Alles ist nach seiner Art:
an ihr wirst du nichts ändern.
with its own kind.
That you cannot change.
— The Wanderer, Siegfried, Act II
What do you do with a cast of characters for an epic you have abandoned, maybe forever? Richard Wagner's answer, in the long years that Der Ring des Nibelungen lay in the drawer with prospects of neither completion nor performance, was to call his gods and heroes and dwarfs and giants to Nuremberg, there to masquerade as mortals.
No one bears arms in this trim microcosm, and wars are won by art. Genealogies change along with social position, age and bonds of mutual interest. The stakes are wedded bliss and prosperity, not world dominion. And yet in Hans Sachs' face we see Wotan's. Alberich reappears thinly disguised as Sixtus Beckmesser. Walther von Stolzing is young Siegfried brought up among gentlefolk. Is Eva Brünnhilde? Yes, but not so fast. Even as the heroics of the tetralogy display an encyclopedia of failings we recognize as human, the human comedy of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg gives off solemn glints of myth. On their day off from cosmic business, the archetypes still pursue their eternal agenda.
To be sure, at a telling juncture of Die Meistersinger, Wagner tosses out a different interpretive key. As the orchestra quotes Tristan und Isolde, Sachs tells Eva that he knows better than to seek "King Marke's bliss." But King Marke is an innocent bystander -- Sachs, like Wotan, is a player. Sachs machinates. He relishes the fray. Alberich denounces Wotan, self-demoted to nameless Wanderer, as "Du Rat wütender Ränke" (plotter of furious schemes); Beckmesser tweaks the cobbler as "der ärgste aller Spitzbuben" (the worst of rapscallions). These are insults the crafty Ulysses himself would have been proud to bear.
In Tristan, love is all. In the Ring and Die Meistersinger, love matters too, but it is Sachs and Wotan who make their worlds go round. In so doing, they call up their antagonists. As the Wanderer, the chieftain of the gods recalls his former self as "Licht-Alberich" (Light Alberich), thereby acknowledging a counterpart in "Schwarz-Alberich" (Black Alberich), master of the Nibelungs. The comparison mingles some truth with some injustice.
Wotan in youth sought world dominion, as Alberich continues to do everlastingly. But for Alberich, thwarted in love, the master passions are hate and revenge. From his enslavement of his brother and his race, his hoarding of treasure, his fantasies of rape and his conspiracy with the son he fathered on a mercenary mortal, we know what tyrannies he has in mind. Wotan, no stranger to love, has envisioned glories, Wandel und Wechsel ("ranging and changing," in an inspired Victorian translation), a joyous seizing of the day, which in the end is all we living creatures can call our own. But the events of Die Walküre have defeated him. The struggle with Alberich, he comes to understand, was not a misfortune but his life. Time has left them both behind. A new generation is on the way. The choice that remains is whether to exit flailing, like Alberich, or to quit the field with noble resignation, as the Wanderer tries to do.
Now consider Sachs and Beckmesser. At roll call for the Masters' meeting, the town clerk announces his presence with a fawning compliment to the cobbler: "Immer bei Sachs,/dass den Reim ich lern von 'blüh' und wachs'" (Ever with Sachs, so as to learn the rhyme for "bloom and grow"). By implicit admission, then, Beckmesser is an aspirant and a hanger-on, pretending to be content to be so. The unvarnished envy below the surface breaks through in his frequent volleys of sarcasm and pique. Sachs' retaliatory condescension wounds him worse than arrows. Within the walls of the city, Sachs puts up a suave front of getting along. Unlike Wotan, the cobbler cannot thunder off to the solitude of his mountaintops. The town clerk is his neighbor and his brother in art.
Now let us consider the occasion of their quarrel. Ostensibly they clash over the rules of their guild; in fact they are fighting over the real-life consequences of the rules' application. Who, when night falls on Midsummer Day, shall have Eva Pogner's hand and wealth? "Ein Meistersinger muss er sein," her father has decreed (He must be a Mastersinger).
Who qualifies? Among the known confrerie, Sachs the widower and Beckmesser the bachelor -- both, by Sachs' lights, too old. Beckmesser sees no such objection as to himself and suspects Sachs of carrying forward a secret suit of his own. In any case, Eva already has made up her mind to have Walther, whether he qualifies or not. His looks, youth and address, not to mention his polished rhymes, have told her what she needs to know.
