Dreams and Poetic Inspiration in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Sunny, warm, mellifluous and comic are not words one immediately associates with Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) but these are entirely appropriate for his late opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which combines philosophical reflections on art and life with a comedic plot and witty, masterly orchestral writing. It is an opera in which dream – and, prefiguring Freud, dream interpretation – play a central role.

Wagner made his first sketches for the opera in 1845 while living in Dresden. He originally intended it as a comic foil to his tragic opera Tannhäuser (as they both contain singing competitions) but instead he shelved it, returning to it in 1861 with renewed gusto, finally completing it in 1867 after a turbulent period in his life.

Nuremberg in 1493
Nuremberg in 1493

Set in 16th century Nuremberg, the opera concerns a visiting young nobleman Walther von Stolzing who falls in love at first sight with Eva, the daughter of Veit Pogner, the local goldsmith and mastersinger. Walther yearns desperately for her and so when Pogner announces that Eva’s hand in marriage will be the prize in the forthcoming singing competition, Walther tries to join to the mastersingers’ guild in order to compete. He is thwarted in his ambitions by the pompous and venal Sixtus Beckmesser who is a rival for Eva’s affections. Beckmesser judges Walther’s singing to be unorthodox and without merit and bars him from competing. Distraught, Walther unsuccessfully tries to elope with Eva before seeking help from Hans Sachs, the local cobbler and respected mastersinger. Sachs, recognising Walther and Eva’s love for each other, quietly renounces his own secret love for Eva and agrees to help him. Sachs persuades Walther to put into words the dream he’d had the same morning while Sachs scribbles it down. This first draft is later palmed off on the scheming Beckmesser who, unaware of the true author, intends to pass it off as his own composition. Walter and Sachs further develop the song into a masterpiece which they solemnly baptise.  The following day at the competition, Beckmesser garbles his version of the song and the audience collapses in laughter. Sachs summons Walter to perform the song in its intended version. Walter wins the competition and Eva’s hand in marriage and, unusually for a Wagner opera, they all live happily ever after.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is ostensibly a comic opera but it is of course more complicated than that as philosophical issues are never far from the surface. It also has other elements which do not appear to sit well with the overall atmosphere – such as Hans Sachs’ somewhat cruel treatment of his apprentice, the humiliating comeuppance of Beckmesser and, most notoriously, Hans Sachs’ praise of German art in the final scene which has had commentators wringing their hands ever since.

It is a mistake, however, to treat the opera too literally; plot holes notwithstanding, while the opera is set in a defined time and place, the central premise of a maiden’s hand in marriage being the prize of a singing competition is rather far-fetched. And Beckmesser’s humiliation is a common enough trope in drama and literature, used to share the thrill of villainy being unmasked, and so is not as harsh as it seems. However, it is also a mistake to treat the opera as a sort of musical pantomime; Wagner wrote it with serious intent and any ambiguities are quite deliberate.

Of the many philosophical undercurrents in the opera, largely inspired by the works of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), one of particular interest is the relation between dreams and artistic creativity.

In coaxing the winning song from Walther, Sachs not only says that dreams and poetry are “two friends, gladly standing by each other” but goes even further:

My friend, it is precisely the poet’s task
to interpret and record his dreamings.
Believe me, man’s truest madness
is disclosed to him in dreams:
all poetry and versification
is nothing but true dream interpretation.
What are the odds that your dream told you
how you might become a Master today?

Sachs refers to the newly created song as a “child” and solemnises the occasion by conducting a baptismal ceremony with Walther acting as the father, Sachs and Eva as godparents, and Sachs’ apprentice with his mistress as witnesses. The melody is christened Die selige Morgentraum-Deutweise (“the blessed morning dream interpretation melody”) and in a beautiful quintet, each voice their wonderment, with Eva’s opening words echoing the song title:

As blissfully as the sun
of my happiness laughs,
a morning full of joy
blessedly awakens for me;
dream of highest favours,
heavenly morning glow:
interpretation to owe you,
blessedly sweet task!

A melody, tender and noble,
ought to succeed propitiously
in interpreting and subduing
my heart’s sweet burden.
Is it only a morning dream?
In my bliss, I can scarcely interpret it myself.

The ceremony is of course symbolic; the baptism here represents rebirth and renewal in music through the poetic inspiration of dreams, with Walther as the champion of a new ideal.

Richard Wagner, 1871
Richard Wagner, 1871

Many details in the opera mirror Wagner’s own life. Wagner as the young Walther:  talented, impetuous, and upsetting the conservative musical establishment. Wagner as the older Sachs, renouncing his love for Eva as Wagner had for the love of his life, Mathilde Wesendonck (Wagner even used to sign off in his notes and letters as “Sachs”). And Wagner as the depressed and lonely Sachs, resigned to his lot in life, contemplating the delusion (“Wahn!”) that is the scourge of the human race. It is of course no coincidence that Wagner later called his villa in Bayreuth Wahnfried (“freedom from delusion”).

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was an instant success on its first performance in Munich in 1868 and has remained popular ever since, especially the overture which features regularly in concert programmes. The opera has had its detractors; the noted art critic John Ruskin wrote “Of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage … I never was so relieved, so far as I can remember in my life, by the stopping of any sound – not excepting railway whistles – as I was by the cessation of the cobbler’s bellowing”. Even Wagner’s collaborator, the conductor Hans Richter, called it a “Stahlbad (“steel bath”) in C major”.

However, the quintet sung at the christening of Walther’s dream song is undoubtedly one of the most ravishing passages in all of Wagner’s music. The writer and broadcaster Bryan Magee tells the story of a man whose dying wish was to be taken discretely into the wings of an opera house, just to hear this quintet for the last time. Listening to this ethereal music, one can imagine that this was quite a farewell.

Kevin Painting

Originally published 13 March 2015 at primephonic