriage.
This story may not sound promising material for a four-and-a-half hour humorous opera but its synthesis of tradition and innovation is considered by some to be the greatest comedic work of art and it is an accessible gateway to Wagner’s operas.
Wagner’s compositions are renowned for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration and the elaborate use of “leitmotifs” – musical phrases associated with characters, places, ideas or elements of the plot. We are told that Wagner found it relatively easy to write the themes for the overture but it’s interesting to note that the leitmotif for Hans Sachs (the opera’s main character) is not included in the overture as it was composed some time later. The overture anticipates four of the opera’s main melodies: the first two are associated with the guild of singers and are heard throughout the opera whenever the guild enter or are mentioned. The third theme is a variant of Walther’s winning song while the fourth is an irreverent version of the mastersingers’ melody where the apprentices imitate the masters and poke fun at them. Finally, Wagner skilfully combines all four themes to bring the overture to a glorious climax.
Robyn Morgan, Violin 2