Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Richard Wagner’s National Utopia in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Upon its premiere in June 1868 at the Königliches Nationaltheater in Munich, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was immediately hailed as one of his greatest works. Within a year, the opera was performed in Dresden, Dessau, Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Weimar, Hanover, and Vienna, marking a turning point for Wagner on the road to fame. Somewhat ironically, Die Meistersinger is an exception in Wagner’s oeuvre: it is the only comedy among his mature operas and his only work based on a defined historical event rather than a mythical setting. Despite these peculiarities, however, the work epitomizes many of Wagner’s views on art, the state, and the utopian relationship between them that comprised the basis of his life mission. In Die Meistersinger, Wagner represents his vision of a “natural” Germany rooted in a unified artistic Deutschtum, an ideal that resonated throughout the German states at a time of high uncertainty and political agitation.

Die Meistersinger, set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, tells the story of a song contest for the hand of Eva Pogner in marriage. The plot revolves around the rivalry between Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk, and Walther von Stolzing, a visiting knight with whom Eva has fallen in love. Walther, with his unconventional musical style, is eliminated in the preliminary trials, but the night before the final round, he has a beautiful dream, which cobbler and poet Hans Sachs helps turn into a lovely poem. Sachs presents the poem to Beckmesser, knowing that the greedy clerk will unsuccessfully attempt to fit Walther’s verses to his own music. When Beckmesser fails, Sachs proposes that Walther be allowed to compete in the contest. Walther sings a stunning aria ("Morgenlich leuchtend"), winning the contest.

During the 1860s, when Wagner turned his attention back to Die Meistersinger after having shelved the idea for over a decade, the unresolved question of German unification dominated European political discourse. Amid the growing enthusiasm of “Pan-German” associations, as well as Bismarck’s mastery of Realpolitik, the establishment of a unified Germany seemed more attainable than ever, and many prominent German thinkers promoted the role of nationalism in forging the identity of the future state. Few were more dedicated than Wagner, who, in addition to active political involvement—he joined the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849 and was subsequently forced to flee to Switzerland to avoid arrest—saw his works as instrumental in developing German nationalism. The finale of Die Meistersinger, in which Hans Sachs sings the praises of the German mastersingers, captures the nationalism that suffuses the entire work:

Habt Acht! Uns dräuen üble Streich:
zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich,
in falscher wälscher Majestät
kein Fürst bald mehr sein Volk versteht,
und wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand
sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land;
was deutsch und echt, wüsst keiner mehr,
lebt's nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr.
Drum sag ich Euch:
ehrt Eure deutschen Meister!
Dann bannt Ihr gute Geister;
und gebt Ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging in Dunst
das heil'ge röm'sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!
Hans Sachs invokes that “which is German and true” and urges, “Honor your German masters!” Wagner clearly understood the political climate of his day and published Die Meistersinger, his most openly nationalistic opera, at a time when it was poised to fan the flames of German nationalism.

To dismiss Die Meistersinger as “pure national agitation,” though, would be to overlook the nuances of Wagner’s ideal German state. The strength of the future Germany would come not from unbridled militarism but from “holy German art,” as Hans Sachs sings in the final line of the aria. As Wagner put it in Deutsche Kunst und deutsche Politik, a series of articles in he finished the same year as Die Meistersinger, “only art is the creator of the Volk.” Wagner’s thinking reflects the influence of Herder, who posited that the principal unifying force of a nation was not constituted by language, customs, geography, or race, which were all secondary factors, but rather by the Volksgeist, the unattained folk spirit that could foster cohesion and cooperation among all Germans. According to Wagner, the Volksgeist was the medium through which German art would guide the national consciousness.

The problem was that this idealized Germany did not exist. During his exile in Zurich, Wagner wrote that he longed “not for an old, familiar, regained land, but rather to one foreseen and wished-for, new, unknown, and yet to be attained.” Wagner believed the artist’s duty was to bridge the gap between the two, a theme that runs through Die Meistersinger. It is no coincidence that the closing aria is sung by the town poet, who reminds his fellow townspeople in the finale, “What is German and true, would no longer be known / If it did not live on in the honor of the German masters.” Indeed, Wagner identified with the historical sixteenth-century character of Hans Sachs and even had the habit of signing letters to friends “Sachs.” Just as the inspired Sachs had unified the town of Nuremberg around the true Meistersinger, so too would Wagner unify the Germans through the glory of their art.

Wagner was keenly aware of the enormity of his mission. The issue of German particularism was a formidable obstacle for uniting—culturally, economically, politically, or militarily—the peoples of the various German principalities, electorates, and free cities. Developments such as the Zollverein customs union had strengthened economic ties between the more industrialized regions, but disunity remained the characteristic feature of the German states. Furthermore, among the various ways to unite the states, art seemed particularly problematic. It was only in the eighteenth century that many nations’ writers became interested in the roots of their national cultures and were proud to write in their native languages. During and since the Enlightenment, writers such as Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing had begun to produce specifically German works, but Germany’s stages at the time of Die Meistersinger were still dominated by French and Italian works. Despite these challenges, Wagner boldly called for the “reconstruction of the German theater in the sense of the German spirit.”

