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, 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.


Susan Scheid said...

What a find that book had to be! (To my frustration, the images aren't loading, so I'll have to come back for that later.) From the TAD review images, I can get some sense of how attractive this production is--and how lucky your students were to hear from Jones three times. I only wish the ENO production might come our way. This is not an opera with which I'm at all familiar, and your description, together with this delightful "back story," makes it one I'd really like to see, despite its length. In a great production like the one you describe, I suspect the time would fly by. (By some accounts, in contrast, the Met production lagged at points.)

PS: I enjoyed your review of Cycle 2 of Sibelius. If you do hear Cycle 3, I’d love your view on Rattle’s idea to perform the 6th & 7th without a pause.

Susan Scheid said...

The images finally did load, I'm glad to report. The engravings (which I assume are from the book?) are priceless, and how good that the map, at least, came through unscathed.

David said...

Yes, we're hugely lucky to have this rapport with Richard, who usually doesn't like talking and giving interviews much. He was even, to my surprise at one obviously used to taking charge in the theatre, rather nervous the first time. Now he knows some of the familiar faces, and (where did I write this elsewhere?) has a teasing charm that comes from a warm heart carefully guarded.

And yes, everything flies by. Normally there's a point where my brain and heart need to switch off in Wagner. Especially when a singer lets the side down, as the Tristan did more than a bit in Act 3 of the Royal Opera production back in December. But here, no slack, no weaknesses. It's the genius that also had people coming out of Acts 2 and 3 of Rosenkavalier unable to believe that they'd been sitting through an hour of each.

The third Sibelius instalment I had to forego because I wanted to hear my great late friend Sasha Ivashkin's memorial concert. As I wrote in a comment to Gavin Dixon's review for TAD - I felt I was too closely involved, as speaker and note-writer, to do it - I think I would have chosen that concert even if there I hadn't known Sasha. The elusive Dmitri Alexeev's Brahms Op. 119 would have been enough. But Nicolas Altstaedt's Bach has now set a benchmark which had me dipping into several sets I own for something similar, not finding it and even putting one (Wispelway's) on the regifting pile. Such riches we had, and Sasha's widow Natalia was so warm and affectionate, I had no idea that he respected me as I did him until Natalia asked me to introduce the concert. Anyway, will blog about it when I get new pictures.

I think I would have hated the follow on from Six anyway: the dying of the light needs silence and then a break. Peter Quantrill wrote it up and though mostly enthusiastic thought the Seventh was very messy in places.

Even so, I'm on a Berlin Phil high and went to hear the Octet tonight - stupendous. Some folk in the biz are sick of what they call 'the Rattle overkill' in all the papers, but I'm so delighted a conductor and orchestra are becoming names in the wider world. And the cause is good - unlike the endless hype for the pathetic Fifty Shades of Grey, which TAD has managed to avoid mentioning (though of course there will be a review, an amusing one, I hope).

Susan Scheid said...

The Ivashkin memorial was certainly the best possible of reasons to be elsewhere. Your point about complaints on any "Rattle overkill" is perfectly put. Fine performers and performances of serious music should be all over the papers far more often than is the case. On the Sibelius Cycle 3, yes about the 6th, and not only that, but the 7th certainly deserves its own space. While I can guess at it, I don't really understand the choice. But, that said, I was nonetheless very grateful to have the opportunity to see the Berlin performances on the digital hall.

Geo. said...

One wonders if there is some subliminal criticism of John Berry in all the praise that the ENO Mastersingers is receiving, in the sense that maybe Berry needs to get "back to basics" by hiring opera directors with known track records in directing staged opera, rather than filmmakers or other director-types with little or no experience in opera, but are just famous names in more "populist" media where that experience doesn't necessarily translate to opera. (The one exception on film directors might be Terry Gilliam.) Hopefully ENO is seeing good box office as a result of the strong reviews. There was even a strong review from the New York Times, taking up space for a production that almost nobody in NYC will be able to see in person, unless said American is already in London or hops on a plane to check it out. I remember being very impressed by Iain Paterson as Gunther in the Met's HD of Gotterdaemmerung several seasons back, in a role that is not dramatically meant to impress, and can imagine how well he would portray Hans Sachs.

David said...

To do him credit, he engaged great Jones twice last year, both times with spectacular results: Rodelinda and The Girl of the Golden West. He got Sellars to stage more fully The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the other great triumph of the year, and the revivals were all good to great. Autumn 2013 was the disaster zone: Christopher Alden's Fledermaus, Bieito's Fidelio, Complicite's Magic Flute (which one would have expected to be good, but it was dreary in the extreme).

