Theosophy – December 1896

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: V — Basil Crump

V. — THE MASTERSINGERS OF NUREMBERG.

Art is the need to create; but in its essence immense and universal, it is impatient of working with lame or tied hands. . . . Art should exhilarate and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists. — Emerson.

It has been well said that the first qualification necessary for discipleship is a sense of humor. It is an attribute of the well balanced mind which recognizes that comedy and tragedy must exist side by side in human life. Those who knew H. P. Blavatsky and William Q. judge can testify to the merry wit which they possessed and frequently gave vent to. Many sidedness is a mark of true greatness, for it discloses a being growing in the likeness of nature; so that, if Wagner's only comedy were excluded from the list of his Theosophical dramas, it would be doing him a great injustice.

It was in the peaceful evening of his life, when the heat of the battle was over, and that wonderful mystery play, Parsifal, was taking shape, that Wagner once said to his friend and biographer, Glasenapp, "You talk too much about my courage; wish me rather mirthfulness." And this gladness of heart which carried him through his bitterest trials had its source in his inner knowledge of the real nature of things. He had crossed the dread gulf which stretches between the consciousness of most of us and the shoreless ocean of universal truth, peace, and harmony; but lifted out of Time and Space by the magic of his music we feel and know that state, and never quite forget it, even in our darkest hours. What we call "self-sacrifice" was to him, as to all great souls, an unspeakable joy — the "joy of imparting," as he called it, the fullest riches of his inner self to "all the world of human beings."

It was during a short health trip after the completion of Tannhauser, that the plan for the present comedy was conceived and swiftly sketched. The poem was written in Paris, but the more serious work of Lohengrin, the Ring of the Nibelung, and Tristan and Isolde, intervened, so that the music was not completed until twenty years later.

"As among the Athenians of old a tragedy was followed by a merry satirical piece, there suddenly appeared to me," he writes, "the picture of a comic play, which might suitably serve as a satirical supplement to my 'Battle of the Bards at the Wartburg'" (Tannhauser). This sequence was a very natural one, since the Mastersingers were in a sense the successors of the Minnesingers.

The knightly minnesinging, as we have seen in Tannhauser, had for its inspiration the noble elements of deep veneration for womanhood (now reappearing in America), a brave and fearless spirit, and the Theosophical teachings brought from the East by the Crusades and which can be traced in a veiled form in many of their songs and poems. But with the decay of the Knightly Orders in the 13th Century the art became lost in the soul of the Folk, where it has always lived and will live; and only its form remained, to be taken up and elaborated in the 15th Century by the craftsmen of the cities, who formed themselves into Guilds of Master-singers and drew up the code of rules and prohibitions called the "Tabulatur."

They had an official "Marker," whose duty it was to mark on a slate the faults of the candidate in his "Trial-Song," and in the present story he is represented by the comical figure of Beckmesser, the jealous rival of the young knight, Walter. The latter is a descendant of the Minnesinger, who has left his decaying castle to seek his fortunes in Nuremberg. Falling in love with Eva, the beautiful daughter of Mastersinger Pogner (who has declared that he who wins the Master's Prize may seek her hand) he determines to enter for the Singing-Match. His Trial-Song, however, is so free in its style that his claim to compete is disallowed, for Beckmesser takes care to mark all the faults he can against him. But Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet and head of the Guild, has caught the spirit of Walter's song, and devises a scheme to help his cause.

He gets him to sing a song more in accordance with the rules, and writes down the words as he sings them; christening it "The Glorious Morning-Dream's True Story." Beckmesser steals the paper, thinking it is a new song by Sachs which will ensure his success at the contest; Sachs finds him out but lets him keep the poem to sing if he can. When the time arrives he tries to sing it to his own pedantic tune, and makes such an absurd mess of it that he has to retire in discomfiture. Thereupon Sachs declares that the song is all right if sung to a proper tune, and he calls upon a witness to attempt it. Walter advances, and sings it so beautifully that he is rapturously awarded the prize and crowned as Master.

The various humorous episodes which occur in connection with Beckmesser and the sprightly apprentices cannot be entered into here, as there is only space to touch upon the serious moral lesson which Wagner has embodied in his comedy.

Coming to the symbolical meaning of the drama, we can easily perceive in Walter those qualities in man's nature which are in direct touch with the soul of things, as apart from their outward form. Thus when questioned at his trial-singing as to where he had learnt his art, he replies, "Nature," and "Poet-Songs of magic might mysteriously have taught me." And again when he sings the Prize-Song to Sachs, it is of "a wondrous lovely dream" he tells, which came to him in the early morning. At first he hesitates to put into words his vision "for fear it all should fade away," but mark the reply of Sachs:

"My friend this is the poet's work,
To picture and expound his dream.
Trust me; the truest fancy of mankind
Is sent to us in dreams by night.
Inspired Art and Poetry
Are nought but picturing of true dreams."

This Hans Sachs is a real character, the most eminent poet of the 16th Century. Wagner tells us that he took him as "the last manifestation of the Art-productive spirit of the Folk," and this explains his instant perception of and sympathy with Walter's genius. In the latter's Trial-Song on the themes of Love and Spring he recognizes the pure creative fire, just as Wolfram did in Tannhauser; in fact the two characters resemble one another very closely in their self-effacing devotion to the higher power.

Eva, daughter of the goldsmith, is the pure gold of the higher nature, the spotless Ideal with which Walter aspires to be united. Sachs also is devoted to her, just as Wolfram was to Elisabeth; and, in the closing scene when Walter and Eva lean against him, one on each side, they form a symbolical trinity.

In the Mastersingers and their "Marker" we are face to face with the lower, material aspect of the mind, with its adhesion to form, to the exclusion of the spiritual quality. Beckmesser especially, embodies the intensely critical and analytical tendencies, as well as the petty jealousy and selfishness, which are the chief characteristics of the lower self.

The lesson which we may draw from this union of artist and art-lovers is, that we who are locked up in forms and "moulds of mind" must learn to use those forms and not let them fetter the free expression of our higher selves. Wagner has used, for his artistic purpose in this drama, some of the strictest musical forms, but he handles them in such a way as to show his complete mastery of them. His self-imposed fetters are made golden with the light of his genius; especially in the Prize-Song, which is a melody of surpassing beauty.

Walter brought new life and inspiration to the Mastersingers, but he had also something to learn from them. Sachs counsels him to ponder on their rules, in order that they may aid him to bring to fit expression what "with sweetest impulse Love and Spring have planted unawares" within his heart. It is through this course that he achieves union with his Ideal, foreseen in the closing lines of his Prize-Song:

          Thrice happy day,
To which my poet's trance gave place!
     That Paradise of which I dreamed,
In radiance new before my face
          Glorified lay.
To point the path the brooklet streamed:
     She stood beside me,
     Who shall my bride be,
The fairest sight earth e'er gave,
     My Muse to whom I bow,
So angel-sweet and grave.
      I woo her boldly now,
Before the world remaining,
By might of music gaining
     Parnassus and Paradise!

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