Wagner’s vision for this reconstruction, as well as his plan for achieving it, are evident in Die Meistersinger. First, Wagner believed that history provided Deutschtum with both models for success and credibility through the form of precedent. In his writings, Wagner constantly referred to historical sources in his exploration of true Deutschtum. In particular, Wagner identified with the Greek tragedians, whom he praised, and who themselves had looked to mythology for subjects for dramatic treatment. Indeed, there is no shortage of references to legends in Wagner’s oeuvre, most notably in the Ring cycle, but in this sense, Die Meistersinger, set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, is a departure for Wagner. His selection of a historic singing tradition in Nuremberg, a center of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, as the content for Die Meistersinger is a clear statement about the legitimacy of more recent German history as a basis for Deutschtum. Additional historical references, such as to the Holy Roman Empire in the antepenultimate line of the final aria, impart a further sense of historical continuity. At the same time, Wagner intended for his only comic opera, conceived on the heels of the tragic Tannhäuser, to simultaneously allude to the Athenian tradition of following a tragedy with a satyr play. Thus, Die Meistersinger references both ancient and more recent artistic traditions, reflecting Wagner’s conviction that Deutschtum needed to be grounded in a continuous artistic narrative.

Second, Wagner also grounded the concept of Deutschtum in truth and originality. In the closing, the idea of ‘Germanness’ is linked with truth, both of which are preserved through the art of the German masters. Wagner elaborated on this critical component of his national utopia in Oper und Drama: “We shall not win hope and nerve until we bend our ear to the heartbeat of history and catch the sound of that sempiternal vein of living waters which, however buried under the waste heap of historic civilization, yet pulses on in all its pristine freshness.” Wagner understood the deliberateness involved in crafting a unified nation, but he saw the process as a rediscovery of an ancient, truly German Volksgeist, untainted by more modern influences. His conviction drove him to make a number of spurious linguistic claims related to German originality, such as a connection between the words “deutsch” and “deutlich,” observing in his diary that “the word ‘deutsch’ is also found in the verb ‘deuten’ (to make plain): thus ‘deutsch’ is what is plain to us, the familiar, the wonted, that which was inherited from our fathers and springs from our very own soil.” Ignorance of the Indo-German root of the word “deutsch” aside, it is clear that Wagner saw Deutschtum as something intrinsic and untainted, albeit dormant, within the German people. In fact, Wagner readily added the prefixes “ur-” (original) or “grund-” (base) to his basic concept “deutsch,” referencing a deeper sense of fundamental ‘Germanness.’

Third, Wagner often defined Deutschtum and his utopian German state by what it was not, namely, foreign. In addition to the standard undeutsch and nichtdeutsch, Wagner considered außerdeutsch (extrinsically-German) to be the opposite of German; “national” was defined as that which remained untainted by foreign influences. Unlike other social critics, who found greater faults in the degeneracy of manners, morals, and literary values, Wagner argued that cosmopolitanism was most noxious in the theater, which for Wagner and his age meant opera. Italian opera, Wagner concluded, was “an excuse for conversation and social gatherings.” His most vehement disdain, though, was reserved for the French, whom he associated with “shameless fashion” and “laughable gallantry”. “So sorry is the state of the drama in Germany,” Wagner lamented, “so infected is it by harmful foreign influences, that the theater must be regarded as the betrayer of German honor.” The reference in the finale of Die Meistersinger to a grave threat from a “false, foreign majesty” is an unmistakable allusion to France, reflecting Wagner’s belief that deutsch existed in opposition to außerdeutsch, epitomized by the dastardly French.

These three elements of Wagner’s utopian Germany—historical grounding, originality, and non-foreignness—are interrelated and form part of a series of binary contrasts that recur throughout Wagner’s operas as well as his writing. The conceptual structure is elegantly represented in the following tabular form by Hannu Salmi in his book Imagined Germany, with positive relation on the vertical axis, and oppositional on the horizontal:
deutsch - undeutsch
grunddeutsch - nichtdeutsch
national - kosmopolitisch
Königtum - Demokratie
Kultur - Zivilisation
Idealismus - Materialismus
Nachbildung - Nachahmung
Originalität - Epigonentum
echt - falsch
edel - verfallen
Vergangenheit - Gegenwart
Wagner saw clear correlations along the vertical axis and considered the qualities on the right, embodied by the French, to be a threat to those on the left, representing true Deutschtum. Wagner’s conception of the oppositional relationship between these elements is apparent in the following diary entry:
The Frenchman borrowed from [the Italian reproduction of antiquity] whatever might flatter his national sense of formal elegance; only the German recognized antiquity in all its purely human originality and as something that enjoyed a significance which was uniquely suited to reproducing the purely human.
This contrast is depicted in Die Meistersinger by the characters of Walther and Beckmesser. The young knight Walther, representing Deutschtum and Wagner’s utopia, describes his self-taught, natural methods of composition before launching into a free-form tune with a distinctive melody. The beautiful tune is punctuated, however, by the chalk and slate of Beckmesser, the spiteful town clerk, who personifies the imitativeness and overly “formal elegance” of the French. Unable to appreciate the natural beauty of Walther’s music, Beckmesser noisily keeps track of every “error.”

