Wagner's "Meistersinger": Performance, History, Representation (review)
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Wagner’s “Meistersinger”: Performance, History, Representation Edited by Nicholas VazsonyiRochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2003255 pages, $85.00

In recent years neither articles nor books about Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been in short supply. Now Nicholas Vazsonyi has organized a collection of new writings whose eleven authors keep the reader up to date with this abundant literature. More than that, the diverse contributors he has chosen complement one another; they include performers and an opera stage director, as well as scholars active in the fields of philosophy, musicology, and German studies. What results is a book that fulfills its underlying interdisciplinary aim.

In a twenty-page introduction that explains his purposes, opens up some of the issues surrounding Die Meistersinger, and presents the gist of each essay, Vazsonyi acknowledges a regrettable imbalance in the collection overall: technical musical matters seldom arise. Only two authors draw major arguments [End Page 455] from the particulars of the musical score. In the first essay the conductor Peter Schneider takes us through the music, usually singling out surprisingly small-scale intervallic building blocks or scalar moves within certain leitmotifs. A view from the podium shows itself in the attention Schneider gives to several orchestral problems along the way.

Eva Rieger, whose article on the character Eva Pogner closes the volume, traces the motifs that "point to" her (p. 213), but notes that "she does not have a motif which represents her throughout; she is swallowed up in a representation of woman which consists solely of love" (p. 223). Rieger's topic of gender construction reaches beyond the opera, for she sees Hans Sachs's ties to Eva and his renunciation of her as being reflexive of Wagner's feelings for Mathilde Wesendonck. In Die Meistersinger "the love between two people is like a force of nature," yet the opera remains faithful to the nineteenth-century norms of gender construction, embodied in "the role of women as servant to male interests" (p. 224).

Whereas Rieger's is the only essay devoted to understanding the meaning of Eva, page after page throughout the book addresses questions concerning Nuremberg's town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser. The figure of Beckmesser has become the linchpin in the controversies over Die Meistersinger's being a carrier of anti-Semitism, and Vazsonyi was lucky to find two judicious and well-informed authors—Hans Rudolf Vaget and Thomas S. Grey—to deal with this character.

Vaget revisits the ongoing disputes as to how or whether Beckmesser is, in one way or another, implicitly Jewish.1 First he explains that writings on the Holocaust may have underlined the importance of these questions. After focusing on the "two warring camps" (p. 192) of scholars who argue over the putative anti-Semitism in the opera, he appraises de novo the evidence of its presence. In the end Vaget's analytic acuity leads him to support a nuanced version of the prosecution's brief. Grey, for his part, lets the circumstances of Wagner's life story guide his thinking. It is in the composer's enmity toward the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick that Grey locates the shaping force behind Beckmesser's nature and behavior. Following the critic's unfavorable review of Die Meistersinger in 1868, Wagner made a direct attack on Hanslick in the afterword he appended to his anti-Jewish tract in 1869; Grey takes this to be a riposte of sorts to the review. With regard to Beckmesser, Grey persuasively concludes that he does exhibit traits and musical limitations that Wagner attributes to Jews but that, even so, the composer was probably "satisfied for these to remain a kind of private subtext" (p. 188) at a level of meaning Hanslick was surely capable of decoding.

The only remaining chapter that homes in on a single character is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's essay on Hans Sachs, the cobbler poet. Not unexpectedly, the author-performer deals with both the dramatic persona of Sachs and the physical and interpretive demands the role makes on the singer. Elsewhere in the book Sachs, like Beckmesser, makes crucial appearances in the course of more far-ranging discussions. [End Page 456]

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