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Composed: 1862 Length: c. 10 minutes Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, cymbals, triangle, timpani, harp, and strings
Wagner first contemplated Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) as a possible subject as early as 1845. He had just finished his opera Tannhäuser and was taking a cure at Marienbad, reading Georg Gottfried Gervinius’ history of German literature to unwind. A light-hearted opera about the historical mastersingers and their singing contests seemed like a good way to follow up Tannhäuser, which itself offered a spiritual and moral tale centered on another contest of song from the annals of medieval German legend.
Several other projects were fermenting in the composer’s brain at the time, including Lohengrin, Parsifal, and The Ring; Lohengrin ultimately took precedence (Wagner had started it earlier, in 1841), so Die Meistersinger had to wait.
Wagner thought about revisiting Die Meistersinger during a visit to a museum in Venice in the autumn of 1861, when a 16th-century painting reminded him of the world of the mastersingers. The composer was in Venice visiting his friend Otto Wesendonck — a wealthy silk merchant and fervent supporter of Wagner — and his wife Mathilde. Otto was apparently a keen tourist, and he eagerly dragged Wagner along on many of his expeditions, as the composer recalled in his memoirs, My Life:
“Wesendonck, who always went about armed with huge field-glasses, and was ever ready for sight-seeing, only once took me with him to see the Academy of Arts, a building which on my former visit to Venice I had only known from the outside. In spite of all my indifference, I must confess that the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ by Titian exercised a most sublime influence over me, so that, as soon as I realized its conception, my old powers revived within me, as though by a sudden flash of inspiration.
“I determined at once on the composition of Die Meistersinger.”
The intervening decade-and-a-half had seen Wagner’s exile from Saxony for his fervent support of the 1848 revolution, controversial appearances in London and Paris, and work on The Ring and Tristan und Isolde. It had also seen his rise from a respected position as music director in Dresden to the status of international celebrity, a man surrounded by controversy whose every move was eagerly awaited by both his most ardent supporters and his most passionate detractors. The optimistic, light-hearted tone of Die Meistersinger, coupled with Wagner’s ability to tap into the nationalist sentiment sweeping the German-speaking states of central Europe in the 1860s — a united Germany finally emerged in 1871 from the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War — meant that the work was a triumph at its Munich premiere in 1868.
The opera’s story revolves around the struggle between the forces of musical conservatism and musical change. The hero, Walther, with the help of the mastersinger Hans Sachs (both characters were based on historical figures), ultimately triumphs with his song, unlike any the mastersingers have heard before, and he gets the girl, too — and they don’t have to hurl themselves into the ocean, ride into a funeral pyre, or die in each others’ arms to bring about the symbolic fulfillment of the German soul or something like that. Meistersinger truly is optimistic and light-hearted, at least compared to the rest of Wagner’s output.
Wagner composed the Prelude to Act I during a train trip in March 1862, before beginning work on the rest of the opera. It introduces thematic material associated with the mastersingers and their apprentices. The opening music presents two broad, majestic themes that recur at the end of the opera, the first heard during the work’s celebratory final moments and the second accompanying the entrance of the mastersingers. A contrasting theme returns later during Walther’s prize song, music of great lyricism. The central section of the prelude introduces busy music for the mastersingers’ apprentices, which Wagner uses as the basis of a fugue, a polyphonic nod to the opera’s 16th-century setting. The composer then brings back the two opening themes for a peroration of rousing splendor.
— John Mangum is Artistic Administrator for the New York Philharmonic.