The characters

Hans Sachs

Hans Sachs

Voice type: Bass-baritone

Character traits:

  • Wise
  • Compassionate
  • Clever

Need to know:

  • A middle-aged widower who secretly loves Eva
  • Based on an historical cobbler-poet who lived from 1494-1576 
  • Leader of Nuremberg’s Mastersingers, a group of middle-class amateur poets and musicians who earned their living as artisans and took a craftsmanlike approach to writing music, devising a complex system of rules for composing and performing their unaccompanied songs

Walther von Stolzing

Walther von Stolzing

Voice type: Tenor


Character traits:

  • Daring
  • Creative
  • Romantic


Need to know:

  • A young, impoverished out-of-towner who has come to Nuremberg to sell his land holdings
  • Falls instantly in love with Eva Pogner and enters the Mastersong contest to win her hand
  • Cares nothing for the Mastersingers’ complicated rules of songwriting and relies on his own inspiration

Eva Pogner

Eva Pogner

Voice type: Soprano


Character traits:

  • Independent
  • Resourceful
  • Romantic

Need to know:

  • Young daughter of wealthy goldsmith Veit Pogner, who offers her hand as prize to the winner of the Mastersong contest
  • Falls in love with young Walther at first sight but also has deep feelings for Hans Sachs
  • Takes initiative to achieve her goals

Sixtus Beckmesser

Sixtus Beckmesser

Voice type: Baritone

Character traits:

  • Pedantic
  • Jealous
  • Foolish

Need to know:

  • Nuremberg’s town clerk and a technically knowledgeable Mastersinger
  • Expects to win Eva’s hand in the Mastersong contest and bristles when Walther enters the contest
  • Foolishly falls into Hans Sachs’ trap
  • Beckmesser is thought to be modelled on Eduard Hanslick, one of Wagner’s harshest critics

The story

Act I

At a church service... 

Walther becomes smitten with Eva, who tells him she is to be engaged the next day to the winner of a song contest sponsored by the local Mastersingers.

Magdalene, Eva’s companion, asks David, her sweetheart and Hans Sachs' apprentice, to explain the rules of song composition to Walther, who is astounded by its complexity.

Mastersong trial

The Mastersingers arrive for a preliminary song trial, and Walther applies for the contest, upsetting Beckmesser, who is keen to win.

When the goldsmith Veit Pogner offers his daughter Eva's hand as the prize, Sachs suggests she should have a say in the matter.

Pogner decides Eva is free to reject the winner but must still marry a Mastersinger.

A break from tradition

Walther introduces himself, describing his more instinctive methods of composition.

For his trial song he sings a spontaneous, free-form tune that breaks all the Mastersingers' rules. Beckmesser noisily tallies his errors.

Walther, rejected by the Mastersingers, storms off, and Sachs remains to ponder the strange appeal of Walther's song.

Act II

True feelings

The same evening David tells Magdalene how badly Walther fared, and Magdalene brings Eva the bad news.

Eva visits Hans Sachs, confessing she would be happy if Sachs himself won the contest.

But when Sachs feigns disapproval of Walther, Eva’s true feelings become clear.

An unwelcome serenade

As she leaves, Eva runs into Walther, who asks her to elope with him. The Watchman passes and they hide. Sachs lights the street lights, forcing the lovers to remain hidden.

Beckmesser arrives by Eva’s window to serenade her, but Magdalene appears there as stand-in. When Beckmesser begins singing, Sachs launches into a hearty cobbling song. Sachs then agrees to drive a nail only when Beckmesser breaks a rule of style.

A riot breaks out

The racket grows when David attacks Beckmesser, who he thinks is courting Magdalene. Awakened neighbours pour on to the street and join the fracas until the Watchman's horn disperses them.

Pogner leads Eva inside, while Sachs hauls Walther and David into his shop. The Watchman announces the hour.

Act III

Madness and mastersong

The next day Sachs forgives David for his rowdy behaviour. Left alone, Sachs ponders the madness of the world.

Walther arrives to tell Sachs of a dream he had, in which Sachs recognised a prize-winning song. Sachs notates the words and helps Walther fashion them into a song.

After they leave, Beckmesser arrives to snoop around. Sachs catches him pocketing Walther's poem and tells him to keep it. Beckmesser rushes off, now sure of victory.

A prize song

Eva visits Sachs, and Walther returns and sings his prize song for her.

Eva is torn between Sachs and Walther, but the wise Sachs turns her towards the younger man.

Sachs asks Eva to approve the new song, and they join with David and Magdalene in praising it.

The day of the contest arrives

Nuremberg’s guilds and citizens gather with great festivity. After joyful dancing the Mastersingers enter.

Sachs receives a moving welcome from the people and offers touching words of thanks.

Mastersinger!

The contest begins as Beckmesser struggles to fit Walther's verses to his own tune. His bumbling performance draws laughter and Beckmesser accuses Sachs of sabotage.

Walther performs the song properly and all agree he should win, but the young man refuses the Mastersingers' medallion. Sachs comes to the rescue, exalting both tradition and innovation. 

Walther claims his prize and the people hail Sachs, as Eva crowns him with Walther's wreath.

The music

Wagnerian trademarks

The music of Meistersinger is typical of Wagner’s revolutionary style in its rich harmony, complex texture and big, lush orchestration.

Meistersinger features another Wagnerian trademark: Leitmotive, or short musical phrases associated with certain characters, objects, places, plot elements or ideas. Wagner weaves his entire musical tapestry from these meaningful musical threads. 

Music's place in society

The idea of musical composition plays a crucial part in Meistersinger, as in Wagner’s earlier opera Tannhäuser. Its dramatic themes include the gulf between high art and popular art, and the conflict between artistic tradition and innovation.

Meistersinger stands out among Wagner's operas as his only comedy, other than his early Das Liebesverbot, which he later repudiated. Though lyrical and sunny natured, it advances Wagner's serious ideas on the place of music in society and the comfort music brings in a world filled with madness.

Highlight: The Prelude

This well-known orchestral introduction to the opera, often played in symphony concerts, introduces Leitmotive that recur later in the opera.

The Prelude begins with two grand themes associated with the Mastersingers and continues with a sweepingly lyrical theme, which later returns as Walther’s ‘Prize Song’.

A central section of the Prelude features a bustling version of the Mastersingers' theme, which represents their Apprentices, and the Prelude ends with a rousing reprise of the Mastersingers’ themes.

Recommended links

Gerald Finley on the role of Hans Sachs

Stephen Fry on Meistersinger

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on DVD

Wagneroperas.com – all things Wagner, including Meistersinger score and libretto

RWagner.net – helpful guides to Wagner’s operas, including full libretti 

BBC Radio Archives – programmes on many aspects of Wagner

 

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