Whether or not JB is easy to work with is another matter. He's not very approachable in my experience but I haven't actually held a conversation with him.

Tragically, ENO is NOT seeing good box office even for Mastersingers. I wanted to go again on the last night, encouraging my godson to come down from Glasgow to see it, and there were way too many tickets in the mid to cheap price range (stalls were well sold). What's going on when Wagner, let along raved-about Wagner, doesn't sell out immediately? So the ticket prices are a real problem that needs to be addressed.

Paterson was also a gorgeous-toned Rheingold Wotan in Barenboim's Proms Ring. Seasoned Wagnerians disagreed with me, though. Not much dissent here.

David Damant said...

David, on a VERY superficial study, it seems that the less expensive Mastersingers seats have been in demand on Saturdays. The noticeable gaps are on other days. I wonder if the less rich and the non-retired find it difficult fit in or anyway feel ready for a Wagner evening except on the day when they can really relax

David said...

Well, I suppose that even staunch Wagnerians find it difficult to take the afternoon of a working day off. Though that doesn't seem to stop them usually.

I only hope that you, too, will take the chance to see your theory that 'Wagner is intrinsically' evil' disproved (though Mastersingers is a special case,I admit).

David Damant said...

Dear David and all other Wagner lovers

I have given up on you. You are lost souls - though I am also lost for other reasons so we shall probably meet below ( actually might be more fun than entering the Pearly Gates - see Paradise Lost )

PS I did attend at some point both the Mastersingers ( London) and Lohengrin (Vienna)but left in each case after Act 1 - so I did try.

David said...

You are the lost soul, poor Sir David, like Eve shut out of Paradise (a ref made by Sachs, of course). And the first act of Meistersinger gives only the slightest hint of the riches to come. Try arriving for the third next time...

David Damant said...

Some years ago our dear friend Andrew was in charge of the concerts at the Edinburgh Festival. One of these included an act from Die Walkure and Andrew had to meet the nine from the train at Waverley station - where they arrived from London desperate for a cup of tea. So very shortly the sweet lady running the Wee Scottish Tea Shoppe was presented with the sight of one tall thin male surrounded by nine - um - not so thin Walkure. O that the scene could have been recorded for posterity

David said...

Fun in itself, and I can digress still further with a Scots railway buffet story (colleague of J goes in to buy a tea and a pie, finds server glum, and asks for a kind word. 'Don't eat the pie' comes the reply).

But, you know, I thought this Wagenseil stuff was really interesting and original and no-one but Sue notes that. Learn not to expect germane comments and you won't be disappointed (which is why I've given up 'what does anyone else think?' because the silence can be deafening).

If I were really self-pitying, though, I'd have given this up long ago.

David Damant said...

Dear David

If one is a genius, one so often has insights that no one else has ( or anyway no one who appears in one's life). One has to recognise this - and go way to read an improving book, or to change to some other topic where one's genius is understood

David said...

I don't know which genius is meant. I only hope to interpret, precis, the original thoughts of others. The little book, beautifully written, is so little known that I wanted to summarise a bit of it, and reproduce a few of its pictures. Maybe you're right, though, that there's not much more to add. And 'that's really interesting' isn't worth leaving a comment to note. So please carry on with your off-piste curiosities, much valued.

Catriona said...

Coming late to this - the Wagenseil book looks absolutely fascinating and the temptation to track it down is getting stronger by the minute. What a joy to have found the 1927 book, even if it is disgustingly damp-eaten and smelly.

David said...

I thought there were still some not exorbitant copies on abebooks, Catriona, but I may be wrong.

Hope you're heading south for the greatest of Mastersingers. I've persuaded the godson to leave his Glasgow studies to see and hear Wagner at its best. Before that I see him and the goddaughter on home turf when I give a BBCSSO talk at the City Halls next Thursday. Sadly won't be coming through to Edinburgh this time.

PS - Victoria sent through the Goettingen Handel Festival booklet and it looks enticing so I hope to make it this year. You?

Catriona said...

Already booked up for the first weekend at Goettingen - got the flight and the hotel sorted so that the time is protected from the demands of the day-job.
Would love to see the Mastersingers ebut, unfortunately, other demands on my time right now.

Catriona said...

My copy has just arrived at my desk.It has a dedication "To Nance Pflaum with the author's love."