With three unperformed and immense operas on his desk, Wagner decided, in the early 1860s, to write a comedy, a compact work which would immediately earn him some desperately needed cash. Although the end of his political ban had at last seen him move back to Germany, times had otherwise been hard and his financial situation perilous. Scarcely had he begun Die Meistersinger, though, his fortunes took a considerable upturn with the succession of Ludwig II (right) to the throne of Bavaria – a major champion of his music, Ludwig also paid off Wagner’s debts at a stroke.
And so, in 1867, emerged the longest score that had ever been published, a work which lasts four and a half hours. People are often surprised that Wagner wrote – could write – a comedy, but they ignore how much humour, usually sly, there is in most of his other works.
Anyway, Die Meistersinger is not primarily a comedy. It concerns, once more, the relationship that might or can exist between an unusually demanding individual and the community of which he wants to become a part – so long as it accepts him for what he is. That gives Wagner the chance to celebrate the great German tradition of music from Bach through to Beethoven: there is ceaseless counterpoint and a general delight in musical showing-off in Die Meistersinger.
The opera really has two heroes: the impetuous headstrong young knight Walther von Stolzing, who arrives in Nuremberg and upsets the Masters who legislate the rules of composition; and Hans Sachs, himself a Master, but the only one who realises that tradition needs constantly to be renewed if it is not to grow stale, so that the individual genius can make his fellows aware of fresh possibilities. Wagner’s plot – a brilliant one, and wholly of his own devising – plays this contrast out in terms of a song competition, with the heroine Eva’s hand as the prize. She is loved, or at least wanted, by Sachs, who has known her all her life; by Walther, who naturally fell in love with her at first sight; and by Beckmesser, the archetype of all pedants, who wants to woo her with a song which conforms to all the strictest rules. It is given to the townspeople of Nuremberg to adjudicate the winner, and it comes as no surprise that they pick Walther.
That is the surface of Die Meistersinger. Beneath that, in Sachs’s great monologue in Act III, we learn that the whole thing, the whole world, is illusion, and that the most we can settle for is choosing consoling illusions, such as love, over wretched ones. So Die Meistersinger, like all the greatest comedies, conceals a depressing view of things beneath laughter and celebration, all set to the most glorious music.