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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Meistersinger von Nurnberg (Die) (Karajan) (1951)
RIchard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
The only comedy among Richard Wagners mature works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg dwarfed all previous comedic operas when it was given its first complete performance in Munich in 1868; and only Richard Strausss Der Rosenkavalier has since come near it in length, scope and richness of detail. Wagner conceived the scheme in 1845 and at that stage clearly saw it as a counterpart to Tannhäuser, the theme of a singing context being common to both. As so often happened with Wagner, however, he was deflected by other projects; and by the time he got round to working seriously on Die Meistersinger, he was a different composer with Tristan und Isolde and much of The Ring already behind him. He was fascinated by the idea that sixteenth-century Nuremberg had boasted, among its many guilds, a Guild of Mastersingers. He took the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, a historical figure who lived from 1494 to 1576 and whose music has survived, as his central character, and researched every available source in his mission to bring old Nuremberg to life. Curiously he had an autobiographical occurrence to draw on: the finale of Act 2, with its fugal brawl, is based on an evening Wagner and some friends spent in Nuremberg in 1835 when they witnessed just such a fight.
Wagner wrote two treatments, one in Marienbad in 1845 and one in Vienna in 1861, before producing his libretto around the turn of the year in 1861-2. In the interim his concept altered and became much more complex. In particular the central rôle of Sachs, which ended up as the longest singing part in all opera, developed from a rather sardonic character into the fully rounded portrait we now know. While retaining a wit with a certain edge, Sachs became much more genial and philosophical; the idea of bringing him into an eternal triangle with the young hero and heroine was a late addition. We should not complain if the other characters tend to be types rather than believable people like Sachs after all, most other operatic comedies are very stylized. The Mastersingers emerge as distinct personalities, craftsmen who are proud of their competence in their part-time craft, music. Wagner had some fun with the marker, Sixtus Beckmesser, the only overtly comic character in the piece. He even toyed with the idea of calling him Hans Lick, or Veit Hanslich, as a way of getting back at the great Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, a constant thorn in his side. Whether Hanslick knew anything of this or not, he was the sole dissenting voice when the first performance took place in 1868 at the Court Theatre, Munich, on 21st June - Midsummer Day, as in the opera - under the baton of Hans von Bülow. This première was the greatest success Wagner had in his entire career.
Even in Wagners day, doubts were raised about the rampant chauvinism of Sachss final panegyric to German art, although it struck a chord with German audiences in the run-up to the Franco-German War of 1870 and its aftermath. Unfortunately Die Meistersinger was the saddest victim of Adolf Hitlers Wagnerian obsession. During the 1930s Nuremberg was the scene of the Nazi rallies and the opera was a rallying cry for the unhealthiest kind of nationalism. Bayreuth itself, where Hitler was an honoured guest, became besmirched by association. When the Bayreuth Festival reopened in 1951, the new regime of Wagners grandsons set out to confront this unpleasant legacy head-on and the brave decision was taken to programme Die Meistersinger. Even though some former Nazis were involved in the production, the goal of rebirth was largely achieved. We owe it to Walter Legge and his team from Columbia that the production was recorded for posterity. It was a triumph for the usual Bayreuth teamwork and no individual performance stood out, except perhaps for the cohesive effect achieved by the still young conductor, Herbert von Karajan, who at this stage of his career had not yet developed the emphasis on legato which was to sap the inner life of so many of his later performances. Edelmanns Sachs is genial rather than profound, a portrayal in the line of Frantz, Schöffler or Stewart rather than Radford, Schorr or Hotter, to name three outstanding recorded exponents. Kunz, Malaniuk and Unger live up to their reputations as being among the finest post-war singers. The young lovers are more problematical: Hopf is a sturdy craftsman rather than a poet, and Schwarzkopf, of whom it could never be said that her art is the kind that disguises art, is hardly an ingenue; at times one longs for a less tremulous tone and the straightforward radiance of a Grümmer. All in all, however, this historic set is a fair monument to a momentous occasion.
Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg on 5th April 1908 and studied at the Mozarteum in his native city and the Vienna Academy. His first conducting posts were at Ulm, 1929-34, and Aachen, 1934-41. After conducting Tristan und Isolde at the Berlin State Opera in 1937 he was much in demand and he headed that house from 1941 to 1945, when he was forbidden by the Allies to conduct because of his Nazi past. In 1947 he began to pick up his international career and in 1955 he succeeded Furtwängler at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic. He remained in charge of this orchestra until his death at Anif, near his birthplace, on 16th July 1989. He also had a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic and from 1957 to 1964 directed the Vienna State Opera. He made more recordings than any other conductor and many of his interpretations were also filmed. In opera he sought to create a unified concept, often acting as his own producer and working with colleagues he knew and trusted. This unity is apparent even in comparatively early studio recordings, such as his still unsurpassed versions of Die Zauberflöte and Così fan tutte.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was born at Jarotschin, near Poznan, on 9th December 1915. Her teachers in Berlin included the Lieder singer Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, the coloratura soprano Maria Ivogun and the latters husband, the pianist Michael Raucheisen. This training predisposed Schwarzkopf towards the kind of career she later followed, alternating opera with concert and recital work. Having made her début in 1938 as a flower maiden in Parsifal at the Berlin Municipal Opera, she progressed to being a member of the Vienna State Opera from 1944, first coming to Britain in 1947 with that company. Thereafter she was one of the best-known singers in the world, and marriage to Walter Legge led to his using her in myriad recording projects, both suitable (Mozart, Strauss) and unsuitable (two versions of the Verdi Requiem). She also recorded many Lieder. Few singers have so violently polarised opinion but, love her or hate her, she has always been a class act.
Ira Malaniuk was born on 29th January 1923 at Stanislav, Ukraine. At Lviv her teacher was the bass Adam Didur and in Vienna she worked with Anna Bahr-Mildenburg. She made her début in 1945 at Graz and progressed through the companies at Zurich and Munich before joining the Vienna State Opera in 1956. Guest appearances took her all over Europe and she sang all the major mezzo-soprano and contralto rôles. After retiring from the stage she turned to teaching and from 1971 was based in Graz. She made many recordings, mostly of opera, and wrote an autobiography, Stimme des Herzens.
The Heldentenor Hans Hopf was born in Nuremberg on 2nd August 1916 and studied with the bass Paul Bender in Munich, where he made his début at the Landestheater in 1936 as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. In those days he had quite a lyric voice. From 1939 he was in Augsburg and from 1942 at the German Theatre in Oslo, where he restudied to take on more heroic rôles. In the late 1940s he alternated between Berlin and Dresden and from 1949 he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera, Munich. He appeared fairly frequently at Bayreuth like Schwarzkopf and Edelmann, he sang in the performance of Beethovens Ninth that opened the 1951 festival and made guest appearances at all the major European houses, as well as the Met in New York and the Colón, Buenos Aires. He also made many records. He died in Munich on 25th June 1993.
Gerhard Unger, born on 26th November 1916 in Bad Salzungen, studied in Berlin and began his career as a concert singer. He made his opera début in 1947 in Weimar, moved in 1952 to the Berlin State Opera and in the 1960s was active in both Stuttgart and Hamburg, but made many guest appearances elsewhere. He was perhaps the leading German character tenor of his day and fortunately many of his rôles were captured on record. His bright, incisive David on this set is typical of his work in being both beautifully sung and brilliantly projected.
