16 Feb 2012

Wagner – Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, harp, strings.

Duration: 9 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883) – Though Wagner had created a prose version of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg as far back as 1845, he didn’t begin composition of the opera in earnest until the spring of 1862. Earlier that same year he wrote two new prose treatments of the libretto and also conceived the opera’s orchestral prelude during a train voyage from Venice. He conducted the Prelude as a concert work in the fall.

THE MUSIC – The full production of Meistersinger would not occur until 1868 but the ten-minute Prelude Wagner unveiled six years before hinted at something that would become rather unique in his catalogue – pure, uncomplicated optimism. The story details a 16th century singing contest put on by the Guild of Mastersingers in the town of Nuremberg. It speaks essentially to the eternal struggle between old and new, between the conservative musical traditionalists and the unbound forward-thinkers. Many of the characters in the opera were based on actual historical figures from the time and the Guild itself did in fact exist. The Mastersingers were skilled German folk vocalists, active from the very end of the mediaeval period to the 19th century and made up of common tradespeople with an intense devotion to music. Wagner’s life as a musician was also marked by a dissonance similar to the one he addressed, albeit quite lightly, in Meistersinger. His version centered on the battle between his own progressive compositional ideas and the rigidly anachronistic mindset of some of his critics. One of the most ardent was a man named Eduard Hanslick and some have posited that the dour character of Beckmesser was created as his unflattering caricature. The bright and agreeable Prelude to Die Meistersinger includes none of this presumed baggage however. It merely introduces the opera’s most important themes in the same beautifully self-contained fashion that makes every Wagner opera overture such a magnificent concert piece.               

THE WORLD – The Franco-Mexican War began in 1862. Otto von Bismarck became Prime Minister of Prussia that year, on his way to the Chancellorship of the German Empire. Back in America, Julia Ward Howe published The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony last performed the Meistersinger Prelude in the 2009-10 season. Christopher Seaman was on the podium.