Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Richard Wagner circa 1868
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) circa 1868

We mark the premiere performance on June 21, 1868 – 153 years ago today of Richard Wagner’s music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The performance took place at the National Theater Munich, which today is the home of the Bavarian State Opera. Conducted by Franz Liszt’s student (and son-in-law) and Wagner’s protégé Hans von Bülow, the performance was sponsored and paid for by none-other-than the mad king himself, Ludwig II of Bavaria (1885-1886).

Excepting Wagner’s second complete and first performed opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love” of 1836, a work that Wagner ultimately rejected) The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Wagner’s one-and-only operatic comedy.

Wagner and Verdi: A Brief (and Important!) Comparison

For all their many and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi had rather more in common than we might think.

They were exact contemporaries, born 4 months and 19 days apart: Wagner on May 22, 1813 (he died on February 13, 1883) and Verdi on October 10, 1813 (he died on January 27, 1901).

They were the leading nineteenth-century exponents of their respective operatic traditions: Verdi Italian opera and Wagner German.

They were both considered ardent patriots by their countrymen, composers who, each in his own way actively participated in the creation of their respective nation-states: Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871. Their nationalism, hatred of tyranny and of enemies real (or imagined) played a major role in their works for the stage.

Both Wagner and Verdi came to believe that the traditional devices of opera – recitative, aria, and ensemble – were “artificial” constructs that did nothing but inhibit dramatic development and slow dramatic momentum. By mid-career they had each gone a long way towards downplaying (if not altogether eliminating) these devices in favor of continuous, orchestrally accompanied music.

Of their mature works, they each wrote but one comedy: Wagner The Mastersingers of Nuremburg (premiered in 1868) and Verdi Falstaff (premiered in 1893).

In fact, Mastersingers might well be considered Wagner’s most “Verdi-like”stage work. Typical of the Italian operatic tradition, Verdi’s operas were, from the beginning, about people and the developing relationships between people in real-life, real-time situations. Typical of the German operatic tradition, Wagner’s musical stage works were, almost from the beginning, myth-based works in which supernatural beings shaped the actions and fates of human stereotypes. The one exception among Wagner’s mature work is Mastersingers, which lacks any supernatural or magical driver. It is, like Verdi’s operas, about people and the attendant sins of pride, lust, envy, greed, and so on, that power human relationships. (There’s love in Mastersingers as well, but love isn’t funny. Whereas slothful, envious, talentless louts like Sixtus Beckmesser, the villain of the story, are another thing all together!)

But when we discuss Wagner and Verdi’s ambitions and identities as “composers”, well, that’s where our Wagner/Verdi comparison breaks down completely.… continue reading, only on Patreon

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