The bass-baritone Otto Edelmann was born at Brunn am Gebirge near Vienna on 5th February 1917. His teachers at the Vienna Academy included Theodor Lierhammer. He made his début in Gera in 1937 as Mozarts Figaro and from 1940 was in Nuremberg before joining the army. Two years as a Russian prisoner of war held back his career but in 1947 he joined the Vienna State Opera, where he stayed until 1976, although his career took him all over the world, including fifteen seasons at the Met in New York, where he made his bow as Sachs in 1954. Another famous rôle was that of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, which was filmed with Karajan conducting. His Leporello under Furtwängler was also filmed and he made a number of recordings.
Erich Kunz, who was born on 20th May 1909 in Vienna, where he died on 8th September 1995, was one of the most beloved singers produced by that city, his warm bass-baritone evoking the very essence of Viennese gemütlichkeit. His teachers were Theodor Lierhammer and another much-loved Viennese baritone, Hans Duhan. He made his début as Osmin in Die Entführung at Opava in 1933 and had stints in Plauen and Breslau, even spending a summer in the chorus at Glyndebourne, before joining the Vienna State Opera in 1941. After the war he became known as one of the leading Mozart singers of his generation. Especially effective in comic rôles, he was a wonderful exponent of operetta and Viennese songs and was still taking character rôles in his seventies. He made many recordings and several of his characterisations were filmed.
Frederick Dalberg was born in Newcastle, South Africa, on 7th January 1908 (some sources say he began life as Frederick Dalrymple in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, but the present writer remembers him as an Afrikaner). After early vocal studies in South Africa he went to Dresden and then Leipzig, where he made his début in 1931 as Monterone in Rigoletto. In Germany he used the first name Friedrich and he remained in Leipzig through the war, also singing at the 1942-4 Bayreuth Festivals and making guest appearances in Berlin, Vienna, Munich and Dresden. From 1947 he sang at the Bavarian State Opera and from 1951 at Covent Garden, making occasional forays to South Africa. From 1958 until his retirement in 1970 he was based in Mannheim. He died in Cape Town in March 1988. Although he was a leading bass and sang in a number of local or world premières, he made relatively few records.
Arnold van Mill was born in Schiedam, the Netherlands, on 26th March 1921 and trained at the Rotterdam and Hague Conservatories. In 1946 he made his début at the Monnaie in Brussels and after much early success he settled in 1953 at the Hamburg State Opera, where he was a pillar of the company until 1971, and a favoured guest artist thereafter. He frequently performed at Bayreuth, where, in 1951, he also took part in Parsifal under Knappertsbusch, and made guest appearances all over the world. He can be heard on a number of complete opera sets and also recorded a recital LP of arias.
 In the Prelude leitmotifs are heard, including those associated with the Mastersingers, Walthers love, the Mastersinger Guild, conventional art, youthful fervour, and love and passion, some finally combining.
 The first act opens in the church of St Katharine. During the service Eva, daughter of the goldsmith Veit Pogner, and the young knight Walther von Stolzing catch each others eye, both of them equally captivated, while the congregation sings the final chorale.
 The service ends and the people start to leave. Walther breaks through to meet Eva, who manages to send her nurse Magdalena back to look for Evas kerchief. Walther asks Eva if she is already betrothed. Magdalena explains that Eva is pledged to the winner of the coming song contest of the Mastersingers. Magdalenas sweetheart David, Hans Sachs apprentice, who has started to mark out the place for the coming preliminary test of the singers, is persuaded to teach Walther the rules of the contest. Walther promises to do his utmost to win the contest and Evas hand and tells her that he will come to see her in the evening.
 Apprentices bring benches for the Mastersingers and call on David to help, while he explains to Walther how he has combined his study of shoe-making with that of the rules of singing. He demonstrates the different tunes and tones of the art and how to sing them. He has been taught by his master, Hans Sachs, but explains the procedure by which one must become a singer and a poet before one can become a Master, able to invent new melodies and words. He tells him of the function of the marker, who is to sit hidden by a curtain, chalking up every mistake, more than seven of which will disqualify the contestant. With a hint of irony David wishes Walther good luck. The apprentices, who have started to dance, echoing Davids sentiments, scatter as Pogner and Beckmesser, the Town Clerk, enter.