Sachs and Beckmesser, like Wotan and Alberich, know what rules they play by. The rule that binds Wotan, symbolized in the shaft of his spear, is the law of contract. Having given the giants Alberich's Ring as payment for Valhalla, Wotan cannot take it back -- his spear would crumble. The rule that binds Alberich, symbolized in the point of Wotan's spear, is Wotan's superior strength and cunning, the law of the jungle.
Neither law has much improved the world, and by the time Siegfried is ready to go forth, the wandering Wotan is as weary of one as he is of the other. With Alberich still fighting the old battle, Wotan awaits the new hero's new order, in the vain belief that he is in tune with it.
The rules in question in Die Meistersinger are the Mastersingers' rules of art. Beckmesser, the arch conformist, lives for the pedant's chill satisfaction of knowing best. Under the rules established by Eva's father, she may marry no one but the winner of the song contest -- but does not have to. When first seen, Beckmesser is nagging Pogner to rescind the escape clause. Against Walther, for whom he conceives an instant, instinctive and in the circumstances wholly justifiable hate, Beckmesser turns his strict constructionism like a mortal weapon.
On both points, he runs into trouble with Sachs. With respect to the song contest, Sachs is willing to cede judgment to Eva, accepting her verdict in place of the untutored, hence "natural," verdict of the people. This, he argues, would amount to a test of the continuing validity of rules themselves. Such a test, he argues, is worth performing, art's purpose being to give pleasure, not to fulfill a formula. Interceding on Walther's behalf, Sachs speaks up for the principle of impartial judgment, violated by Beckmesser's high dudgeon and his manifest conflict of interest.
Though these protests fail, they succeed in revealing how Sachs construes the rules. To him their value lies not in their power to quell but in the room they allow for possibilities yet untried. A Mastersinger proves himself, after all, by his power to bring forth the words and music for a song of his own, a new song.
Die Meistersinger, like the Ring, associates the power of creative innovation with the springtime burgeoning of nature herself. As a metaphor for genius, imagination, even sheer joy in living, the image could hardly be bettered. But songs do not bloom like the lilies of the field. If they did, this year's airs would be the same as last year's, and so on until the end of time.
"Es klang so alt -- und war doch so neu," says Sachs in the quiet of the evening, musing over the trial song the Masters summarily rejected that day: "It sounded so old, and yet was so new." It is the point of Die Meistersinger that art has a history, a history shaped by a constant tug-of-war of conservatism with innovation. On the surface, Wagner's detailed account of Walther's growth as a poet and musician celebrates untaught genius. At a deeper level, it subjects romantic theory to a poetic critique, demonstrating and exalting continuity of tradition within revolution.
Apart from his first rhymed address to Eva after the church service, Walther gives four samples of his talent. The first, "Am stillen Herd," is the résumé he offers the Masters. As his teacher, he cites the ancient poet Walther von der Vogelweid; as his school, the singing of the birds "im Wald dort auf der Vogelweid" (there in the forest, in the birded chase). The echo of the poet's name in the quoted phrase underscores the lovely point (metaphoric if not accurate as psychology) that artists discover in the world what they have first learned to see in art.
As Master Vogelgesang ("Birdsong") notices, Walther has framed this part of his statement in a pair of neat Stollen, or matching verse paragraphs. To complete his statement and the Bar, or stanza, he appends an equally unimpeachable Abgesang, or coda. For the prize of love, he tells the Masters, he is prepared to submit to their judgment a song -- a song that captures all he knows of poetry, nature and chivalry, in new words and music of his own.
Ignorant of the Tabulatur (poetic tables), Walther has followed spontaneously its recipe for a Bar, the building block of a Meisterlied or Master Song, the ticket of admission to the guild. The rules require, however, that a Master Song comprise not a single Bar but several. Walther's muse flows in forms too expansive for such repetition. Structurally, the young knight's catastrophic trial song is one giant Bar, in which each huge Stollen is built in two sharply contrasting sections. The hyperextended form is apt to escape the audience in the theater and certainly does escape the Masters, for Beckmesser interrupts it at the turning point of the second Stollen. The remainder of the trial song is flung out in defiance over the hubbub of the jeering Masters. Pogner, who likes Walther's pedigree, is discomfited. Sachs, who likes his courage, cheers him on.
