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Richard Wagner in Nuremberg

Spotlight on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg — By Vincent Borel

Because “Die Meistersinger”, currently on the bill at Opera Bastille, owes so much to Nuremberg, we asked Vincent Borel, the author of Richard W., to tell us about the relationship between Richard Wagner and the town that, for better or worse, was once at the heart of European history.

I was eleven years old when I first heard Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It was in Lyon, at the Roman theatre in Fourvière. An opera company from Sophia, behind the Iron Curtain, rendered the work with all its traditional imagery. I had already heard the overture with its C major tonality and powerful sincerity, on a recording with the Philharmonia conducted by Otto Klemperer on one of those LPs of “selected highlights” you used to see in Woolworth’s. I came away from the performance completely dazzled. But I hadn't yet encountered the other Wagner, the voluptuous, neurotic Wagner who sweeps you off your feet towards the grandiose summits of the Ring Cycle. Of course, I had no idea what Nuremberg really represented for Germany.

Wagner remains incontestably a toxic composer, exulting in the inconclusive, offering up his musical language on the altar of Schopenhauerian renunciation. There is, however, another Wagner, a Wagner who never had the time to fully blossom, a joyous, Apollonian Wagner, deploying comedy and satire. Luthers Hochzeit (“Luther’s Wedding”) was in the pipeline but never saw the light of day. Neither did Die Sieger, (“The Victors”) which would probably have been the quintessence of Parsifal and Götterdämmerung. Nevertheless, within this tragic, sombre corpus, laughter does exist. The first of Wagner’s comedies is called Das Liebesverbot or ‘The Ban on Love’. It’s a cunning bit of devilment – a cross between Weber and Rossini. This youthful opera is being performed, by the way, at Strasbourg this season and it’s worth the detour. Another vein, completely different, emerges here – a Latin, Italian vein. In Cosima’s Journal, which opens numerous hidden pathways to the private sphere of the creator, Wagner makes an interesting revelation. If providence had led him towards Italy on this side of La Spezia where, for him, the musical revelation of Das Rheingold took place; if he had been able to settle in the South, he would have composed The Mastersingers of Florence and the Tetralogy of the Atrides and not the works we know. The setting was much less important for him than the myth itself.

La Weissgerbergasse à Nuremberg
La Weissgerbergasse à Nuremberg © akg-images / De Agostini Picture Lib. / A. Vergani

For decades, Wagner had longed to establish his art in an ideal place where he could reform the social and artistic practice of opera. In June 1864, his meeting with Louis II of Bavaria promised him the opportunity to realise his dream, not in Italy, but in Bavaria. Wagner presented the king with a precise schedule: for the 1865 season, Die Meistersinger. 1867 and 1868 would see performances of the four operas of the Ring cycle to be followed in 1869 to 1870 by Die Sieger and in 1871-1872, Parsifal. But the public announcement of Wagner’s liaison with Cosima von Bülow and the birth of their first daughter, Isolde, was to seriously disrupt his plans. Notwithstanding the vagaries of his private life, Wagner had just met, in Louis II, a man as passionate about culture as himself. And Nuremberg was a Germanic Athens, the ideal place to develop the art of the future of which he dreamed. For 19th century Germans, Nuremberg was Utopia. It represented a glorious Renaissance past. It’s Gothic gables spoke eloquently of a flourishing and creative age. Nuremberg represented the infant years of a nation, brutally interrupted by the Thirty Years War and the dismantling of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. It embodied the triumph of the Guilds and merchants, of a proud and prosperous middle class. Until the bombings of 1945, the town remained intact, a haven of richly-coloured altar pieces, of teeming images carved in stone and adorning the walls. The figure of Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, dominates this mythology.

For a long time, this Nuremberg was part of Wagner, something he carried with him. It held strong personal memories for him, to begin with: a violent altercation he took part in as a student in the narrow streets of the old town in 1835. That episode was to become the rumbustious fugue at the end of the second act. Then there was Wagner’s reading, which was prolific. Wagner, in effect, considered himself to be a poet. He did write his own libretti, after all. Hans Sachs, epic poet of the Renaissance, spoke to the Romantic creator of three centuries hence. The older man, mature and self-sacrificing, may have been a guardian of tradition, but it was he who would help to secure Walther’s victory. Walther, of course, rhymes with Wagner. Walther is Wagner’s second alter ego, the first being Sachs: Walther, like Wagner, is the herald of a new music.

Wagner wanted the first performance of his Meistersinger to take place in Nuremberg, that unpolluted citadel of the art and splendour of Germany. The ancient city of the Empire, displayed like a jewel lovingly withdrawn from the silversmith’s chest, possessed in his eyes all the qualities required to give birth to a new golden age of Germanic art. His future oeuvre could have found a more worthy home there than in private or court theatres. The Royal School of Music, another project put before Louis II, could have seen the light of day and would have produced the singers needed for Siegfried, Parsifal and Lohengrin. Wagner was dissatisfied by the musicians of the time and longed also to reform the teaching and practise of music. To the composer’s chagrin, the opera was not to be staged in Nuremberg but in a theatre in Munich.