 The scene is now set for the contest. Pogner promises to support Beckmesser. Walther rises from his seat and approaches Pogner, whom he already knows. He tells him that love of the art has brought him to Nuremberg and that he wants to become a Mastersinger. Pogner welcomes the gesture, while Beckmesser regards the proceedings with some suspicion, resolving to serenade Eva himself and win her favour. The Masters gather.
 Fritz Kothner, the baker, calls the names of those summoned to the trial.
 Pogner addresses them, reminding them how they celebrate the Feast of St John, at midsummer, with an outdoor singing contest, to show the importance the citizens attach to art, not merely seekers after money; for the competition the next day he offers the hand of his daughter Eva in marriage, together with all his goods.
 Pogner adds that the winner must have Evas consent to marriage; if she refuse, then she must remain for ever unwed, since she is pledged to marry only a Mastersinger. Hans Sachs suggests that the contest should be decided by the people. The Masters have their misgivings about this radical proposal and Pogners original offer is accepted, while Sachs and Beckmesser dispute, Sachs declaring that Eva deserves a younger husband than Beckmesser. Pogner presents Walther as a new candidate for the contest, arousing Beckmessers suspicions. The question is raised of Walthers background, answered by Pogner. Kothner then asks Walther to name his teacher in the art of song.
 Walther claims the great medieval poet-singer Walther von der Vogelweide as his teacher, while in spring he listened to the birds, claims that are greeted contemptuously by Beckmesser. Walther is asked to sing, and proposes a song of love, which Beckmesser, the Marker, prepares to fault at every turn, reminding him that after seven faults any further mistake will lead to failure.
 Kothner reads out the rules of composition of a master-song, its sections, verses, rhymes and melodic form. Walther sits in the singers chair, and Beckmesser calls for him to begin.
 Walther begins, singing of the start of spring through the countryside. He contrasts this with winter, while always Beckmessers chalk is heard, as the Marker records the mistakes. Walther continues his song, now a celebration of love. Eventually Beckmesser interrupts, showing his slate, covered with chalk marks. Pogner would hear Walther, but the other Mastersingers agree with Beckmesser, finding no sense in Walthers song.
 They are interrupted by Hans Sachs, who finds interest in Walthers song, to Beckmessers distaste and insults. Sachs accuses Beckmesser of personal jealousy, while the latter tells the cobbler to stick to his last and finish the shoes he expects for the festival. Walther tries to continue, to general objections, and when his song comes to an end, supported by the apprentices. He leaves, and the rest follow, leaving Sachs alone in thought, as the boys remove the benches and singers chair.
 The scene is a street, with Pogners grander house on the right, and Sachs simpler house on the left. The apprentices are closing the window shutters as evening draws on. David recalls the apprentices song and is greeted by Magdalena, who brings him a basket of food, which she takes back when she hears of Walthers apparent failure. The apprentices have overheard their exchange and tease David. His retaliation is prevented by the appearance of Sachs, and they go together into the house.
 Pogner and Eva, returning from a walk, stop before Sachs house, as Pogner would speak with him. They sit, as Pogner thinks better of interrupting Sachs. Eva persuades him to go into his house, while Magdalena emerges, telling Eva of Walthers failure. She decides to speak to Sachs later.
 As Magdalena and Eva withdraw into their house, Sachs is seen in his shop, musing on the distracting scent of lilac blossom, before returning to his work. He continues to think of Walthers song, so innovative and yet familiar, like the song of birds in May, inspired by nature.
