Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Wagner's Perfect World: Part II

If you were to attend a performance of Meistersinger, the program would likely inform you that the action takes place in Germany in the mid-sixteenth century. In reality, this is no historical recreation, but rather Wagner’s vision of a perfect world.

Wagner was horrified by industrialization, bureaucratic government and capitalism. In its place, he created the alternate universe of Nürnberg. Nürnberg has no king or mayor or governor. It is a self-sustaining, agrarian-based world. It's essentially socialist. There is only the working class, yet everyone is prosperous. Each trade is controlled by elected representatives who form a guild, and the guildmembers form the city's governing body. Though the real Nürnberg was actually organized in this way, the operatic treatment is clearly a romanticized vision of medieval German life.

There is one special guild in Nürnberg, and that is the guild of Mastersingers, the guardians of art and culture, made up of other guildmembers. Sachs is a cobbler and Beckmesser is the town clerk; additional members include a goldsmith, a baker, a tailor, a soap-maker, and various other representatives from traditional medieval industry. Using an idea he borrowed from ancient Greek culture, Wagner created a Nürnbergian holiday, where the entire city would gather for festivals of art and drama. At the heart of the plot of Meistersinger is a song contest adjudicated by the Guild. Eva is the prize. (That's less offensively misogynistic if you view Eva as a symbol, not a real woman: the point is that the reward for purest art is purest love.)

The young knight Walther is in love with Eva and hopes to win her hand, but first he must audition for the Guild in order to enter the contest. Beckmesser, too, has his eye on Eva. He has a special role in the Guild: he is the audition scorekeeper, marking down infractions of the rules of composition that uphold tradition and sustain their art. Walther improvises a song, and in one of the precious-few laugh out loud moments of this opera, Beckmesser's increasingly furious markings form a hilarious rhythmic counterpoint to the tenor's aria. When it's over, the exasperated Beckmesser exclaims that the knight has broken every rule in the book, and could not possibly be admitted into the competition. The other guildmembers look to Sachs.

"Well," he says, shifting in his seat, "he broke a lot of rules. But it was a damn good song." The Guild agrees that Walther can compete.

This was Wagner's principle beef with Hanslick. Western music was governed by a series of seemingly inviolable rules, especially with regard to harmony, chord progression, dissonance and form. Wagner began to bend many compositional rules early in his career (he was a largely self-taught composer), but with the radical Tristan und Isolde, he threw them completely out the window. That opera opens with a chord structure no one had used before, wherein dissonances are not resolved into consonance, as they might be in Mozart or Schubert, but into a new dissonance, creating an unstoppable chain-reaction of keyless modulation that continues for five hours. And where most composers used themes which took the form of complete musical phrases, Wagner would link one melodic fragment to another, first in this tonal center, then in this one, then in another one, on and on and on. It drove Hanslick crazy. "Sure, I broke all the rules," you can imagine Wagner saying, "but it's a damn good opera."

Stay tuned...


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Anthony said...

Innovators tend to be ill-received by the pervading critical faculty. Look at The rite of spring - caused riots at its première, now considered a classic of 20th century music.

Stravinsky smashed rhythmic conventions with his ballet in much the same way as Wagner had pulled harmony into a new era with Tristan.

Jere said...

I was in the last MEISTERSINGER at the Met and it was truely my favourite of all the operas I've done there. I loved every minute of being on stage in it.