Walther's third effort is the draft of the prize song. Set down in Sachs' study, with Sachs tutoring him in the approved structure, it follows the Tabulatur pretty much to a T. What deviations it is guilty of Sachs chalks up to higher poetic necessity, therein declaring himself his scholar's pupil. With this song, we are meant to understand, Walther could win Eva's hand. But given his chance at the song contest, with everything his heart desires at stake, he improvises a song yet grander, pouring the draft's three stanzas into only one, with words and music yet more radiant.
And he triumphs. The poetic law the young knight proposed in the trial song is vindicated, and the old rules are broken again, this time to universal applause. Walther wins his victory as a true hero must -- by the rules on his own terms. That is Siegfried's way too: he goes forth to his predestined exploits with a sword forged as only he could forge it.
The Ring presents the hero's spoils in two forms: the Nibelung hoard, wrested from Fafner, and Brünnhilde, freed from Wotan's magic. In Die Meistersinger, the prize is single -- Eva's hand and property, granted as one.
Siegfried and Walther, unlike Alberich and Beckmesser, have no use for riches. Under Alberich's curse, the Ring should wreak its havoc until it comes back into his own possession. But the Rhinemaidens' song, welling up in the orchestra as Siegfried emerges from Fafner's cave, discloses that in the young hero's hand, the curse has momentarily lifted. Why? Because Siegfried, in an innocence even more perfect than the Rhinemaidens', ignores and cares nothing for the power of gold. As for Walther, he arrives in Nuremberg as the last of his line, in full possession of the wealth of his fathers, not seeking more.
In both the Ring and Die Meistersinger, the real treasure is the woman of invincible spirit, who rebels against authority to follow her heart. Brünnhilde goes her own way on the epic scale. She sides with Siegmund in battle; then, on the brink of magic slumber, she names the man who shall wake her. Prophet that she is, she elects a hero yet unborn. Eva too chooses a hero whose worth is yet untested. Her more conventional rebellion is the decision -- hers, not her lover's -- to run away.
Yet even in a union foreordained, the hero must pass his test. In Die Meistersinger as in the Ring, he encounters the opposition of not one but two father-guardians. Fafner, his torpor of possession dispelled in Nuremberg's soothing air, has been reborn as a goldsmith, a father and a traveler, a songful font of civic pride. His name here is Pogner; his hope, to glorify the art he loves by his munificence. The second guardian is Sachs, who foils the elopement for the young pair's greater happiness.
To accomplish her transformation into Eva, Brünnhilde's blood ties with her father have been canceled, but not their bond of love. Apart from the difference in their ages, nothing stands in the way of a marriage between the cobbler and the goldsmith's daughter. By the time the opera begins, they have set the notion aside, though plainly each has privately entertained it. With those memories still holding their hearts in confusion, the crossing of a different threshold becomes especially poignant. Sachs' rage against Eva in the first scene of Act III of Die Meistersinger has its counterpart in the Wanderer's tantrum at the end of his lone encounter with Siegfried. Wish for it as he may, even the most generous representative of the passing generation meets the advent of the new with a wave of anguish. Eva's passionate reply, without parallel in the Ring, tells how sharply, amid joy, youth too may feel the pang of such goodbyes.
But as Wagner must have recognized, Wotan made a better father than a husband. Though Sachs is a widower, Fricka lives on in Die Meistersinger as Magdalene -- still wedded to propriety, but with a sparkle in her eye for that likely lad David, a Mime who has drunk from the fountain of youth. Nor is she the last of the Ring crew to come down to Nuremberg. In the manner of the Forest Bird, who sees Siegfried on his way to his bride, a little dove (Sachs guesses) has led Walther's servant to town with his wedding clothes. Siegmund and Sieglinde do not appear, but they live in Siegfried, who lives in Walther. If the Gibichungs are missing, who misses them? But for all I know, the Night Watchman is Hagen, with his watchdog instincts and his braying horn.
In the decade-long second intermission in the creation of Siegfried, with the Forest Murmurs and the appeasing scent of the linden still hovering in their creator's mind, shading into the bewitching perfume of elder tree, even such a transformation might come to pass. Hurled back in the maelstrom of the Ring, the players would reclaim their fiercer natures.