 Hans Sachs goes on with his work, interrupted by Evas greeting. He tells her that she must wear her new shoes the next day as a bride, and the shoes on which he is now working are for the man who may marry her, Beckmesser. Eva suggests that Sachs, a widower, would be more acceptable to her, as he has known her since she was a child. Magdalena calls to Eva, while Sachs tells her that Walther has no hope, as one born a Master and therefore unrecognised by those who have worked hard to master the rules of their art. Magdalena urges Eva to go in, as her father is calling for her. Eva crossly reproaches Sachs, who is left to think how he may help her. Magdalena tells Eva that Beckmesser intends to serenade her with his song. Eva asks Magdalena to take her place at the window. They make to go into the house.
 As they leave, Walther appears in the street, seen by Eva, to her delight. He tells her of his failure and her fathers pledge that she may only marry a Mastersinger. He recalls his ordeal, as he sang of love, while the Mastersingers clung to their traditional rules. He urges her to run away with him. The horn of the night-watchman is heard, and Walther lays his hand on his sword, but is calmed by Eva, who tells him to hide for the moment. Magdalena calls her into the house.
 The night-watchman passes, calling ten oclock. Hans Sachs, meanwhile, has overheard the lovers and must prevent any elopement. Eva comes out again, dressed in Magdalenas clothes, ready to make her escape with Walther. Sachs allows a light to shine from his house onto the couple, who withdraw, but as they plan to leave, they are interrupted by the arrival of Beckmesser.
 Beckmesser is about to start his song, when Sachs allows his light to shine on the street again and starts hammering, at his work, singing his Cobblers Song of the expulsion of Eve from Paradise. Beckmesser is angry at the interruption, while Eva and Walther wonder at the meaning and purpose of the song. Magdalena appears at the window, dressed as Eva, and Beckmesser tells Sachs not to bother any more about the shoes he is making for him, but would like advice from him on his song. Sachs reminds him of his taunts earlier in the day, and Beckmesser angrily tells him that he will never be Marker for the Mastersingers. Sachs, however, will listen, and mark any faults with the blows of his hammer.
 Beckmesser starts his inept serenade, interrupted all the time by Sachs hammering and suggested corrections. Beckmesser angrily continues his song, and Sachs his hammering, until song and shoes are finished.
 Windows open along the street, as Beckmesser boasts of his knowledge of the rules and intention to win the contest. David sees someone serenading his beloved Magdalena and emerges with a cudgel, to deal with the offender. There is general commotion, observed secretly by Eva and Walther, as David attacks Beckmesser. The horn of the approaching night-watchman is heard, and Sachs comes out of his shop, seizing the arm of Walther, who has drawn his sword, and pushing Eva towards her father, who has come out to see what is happening. He pushes David before him and draws Walther into his house, while women pour water on the commotion below, in which others have now joined, so that all is silent again when the night-watchman appears.
 The Prelude includes motifs from Sachs chorale Wachauf! and from the Cobblers Song.
 The scene is in Sachs workshop. The cobbler sits reading. David slips in with a basket of flowers, from the bottom of which he takes a sausage and a cake. Sachs noisily turns a page of his book and David starts up, assuring his master that he has delivered Beckmessers shoes and begs forgiveness for his behaviour of the night before, explaining the cause. Sachs asks him to sing his St Johns Day chorale, which he does well enough, adding his congratulations to Sachs on the latters name-day and urging him to defeat Beckmesser in the contest and win the hand of Eva.
 As David leaves, Sachs muses on the folly of human malice and the events of the night, and his intention to steer folly to a good end.
 Walther enters from the next room and tells Sachs of a dream he has had, which Sachs tells him should form the substance of his song. Songs should temper youth, spring and ardour with experience.
 As Walther sings, Sachs writes down the words of his song, which moves him greatly, while advising him of the necessary techniques. They leave to prepare for the coming contest.
 Beckmesser appears outside the shop, which he quickly enters, limping and suffering from the beating David had given him the night before. Uneasily he limps round the room, recalling the events of the night, and eventually sees the paper on which Sachs has written Walthers words, apparently Sachs own contest song. Hearing Sachs approach, he puts the paper in his pocket, but then produces it as evidence of Sachs treachery in intending to compete himself. Sachs denies the charge and tells Beckmesser he may use the poem, if he wants, assuring him that he will not reveal the true authorship. Beckmesser hurries away, prepared to learn the puzzling words of the poem and, in gratitude, promising to vote for Sachs as Marker. Sachs is quietly satisfied with the outcome, musing on the malice Beckmesser has shown and his just reward.
