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Views And Reviews: The Mastersingers Overture

Paul Serotsky introduces us to the overture to Wagner’s opera The Mastersingers, and in doing so provides fascinating information about the composer.

To read more of Paul’s enlightening essays on the greatest music ever written please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Wagner (1813-1883) – Overture: The Mastersingers

By George, but Wagner was complicated – his life, loves, finances, politics, philosophies, even his working patterns! I suppose it all started because his father died when he was a babe-in-arms. His mother remarried within a year, so until the age of 14 he was known as Richard Geyer. Later, he harboured two suspicions about his stepfather: that Ludwig Geyer was actually his natural father, and that he might be Jewish. He was wrong on at least one count, but his shucking off the name of the only father he ever knew (and, apparently, a damned good one at that!) speaks volumes, even if only about the general air of anti-Semitism in which Wagner grew up.

His key formative years (age 8 to 13) found him sharing the same locality as Weber, Marschner, and Spohr, three giants of the German Romantic operatic movement which would reach its zenith in his own magnificent music-dramas. These possess such individual integrity that it's hard to believe that they were, more or less, worked on piecemeal. Wagner continually hopped from one to another, even where their philosophical bases differed drastically.

Most of his greatest music-dramas were couched in legendary, mystical scenarios – with one exception. In 1845, Wagner was still tinkering with Tannhauser when he sketched his ideas for Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. It wouldn't see completion until 1867, having shared the intervening years with Parsifal, Lohengrin, the abortive Jesus von Nazareth, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Tristan und Isolde. Of all these, only Meistersinger had anything even remotely approaching a “normal” setting in a real world of recent history.

It is also Wagner's only “comic” opera. Many people take this to mean it's supposed to be funny, and it could (just conceivably!) be the origin of that chestnut about the German sense of humour (which has not been borne out by any of the Germans that I know!). Although it does have moments of (mild) humour, the word “comic”, dare I suspect, simply means the opposite of “tragic”.

“Detachable” overtures were not generally Wagner's mature style, either. Yet this overture is possibly the nearest to Rossini that Wagner ever came. Not that it's “near” in any absolute sense, only that it is essentially a Fantasia a la Pot-Pourri on themes from the opera. There are two supremely pompous processionals, one serene and flowing, the other with a more robust, martial cast. These are contrasted by the romantic tune of the Prize Song and the rumbustious dancing of the apprentices. This tune, being the opening theme in quick time, neatly placing the Apprentices in proper relation to their Masters!

The strong “family resemblance” of all the themes gives the impression that, like Elgar's “Enigma”, there is some undisclosed common ancestor. If I can push my analogy just a tad further, the immense build-up to the fireworks of the final peroration might be thought of as Wagner's answer to the “Rossini Crescendo” – and a fabulous sound it makes, too!

There's one other point that I must make*. As we listen, we might well ponder on Adrian Smith's illustrious predecessor Arthur Armitage, leading his SPO to victory with this very music on that famous occasion in 1912. Nowadays, this overture's a “golden oldie”, but back then would it not still be thought of as “modern” music?

© Paul Serotsky

* This note was written for Adrian Smith’s final concert after over 30 years at the helm of the Slaithwaite Phil. The name and fame of Arthur Armitage became known to many of us through Adrian’s book, “An Improbable Centenary”, a richly-detailed and absorbing account of the orchestra’s history, beautifully set in the context of music-making in the West Riding of Yorkshire from the late 19th. Century. If you’re interested, copies are still available via the SPO web-site (go to http://www.spo.org.uk/, click on “About the SPO”, and then follow the link to “An Improbable Centenary”).


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