- Wagner and the Wonder of Art: An Introduction to Die Meistersinger
Father M. Owen Lee is Canada's foremost authority on the music of Wagner. For avid readers of his large body of work, the ideas expressed in this slim volume on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg will have a familiar ring. I vividly recall attending an engrossing lecture he gave on this back in the early 1980s, a brilliant and insightful analysis of this most joyous of Wagner's operas that has stayed with me all these years. Much of the material in this volume has previously appeared in First Intermissions, a collection of Metropolitan Opera intermission talks Father Lee gave over the years, and in his much-praised Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. Also included is a complete transcript of 'Wagner and the Wonder of Art,' a talk he gave on Die Meistersinger that was featured on the first Met broadcast after the horrific events of 9/11. Heard by millions over the radio - myself included - his words offered solace and spiritual uplift for those deeply saddened by the mass destruction and the loss of life. So it is good to have all the material collected in one volume, written in his highly readable and accessible style.
Of the six chapters in the book, the first three are devoted to an analysis of the opera. His equating the structure of the three-act opera to that of a 'master-song,' with the first and second Stollen of equal length followed by a longer Abgesang has always struck me as an inspired metaphor. In the three short chapters, the author gives us more than just a simple [End Page 470] synopsis of the story, by focusing on the wealth of ideas inherent in the opera. He sees act 3, the Abgesang, as the heart of the work, in which Wagner delineates his philosophy on art, one that is 'fashioned from both intuition and craftsmanship . . . innovating spirit and respect for tradition.' As an anthropologist, I must say this statement has great resonance in my own field - this philosophy applies to not just art but to society at large.
As Father Lee explains in the preface, one of the reasons for this book is his wish to respond to the charges made in recent years by some writers against Die Meistersinger. This can be found in chapter 4, entitled 'Controversies.' In the space of eleven pages, he mounts a spirited yet entirely scholarly and reasoned defence of this work from the attacks of those who claim to have revealed a 'dark underside' to Die Meistersinger, one of insidious German cultural/racial imperialism and particularly anti-Semitism. The author refrains from naming any names, referring to the naysayers as a 'coterie of academic writers,' although for those familiar with the discourse, these individuals are well known. Father Lee provides cogent arguments against the charges levelled at Sachs's final address to Walther, as well as the notion that Wagner's treatment of Beckmesser reflects the composer's distaste for Jews. Separating Wagner the man from Wagner the composer, Father Lee makes a convincing case that these charges against the opera per se are misplaced.
Even at the grand age of seventy-nine, Father Lee continues to think and write when his health permits. I dare say that we may yet enjoy more scintillating ideas from him. But for now, I consider this brilliant analysis of Die Meistersinger Father Lee's own Abgesang. [End Page 471]
Joseph So, Department of Anthropology, Trent University