Wagner’s creative genius poured forth on the road. Chased out of Dresden for being too revolutionary, kicked out of Paris, the laughing-stock of Vienna, Wagner travelled the length and breadth of Europe in search of reliable sponsors who genuinely shared his vision. The highway was a realm of liberty, affording him mental space in which to escape from financial worries and forget about his first wife, Minna, beloved from afar but detested at close quarters. Like Franz Liszt, Wagner was an artist of the open road.

The genesis of the Mastersingers is, in this respect, significant. The scenario and text were completed at the Hotel Voltaire opposite the Louvre, in the spring of 1862. My Life evokes his state of ebullition beneath the arches of the Palais Royal where he soaked himself in high-coloured urbanity. The music of Act I came to maturity in Geneva during the autumn of 1866 in the villa known as Campagne aux artichauts. When a candle set fire to the drawing room, Wagner set a course for the south, with the stars for his guide. “Night, crescent moon, on my left Orion’s sword pointing towards the north-east,” he wrote. In the north-east, beyond the mountains, were Cosima and King Louis. But Wagner turned his back on them. Scandal had banished him from Bavaria so he went south, via Lyon the Industrious, in search of a haven in which to rest his wandering soul and compose. He now lacked confidence in Louis II whose support during the crisis had been rather lukewarm.
Maison de Tribschen (près de Lucerne) où Richard Wagner composa « Les Maîtres Chanteurs »
Maison de Tribschen (près de Lucerne) où Richard Wagner composa « Les Maîtres Chanteurs » © akg-images

In January and February 1867, he visited Toulon, Hyères and Marseille. There he made contact with Adrien Lucy, Napoleon III’s fermier general or chief tax gatherer. The latter received the composer with ostentatious cordiality. Lucy’s other guests flocked around him; a baritone sang the Hymn to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser and the ballade from The Flying Dutchman. Wagner thanked the assembled company by giving them a preview of the Mastersingers overture. In so doing he was testing out his listeners. Would the shores of his beloved Mediterranean afford him sufficient sympathetic souls to help him realise his dreams? On the Canebière, at the Hôtel Noailles where he was staying, the composition of his opera was progressing. Whilst there, he also learnt in a telegram of Minna’s death. This sad news marked a turning point. There he was, psychologically liberated from Minna and from a first marriage contracted much too early. Wagner abandoned the south and returned to Switzerland. Mastersingers would be completed in Tribschen, on the Lucerne side of the Lake of the Four Cantons where the air and the light have the balmy sweetness of the Riviera. Thanks to Louis II’s renewed generosity, Wagner rented a sizeable white house with magnificent views. Cosima von Bulöw soon joined him, accompanied by their daughter, Isolde, and another child who was on the way, Eva. Named after the heroine of Mastersingers, she was born on 17th February 1867. Wagner finished the opera the same year, the second act reaching completion on 22nd June and the third on 24th October. Then, on 21st June 1868, in the presence of Europe’s elite, the work was finally performed, though not without the odd spanner thrown in the works by the monarch’s malevolent entourage.

The opera was a tribute to the Germany of Bach and Luther. The Cantor of Leipzig had shown Wagner his musical vocation,just as Beethoven had. As a young man, with ambitions to become an actor, playwright and musician but riddled with debts contracted in gaming houses and taverns, the study of Bach had helped him to channel his energies. His mother, who was worried about him, placed him in the hands of Christian Teodor Weinlisch, Cantor of Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the very post that Bach himself had occupied. Wagner, who dreamed of music but struggled to compose anything coherent, learnt the rudiments of counterpoint with him.

Weinlich didn’t grant him the least latitude, never paying him the smallest compliment. Taciturn, he merely oversaw his turbulent pupil. He pruned the young, unruly plant, without that plant being aware of it, just as Hans Sachs, with good natured self-denial, helps Walther to complete the song that will win him Eva’s hand in marriage. Weinlich contained Wagner’s fire with fugue, just as the master craftsman guides the plane or the lathe of his apprentice. Thus subjugated, Wagner produced a composition that Weinlich found acceptable. He then studied all of Bach’s organ works and gained access to his instrument. And so, with the art of the German nation under his belt, the young master set off to make his way in the world.

After the first performance, Mastersingers provoked just the response Wagner had hoped for. The public realised that here was no mere lucky success in the career of just another operatic composer, but a seminal moment in the development of contemporary art. One after another, ten opera houses wrote to him requesting the performing rights. The jingle of gold coins was to be heard in Tribschen. The Parisian impresario, Pasdeloup, raised the bidding when he bought the exclusive French rights of the new work. And then, decades later, Hans-Wagner-Sachs’ glorification of German art was heard by the Third Reich. The Nazi’s got their hands on it. They made it the musical banner of their Reichsparteitage in which thousands of outstretched arms replaced the march of the apprentices: the union of art and nationalism gives birth all too often to perverse offspring.



Vincent Borel is a ournalist and novelist, he is the author of two works on Lully; an essay on opera: Un curieux à l’opéra (Actes Sud); and Richard W. (Sabine Wespieser, 2013).

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