Those familiar with Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg know that this opera distinguishes itself from his other operas by not only lacking mythical monsters, magic, or love potions, but basing its hero on a historical figure, Hans Sachs (1494-1576). The story of artisans formed into a guild of mastersingers dedicated to art, poetry, and music in the Medieval German city of Nuremberg is also a love story. Sachs assists the man in love, Walther, in winning a songwriting contest, the prize of which is by happenstance Walther’s beloved, Eva. Wagner uses two very recognizable, fanfare-like leitmotivs, one to symbolize the mastersingers, and another to represent Walther; a more melodious, flowing melody to represent love; and, towards the end of the Overture, a stacking of these three leitmotivs simultaneously to represent Walther’s winning his love and joining the mastersingers at the same time.
Why Wagner chose to follow up the morose, highly chromatic harmonies of Tristan und Isolde with the grandiose C-major of Meistersinger has baffled musicologists for over 150 years. This stylistic about-face has been attributed to everything from Wagner’s interest in the hero-centric theories of art by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to an attempt symbolically to depict a medieval musical world, without actually resorting to the actual musical practice of that time.
In her transcription of the overture for pipe organ, Demers admits that her fascination with this music is primarily based on the way Wagner emphasizes counterpoint and the overlapping of leitmotivs. Then again, this is one of Wagner’s most tightly composed and powerful overtures, brilliantly resonating in C major, and few organists could not be tempted to play it on a pipe organ.