 Eva, richly dressed, enters the shop, seeking to have her new shoes adjusted. She is overwhelmed when Walther enters in his knightly costume.
 Sachs suggest that Walther sing the third verse of his trial song, while he himself works on the shoes. Eva is strongly moved, bursts into tears and sinks on Sachs breast, while Walther seizes his hand in gratitude.
 Eva thanks Sachs for all he has done for her and Walther, and Sachs assures her he would never have wished to echo the fate of King Marke, when Tristan fell in love with Isolde, the Kings betrothed. Magdalena and David enter the shop, both dressed for the festival.
 Sachs calls for the baptism of the new song, promoting David from apprentice to journeyman.
 Eva prays for the songs success, joined by Walther, while Sachs muses on his own renunciation of Eva, in favour of the young lovers.
 They leave all together for the celebration.
 The scene is now an open meadow by a stream, with a raised platform for the Mastersingers and guests. The guildsmen enter, first the shoemakers, then the town musicians, the journeymen, tailors and bakers.
 The apprentices, with David, dance around the girls, to the sound of the town pipers. Finally the Mastersingers march in, followed by Pogner and Eva.
 The apprentices call for silence, now all have taken their places.
 Sachs steps forward and all join in singing the chorale Wachauf!
 Sachs addresses the company, thanking them and urging the Mastersingers to bear in mind the importance of the prize offered by Pogner, the hand of his daughter. Pogner thanks him, while Beckmesser is agitated at the difficulties of the new poem and seeks Sachs support. The oldest is to begin, and the apprentices lead Beckmesser to the mound from which he is to perform. He stumbles at first, and there are unflattering comments from the bystanders as to his eligibility as a bridegroom.
 Beckmesser embarks on his contest song, which is so clumsy as to bring only laughter from the assembly. He angrily blames Sachs, before rushing away.
 Sachs disclaims the poem and asks if anyone present can sing the song as it should be sung and win the title of Mastersinger.
 Walther steps forward and sings the prize song and is crowned with the garland by Eva, while Pogner offers him the golden chain of a Mastersinger. Walther, however, disclaims this honour, desiring happiness alone.
 Sachs wisely advises him not to spurn the art of the Mastersingers, who have preserved true German art, inherited from court traditions, and will protect it from danger.
 All join in praise of German art. Eva takes the garland from Walther and bestows it on Sachs, who in turn bestows the golden chain on Walther. All pay tribute to Hans Sachs.
This classic recording of Die Meistersinger was made during a rehearsal and five performances given at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in July and August of 1951. It was originally taken down on magnetic tape, and was first issued both on LP (from which the present transfer derives) and on 68 sides in the largest set of 78 rpm discs ever devoted to a single work.
The original Columbia/EMI recording is problematic in several respects. The splices joining portions taken from different performances are sometimes glaringly obvious; there are occasional dropouts and frequent volume level fluctuations; the voices are caught rather closely, and tend toward harshness in louder passages; and save for the big ensemble pieces (such as the start of the festival scene in Act 3), there is little sense of the unique acoustical qualities of the Festspielhaus which Deccas engineers caught so well in Knappertsbuschs contemporaneous recording of Parsifal (Naxos Historical 8.110221-24).
In this restoration, I have tried to bring out the warmth that I hear on the original LPs, rather than boost the high frequencies in an attempt to create an illusion of greater presence or immediacy. This approach, I feel, also preserves the rich bass frequencies demanded by the authentic Wagnerian sound.
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WAGNER, R.: Meistersinger von Nurnberg (Die) (Kara...