Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
St Catherine’s Church in Nuremberg, the Eve of the Feast of St John
The impoverished Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing has come to Nuremberg to dispose of his lands with the aid of the wealthy goldsmith Veit Pogner. He has fallen instantly in love with
Pogner’s beautiful daughter, Eva, and followed her this morning to church. As the congregation sing a final hymn and file out, he seizes his chance to talk with her alone. Eva invents ruses to distract her companion and nurse, Magdalene. Finally, a tongue-tied Walther blurts out his urgent question: whether or not Eva is already betrothed. Magdalene interrupts and tells Walther that Eva is betrothed to whoever wins the Mastersinging contest at tomorrow’s festival. The girls learn to their dismay that Walther has never heard of the Guild of Mastersingers and has no knowledge of their art. Just then, David, Magdalene’s lover and apprentice to the cobbler Hans Sachs enters the church to prepare for that morning’s meeting of the Guild. Magdalene is sure he will be able to teach Stolzing everything he needs to know in order to gain admission and take part in the contest. She leaves Walther in his care and hurries the dazzled Eva away.
David is appalled at Walther’s ignorance of the art of singing and his cock-sure confidence that he will be able to master it without difficulty. As other apprentices enter to set up the furniture for the meeting, David explains the labyrinthine rules of Mastersong. It becomes clear that David’s dream is one day to master the art himself but Walther is left utterly bewildered by his convoluted monologue. David warns him that, should he be so foolish as to try to sing to the Masters today, he will have to face the Marker who will allow only seven faults before disqualification. Walther decides to trust the inspiration of love and ignore the rules. David and the apprentices make fun of the knight in a scurrilous song.
The position of Marker is currently held by the town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser, who now enters in conversation with Pogner. He means to compete for Eva’s hand but asks Pogner to help by speaking to her on his behalf; Pogner has decreed that Eva shall have the casting vote and may decline her bridegroom, making Beckmesser nervous about his chances. As the other Masters gather, Pogner spots Stolzing and Beckmesser senses a rival. Walther surprises Pogner by telling him that his real reason for settling in Nuremberg has been his love of art and his intention to join the Mastersingers.
Pogner is delighted that a nobleman should so appreciate a burgher’s Guild and promises to support his candidacy. Hans Sachs is the last of the Masters to arrive and Fritz Kothner, the baker, declares the session open. Pogner officially declares his intention to give his daughter’s hand as prize in tomorrow’s contest but dissent amongst the Masters soon breaks out. Sachs urges that the maiden and the people should also judge the winner, arguing that the rules of the Masters themselves should, on occasion, be put to the test. He is shouted down by Beckmesser and his suggestion is rejected by the others. Sachs concedes defeat on the proviso that Eva may turn down her bridegroom, whoever he may be but Pogner is adamant that no man, except a Master, will ever wed her. Moving on with the business of the day, Pogner introduces Walther to the assembly, who are suspicious of the young aristocrat. Pogner vouches for him and puts him forward as a candidate to the Guild. Questioned by Kothner, it becomes clear to the Masters that Stolzing lacks any kind of the formal training that would make him eligible. Still, they agree to let him sing and Beckmesser gleefully takes his position in the Marker’s box. Walther’s spontaneous, improvised love song is greeted with incomprehension by the Masters and noisily interrupted by the Marker’s scoring. Eventually Beckmesser’s chalk board is so full that he insists Walther stop singing. His mockery of Stolzing’s efforts is halted by Sachs who, alone amongst the Masters, has listened attentively to Walther’s song. A quarrel breaks out between them when Sachs suggests that Beckmesser may have personal motives for destroying Walther’s chances. But despite all his efforts the Masters refuse to hear any more. Walther rushes contemptuously away, the Masters leave in confusion and Sachs is left alone, contemplating the strange new song he has just heard.
A street in Nuremberg, the evening of the same day
The houses of Pogner and Sachs face each other across the street. David is working outside as the apprentices prepare for the coming festivities. Magdalene discovers that he has failed in his task to help Walther and she furiously rushes indoors. Eva and Pogner return home from a walk, both preoccupied with thoughts of tomorrow’s contest. Learning from Magdalene that Walther has not been admitted to the Guild, Eva decides to quiz Sachs about the morning’s events.
As darkness falls, Sachs settles down to work outside his shop but is unable to get Walther’s song out of his head. Eva approaches and timidly begins to question him. The shoes that Sachs is working on are meant for Beckmesser and Eva leaves him in no doubt that she will refuse him, should he win tomorrow. A thought suddenly strikes her: should Sachs compete, she would not turn him down. Sachs has watched Eva grow into a beautiful young woman and his own wife has long since died but he gently rebuffs her idea. When she raises the subject of Stolzing, Sachs gruffly pretends to be dismissive of the knight’s efforts at the assembly. Eva’s hysterical reaction to his words tells him all he needs to know. She runs away in tears and Sachs vows to do all he can to help the lovers.
