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Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
On July 16, 1845, while taking the cure at Marienbad, Wagner wrote out the first prose sketch of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only comic opera. It was based on actual historical personages: Hans Sachs and other “Meistersinger” (Mastersingers), the leaders of the German music guilds that flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Some sixteen years would intervene before he returned to the project. During that time, he wrote four other operas and parts of a fifth, finally returning to his Mastersingers on a train ride from Venice to Vienna in 1861. He finished the libretto in Paris the following year.
“Transparent, yet pithy music” is Wagner’s description of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger. He claimed that the entire Prelude was written in a single evening early in 1862. “During a beautiful sunset,” he wrote, “allowing me to take in, from the balcony of my apartment, the magnificent view of ‘golden‘ Mainz and the majestic flow of the Rhine bathed in the luminous glow of evening, the Prelude of my Meistersinger suddenly stood clearly before me. Without any hesitation, I set down the Prelude in its entirety, as it now stands in the score, that is, containing the clear outlines of the leading themes of the whole drama.” There is evidence that at least part of the Prelude was sketched a year earlier. Wagner conducted the Prelude at a concert in Leipzig on November 1, 1862.
Financial difficulties and concert tours prevented much work on the opera until mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria summoned Wagner to Munich. The King settled the composer’s debts and provided enough salary for Wagner to set up in Switzerland and finish Die Meistersinger in October, 1867. The complete opera was staged on June 21, 1868 in Munich.
The Prelude begins with the sturdy theme of the Mastersingers. Other themes associated with them include an authentic Mastersinger tune from the 16th century. These are contrasted with melodies connected with the knight Walther von Stolzing and his love for the goldsmith’s daughter Eva. Louis Biancolli describes the music as “a masterly epitome of the mood and action of the ensuing comedy, the themes…weaving ultimately into a rich polyphonic fabric of imposing power.”
©2012 Charley Samson