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Most of Wagner’s major works had extended gestation periods, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremburg) was no exception. He began thinking about it in 1845 as a comic companion for the just premiered Tannhäuser, another opera about a singing contest. But other projects – Lohengrin, the Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde – intervened and Die Meistersinger had to wait over 20 years before it reached the stage. A visit to a museum in Venice in 1861 revived Wagner’s interest in the 16th-century world of the mastersingers, and he completed the libretto the following year. He premiered some of the music at the end of 1862, but did not finish the score until 1867. The full work was finally – and triumphantly – staged in Munich in 1868, with Hans von Bülow conducting.

A generally mellow and optimistic work, Die Meistersinger is also quite serious about its central issue of musical innovation versus conservative tradition. With the help of the mastersinger Hans Sachs, the young knight Walther wins the singing contest and gets the girl. Both Walther and Sachs were based on historical models, and the work had enormous appeal to burgeoning pan-Germanic sensibilities.

The Prelude to Act I was written before any of the rest of the music, in March of 1862. It opens with themes of great pomp and splendor that will return at the end of the opera, as well as rounding off the Prelude itself. It includes Walther’s ravishing prize song, and the bustling music of the apprentices is worked into a fugato, suggesting both the polyphonic music of the historical era and the academicism of the more conservative mastersingers.

Walther’s initial song effort, in Act I, is rejected by all the mastersingers except Sachs, who admires its originality. In Act II Sachs (a cobbler) is in his workshop and clearly still thinking about Walther’s passionate celebration of spring, evoked by the scent of the elder tree in front of his house. His wide-ranging monologue “Was duftet doch der Flieder” (How it smells of elder) touches on Walther’s song in motivic references, as Sachs reflects on his growing appreciation of the song, as well as Sachs’ anger at the hidebound attitude of his mastersinger colleagues and his own love of springtime.

Wagner began sketching ideas for the libretto of Der Ring des Nibelungen in the revolutionary year of 1848. It eventually became a cycle of four operas, for which the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was built. The full cycle did not premiere until 1876, but Wagner had portions of it completed long before then, and selections from Acts I and III of the second of the four operas, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), were first given on the same concert in Vienna at the end of 1862 as the early Meistersinger excerpts.

The Valkyries are Wotan’s daughters (with Erda, the earthy wisdom goddess) and chief among them is his favorite, Brünnhilde. At the beginning of Act III of Die Walküre they are gathered on a mountaintop, collecting slain heroes to take to Valhalla. “The Ride of the Valkyries” on their flying horses is depicted in fiercely martial music of swirling strings and trilling woodwinds, as unison brass blaze a motif associated with Brünnhilde.

Brünnhilde, however, is missing at first. When she appears, she is carrying a woman, not a fallen warrior. In defiance of her father’s orders, Brünnhilde attempted to protect Wotan’s illegitimate son Siegmund and is now fleeing with Sieglinde, Siegmund’s twin sister and lover, pregnant with the future hero Siegfried. Wotan arrives in fury, dispersing the other Valkyries. For her disobedience, Brünnhilde is cast out of the Valkyries and will be put into a magical sleep on the mountain, available to the first man who finds her. Brünnhilde pleads with her father, asking that she at least be surrounded by a fire that would keep away all but the bravest of heroes.

Wotan embraces his daughter for the last time, and kisses her eyes to sleep. His deeply affecting “Farewell” brings up loving memories as well as regrets in reflection on his struggle to undo the curse of the Ring that he himself incurred. The scene is an emotional crescendo of grief. At the end, Wotan summons the fire god Loge to blaze around the rock where Brünhilde lies. The flames spread in the flickering “Magic Fire Music,” derived mostly from Loge’s own motif and brilliantly orchestrated.

Tannhäuser has a subtitle: “und der Sängerkrieg auf dem Wartburg” (and the Singer’s Contest at the Wartburg). The Wartburg is the castle of Landgraves of Thuringia and home to famous minnesingers, ancestors of music guilds such as the mastersingers of Nuremburg. Tannhäuser is a minnesinger and knight of the Wartburg who has been held captive by love in the castle of Venus. He breaks free of those emotional bonds and returns to the Wartburg, where the Landgrave’s daughter Elisabeth awaits him. The Landgrave promises Elisabeth in marriage to whoever wins the forthcoming song competition, confident that Tannhäuser will be the victor. When his turn comes, however, Tannhäuser bursts out in renewed praise of Venus, to the horror of all. Tannhäuser is allowed to join a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness for his heresy.

At the beginning of Act III, Elisabeth and Wolfram, another knight and minnesinger, are waiting for the return of the pilgrims. Elisabeth leaves after a prayer, and Wolfram, who also loves Elisabeth, sings his hymn to the evening star, “O du mein holder Abendstern,” a formally conventional apostrophe of great lyric beauty.

Wagner composed most of Lohengrin during his years as Kapellmeister in Dresden (he was second Kapellmeister, actually, but a very active one – sort of general music director for the King of Saxony). The composer sided with the republican rebels in the abortive revolution of 1848, and when Prussian soldiers regained control of the city the following year, Wagner fled, first to the shelter of Franz Liszt in Weimar, then on to Switzerland on a fake passport.

There Wagner completed Lohengrin, dedicating it to Liszt, who gave the premiere in Weimar in August 1850, with the composer necessarily absent in exile. (Wagner had led a concert performance of the Act I finale in Dresden in September 1848, during the brief revolutionary era.) The medieval tale of chivalry and betrayal contrasts spiritual purity and striving against worldly evil and machinations. The brilliantly jubilant Prelude to Act III, another example of Wagner’s deft hand with a brass melody blazing through a whirl of strings, introduces the wedding of Lohengrin and Elsa (and is followed in the opera by the famous bridal march).

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.