Magdalene has more bad news for Eva. Beckmesser intends to serenade her tonight with the song he has composed for tomorrow’s contest. Eva tells her to take her place at the window and Magdalene is delighted at the chance to play a trick on the jealous David. Walther is heard approaching and Magdalene goes indoors. He admits his humiliating failure at the assembly to Eva and rails against the narrow-minded rules of the Masters. He implores her to run away with him from Nuremberg. As the horn of the Night-Watchman is heard in the distance, she softly agrees that elopement is now their only option. She slips indoors for a moment and Walther takes cover as the Watchman crosses the street. The lovers have been overheard by Sachs, who is determined to find another solution to the dilemma. Eva emerges from the house in Magdalene’s garments, ready for the elopement but Sachs opens his door, flooding the street with light. The lovers hide as Beckmesser comes into view, preparing his serenade. He is rudely interrupted as Sachs suddenly starts singing and beating with his hammer, hard at work on the unfinished shoes. Disguised as Eva, Magdalene duly appears at the window. Through tortuous negotiation, Beckmesser persuades Sachs to reserve his hammer blows for the purpose of ‘marking’ his serenade and finally begins. But Sachs’s hammer soon finds work as he marks fault after fault in Beckmesser’s song. In the end, the shoes are finished before the song is sung out and the neighbours are gradually roused by the noise in the street. David wakes and comes to his window. Seeing Magdalene wooed by an unknown man, he jumps down into the street and attacks. Soon all the neighbours, apprentices and masters are up and in the street battling it out as a riot breaks out in full force. At the sound of the approaching Watchman’s horn the crowd disperses. Sachs grabs hold of Walter and pushes him into the safety of his house as Pogner rescues the disguised Eva. The Watchman finds the street empty, save for the badly bruised Beckmesser. The town clerk stumbles away.
Scene 1: Sachs’s Workshop, early morning of the next day
Sachs has spent the night in his workshop and David has been out early, delivering Beckmesser’s shoes. He nervously comes home with a festive basket in hand. Sachs seems not to hear his apologies for his conduct the night before and instead asks to hear David’s latest attempt at Mastersong. David’s song is about St John, whose festival falls on that day. All of a sudden, he remembers that this day is also Sachs’s name-day but his master remains unconcerned. He sends the apprentice away and broods on the events of last night. He resolves to turn the madness that engulfed his neighbours and community to a greater purpose. Walther has woken up and enters, rapt with the memory of a wonderful dream. Sachs encourages him to write it down, so that it will not escape him and in this way, little by little, helps the knight to learn the rules of art that will make a Mastersong. Walther begins to create a wonderful song in praise of Eva and Sachs commits it to paper but the third verse eludes him. Regardless, Sachs urges him to prepare for the festival and a wedding and the two of them leave the room.
A sorely bruised and battered Beckmesser arrives to confront Sachs but finds only an empty workshop. His eye falls on the manuscript of Walther’s song, in Sachs’s handwriting. He instantly assumes that Sachs intends to compete against him in the contest and pockets the piece of paper. When Sachs returns, he challenges the cobbler about the song. Sachs calmly denies that he intends to sing at the festival and, as proof of good faith, hands the manuscript back to Beckmesser as a gift. At first suspicious, Beckmesser is quickly overcome with excitement. His own song has been sung out last night and with a new piece by Sachs to perform his chances look excellent. Joyfully, he rushes home to study the song, despite Sachs’s warnings that he may find it more difficult to master than he thinks.
Eva arrives, dressed for the festival and complaining about the new shoes Sachs has made for her. It is clear to him that she is inventing a pretext to see Walther and when Stolzing enters, the lovers gaze silently and enraptured at each other. As Sachs pretends to alter Eva’s shoes, he says his work would be made easier by a song. Walther finds the inspiration for his third verse and Eva, overcome by the beauty of his words, falls weeping into Sachs’s arms. Sachs reacts brusquely, berating his pointless, empty life as a cobbler and widower. Eva realises the extent of the love that Sachs has always had for her and begs to be forgiven if she must now choose another. Resigned, Sachs masters his emotions. As David and Magdalene enter, he frees David from his indenture and asks all to bear witness to the baptism of a beautiful new song. He gives Walther’s song its name and asks Eva to begin the blessing. Then he hurries the couples to the meadow for the festival and competition.
Scene 2: A meadow outside Nuremberg, later that day
The people have gathered on the banks of the river Pegnitz to celebrate the Feast of St John. After drinking, feasting and dancing, the arrival of the Masters is announced and the whole town welcome the Guild. Sachs is the last to arrive and is greeted by the crowd breaking out into one of his own songs. Sachs is overcome with emotion and struggles to perform his office as speechmaker for the contest. Finally, the competition is declared open and everyone takes their places. Beckmesser, apparently the only candidate, takes his position in the centre of the crowd and begins to sing. But he has failed to comprehend the words of Stolzing’s song and has badly fitted them to his own melody. As his nerve fails him, his performance grows ever more comical to the people and he is eventually laughed off the stage. Furiously, he confesses that the song is not his own composition but that of Nuremberg’s beloved Hans Sachs. Sachs denies being the author of so beautiful a song and tells the Masters and townsfolk that if they heard it correctly performed, they would share in his estimation. He calls for a witness to validate his claim and Walther steps forward from the crowd. Despite grumbles of dissent from the Masters, Walther is allowed to sing again. His song is heard by an enraptured crowd. Eva crowns him with laurels and Pogner and the Masters prepare to admit him to their Guild, but Stolzing suddenly declines. His object has been to win Eva and he is content with this alone.
The crowd are shocked and disconcerted. Sachs urges Walther vehemently not to scorn the Masters’ Guild, nor to undervalue the importance of the art he has created to the people who have heard it. He joins the lovers’ hands. As Beckmesser leaves the scene, the people of Nuremberg burst out in joyful praise of Hans Sachs.