Friday 13 February 2015
Lessons from the Mastersingers
What, you may ask, does this Molièresque bewigged gentleman have to do with Hans Sachs, real-life composer of over 4,370 'master-songs' in addition to several volumes of poems and philosopher-hero of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg? He is none other than Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633-1708) Doctor and Professor of Law, author of the squat quarto Book of the Master-singers' Gracious Art: its Origin, Practice, Utility and Rules. In the Preface the supposed origin of the Gypsies is also dealt with.
I'd like to say I've read this book so you and my students in the Opera in Depth class don't have to (incidentally, teaching Meistersinger this time round has been immensely enriched by getting a bit closer to Wagenseil). But in fact I haven't had to either, since it seems beautifully summarised in the most disgustingly damp-eaten and smelly volume I've ever purchased off abebooks.uk, Wagner & Wagenseil: A Source of Wagner's Opera 'Die Meistersinger' by one Herbert Thompson, published by Oxford University Press in 1927 and a mere 39 pages long - as opposed to Wagenseil's 433 - plus illustrations by way of appendix several of which I'm reproducing here.
Wagner's pal and fellow-composer Peter Cornelius secured him a copy from Vienna's Imperial Library. I've already speculated on the unacknowledged debt to Hoffmann, who in the introduction to his magnificently spooky story 'The Song-Contest on the Wartburg' - more Freischütz than Tannhäuser - also mentions Wagenseil and borrows from one of Wagenseil's early chapters on the 'Bards', 'Druids' and 'Prophets' who originated the craft of mastersinging (Nicolaus Klingsohr and Walter von der Vogelweid(e) are among them).
That's all of interest to Tannhäuser, of course. But it's not until we get to a list of 12 old Nuremberg Masters of distinction that the volume's usefulness to Die Meistersinger becomes apparent; the names were taken en bloc, Sixtus Beckmesser included, for the city worthies introduced in Act One of the opera. Then we get a biography of Nuremberg's cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, described by Wagenseil as 'justly esteemed patriarch of the Master-singers'.
Chapter Five, 'Complete Tabulatur of the Master-singers' has rules for the construction of a master-song's 'bar' and 'Abgesang' adapted almost wholesale by Wagner for Kothner's reading just before Walter sings 'Am stillen Herd'. Next are the 'XXII Faults which may be committed, and their punishment'; Wagner puts seven into Beckmesser's blacklist which rebounds on him in Act Two. David gives Walter Wagenseil's observations about 'Scholars' (those not familiar with the Tabulatur), 'Schoolfriends' (those who are), 'Singers' (those who can sing five or six 'Tones)', 'Poets' (those who writes songs to existing 'Tones') and 'Masters' (those who invent 'Tones'). Until I took a proper look at all this, I hadn't appreciated that Sachs takes down only the words of Walter's 'Morning Dream Song' in Act Three, not its music, so Beckmesser can only mangle the text of the sheets he's stolen.
Wagenseil then gives us a list of 222 'Master-tones', inventions of Masters to be sung by others. Some of these appear in David's exhausting list, so beautifully and amusingly illustrated in Richard Jones's production to stop boredom setting in at a perilously early point. It's worth picking out a few gems straight from Wagenseil: 'The Extra-short Evening red tone, by Georg Hagers', 'The Faithful-pelican tone by M. Ambrose Metzger', 'The English-tin tone by Kasper Enderle' and 'The Fat-badger tone by Metzger'.
Chapter Six is entitled 'Of the Master-singers' Manners and Customs, at the Singing School and in convivial meetings'; Wagner reproduces fairly faithfully the methods adapted by the Nuremberg Guild. Only the fact that there used to be four Markers rather than one is altered in the opera.
At the song-competition the Master-elect must sing, in addition to his own composition, the highly-prized 'Four Crowned Tones'. And here's another value to Wagenseil's text and Thompson's splendid precis: both books reproduce the first of the four, 'in long Tone of Heinrich Mügling'/ You probably can't read the words below, a doggerel version of Jacob and his matrimonial experiences, but you should be able to see that the 'bars' begin with a tune very similar to the second theme Wagner gives his Mastersingers in the Prelude.
Invaluable, no? And a treasure that's not been eaten away by the damp of my copy is the fold-out map of old Nuremberg the letter 'm' for St Catherine's Church in which Wagner sets his opening scene - the Mastersingers of Sachs's time actually met at St Martha's - isn't placed alongside any church. but I think it must be one in the lower eastern segment.
I think I've exhausted all possible words of praise for the ENO edition of Jones's superlative Mastersingers - different from the Welsh original, but in no way inferior - in my Arts Desk review. I've booked to go again on the last night, 10 March, and persuaded godson Alexander to leave his studies in Glasgow and come down to see it, because he won't see Wagner better done. Most of my colleagues think so too, esteemed Wagner doyen Michael Tanner in The Spectator being the latest to describe the experience as near-perfect. Any wishes for ENO's immediate demise seem to have badly misfired - not that the company management and image don't have a problem, but if it's All About Art, this is the crowning glory of a wonderful year and a bit.
Richard Jones came to talk to the students for the third time on Monday: it was wonderful, and I need to write about it in more detail, but suffice it to say he thought publicity to change ENO's image could make a huge difference, comparing their hopeless posters and attempts to be taken seriously as 'Opera for the People' with the way the PR department at the Young Vic were on to him the minute he started work on the forthcoming adaptation of Kafka's The Trial with (oh, wondrous) Rory Kinnear.
Anyway, don't miss this opera of operas.A few more pics for you by Catherine Ashmore for ENO: above, the ritual in Act One, Gwyn Hughes Jones's Walther getting hot under the collar at the Masters' closed-mindedness;and below, just before the 'christening' of the Morning Dream Interpretation Song; left to right Iain Paterson (Sachs), Nicky Spence (David), Madeleine Shaw (Magdalene) and Rachel Nicholls (Eva). Love 'em all.