The hero of Die Meistersinger is town cobbler and poet Hans Sachs, who recognizes Walther’s potential, helps compose the winning poem, and provides him with an opportunity to compete in the final round. That the contest takes place on Sachs’ baptismal day and that this day is Johannistag provide insight into Wagner’s view of his role in Germany’s future. Like Saint John, Wagner hoped to pave the way for a greater force, in his case, the prospering of Germany, through his art, which would unify the Volksgeist around a new national identity.

By channeling their original inner Volksgeist, Germany would flourish, not only matching French influence, as German Enlightenment thinkers had dreamed, but superseding it and setting an example for the world. Wagner outlined this mission before the Vaterlandsverein in 1848:
Let us do better than the Spanish, who turned the New World into a papal slaughterhouse, and better than the English, who have turned it into a shop. Let us make it German and glorious. From its rising to its setting, the sun shall look down about a beautiful, free Germany, and on the borders of the daughterlands, as upon those of their mother, no downtrodden, unfree people shall dwell; the rays of German freedom and German gentleness shall warm and transfigure the Cossack and the Frenchman, the Bushman and the Chinese.
Though the imperialistic overtones are unmistakable, Wagner did not support the spread of German culture for its own sake, but because he believed that it would benefit all of mankind. Wagner was careful to distinguish in his writing between a Weltbeglücker, a world benefactor, and a Welteroberer, a world conqueror, and argued that the former was the higher ideal and should thus be the goal of the German people. Thus, the ardent patriotism in works such as Die Meistersinger was not a call for unbridled aggression but rather for the awakening of a Deutschtum rooted in the potential of German art.

As the resounding success of Die Meistersinger demonstrated, German nationalism reached unprecedented heights in the years leading up to the Franco-Prussian War and the establishment of the German Empire in 1871. Wagner was overjoyed by the potential of the Vaterland, convinced that it would herald a new era of the “German splendor” (deutsche Herrlichkeit) he dreamed of in his writings. Wagner would stand at the vanguard of the new Deutschtum, he hoped, and he composed the patriotic Kaisermarsch as a possible national anthem with the idea that it would solidify his position as the court musician of the new Germany. Indeed, Wagner was praised throughout Germany as an “indisputable genius” whose work was nothing less than “German national drama.” Wagner’s mission seemed to be off to a successful start; he had laid the foundation for a new German Empire whose power would be based on the national art.

Despite his newfound status, however, Wagner soon discovered that not all German leaders shared his priorities. Bismarck, more a statesman than a patron of culture, considered the arts to have a minor, subordinate role and showed interest in them only when they furthered his political goals. Bismarck described his only meeting with Wagner as follows: “We were taken to sit on a sofa, and he probably conceived that a duet would be played out between us; but it turned out somewhat different. The maestro failed to garner from me a sufficient eulogy; he thus declined to unbend, and went away disappointed.” Indeed, Wagner was deeply disappointed by the lack of support for culture among the Prussian leadership and was forced to spend much of the rest of his life fundraising for his Bayreuth Festival project, even taking on income-generating projects abroad such as the American Centennial March, commissioned by the city of Philadelphia. He realized, gradually, that the new Germany would not be the artistic utopia he envisioned but, rather, a state in which his influence would be limited to stereotypes and skewed propaganda. His fears later proved correct: during a 1924 performance of Die Meistersinger, for example, the audience rose to its feet during Hans Sachs’ final aria and launched into “Deutschland über alles.” Nazi appropriation of the work, such as at the founding of the Third Reich and in The Triumph of the Will, further distorted Wagner’s art from a spring of rebirth to a political façade. Divorced from his utopian vision, Wagner’s works lost their authentic Deutschtum, and even before his death in 1883, he lamented that his dream would never be fulfilled. At the end of his life, Wagner could have repeated the words he had written in Über Staat und Religion two decades earlier: “The artist, too, may say of himself: ‘My kingdom is not of this world;’ and, perhaps, more than any artist now living, I may say this of myself.” Indeed, as the events of the following century would show, his vision of guiding a bringer of prosperity to the world, Weltbeglücker, was being replaced by the ambitions of the conqueror, Welteroberer.


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