Justifying the World
Walther does not deserve Eva as his bride until he has shown that his passion and youthful instinct for freedom can be ordered and disciplined within the rules of the society of which she is the carefully nurtured (by Sachs as well as by Pogner) pride and prize.
– Lucy Beckett, “‘Die Meistersinger’: naïve or sentimental art?”
Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the world justified for all eternity.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
What is too silly to be said, can be sung.
– Bernard Shaw
The above Lucy Beckett quote brings out the central conflict of Meistersinger: an aristocrat from outside Nuremberg’s society, Walther, and that society’s “carefully nurtured” daughter, Eva, fall in love; and in order for them to wed in the good grace of the Nuremberg society, Walther must overcome internal and external hindrances to win a mastersinger contest. The first hindrance between Walther and winning the mastersinger contest is becoming a mastersinger, so that he may compete. There are two main obstacles Walther must overcome to achieve this: the first is the opposition of the mastersinger’s marker, Beckmesser, who does not want Walther to become a mastersinger; the second is an internal-conflict Walther must overcome: he must utilize his naturally free style of singing within the discipline of the mastersinger’s strict form (as recognizable by the mastersingers). The first hindrance is taken care of by Beckmesser himself, when he mangles one of Walther’s songs at the contest. This gives Walther an opportunity to literally step forward, conquer the second hindrance, become a mastersinger, win the Mastersinger contest, and earn Eva as bride with one song. How he does this, and the symbolic effects of it, go back to Lucy Beckett’s quote and bring up interesting connections between Die Meistersinger and another great comic opera, Le nozze di Figaro.
Both Meistersinger and Figaro achieve an aesthetic phenomenon like Nietzsche speaks of in the above quote, but each phenomenon is vastly different from the other. In the operas, each phenomenon springs from the roles of each opera’s aristocrat, and how each is humbled by his respective society. The role of the aristocrat in Meistersinger is the reversal of that in Figaro. In Figaro, the aristocrat, the Count, must be humbled by the master-servant society in which he lives for the buffa community of equals to be realized. In Meistersinger, the aristocrat, Walther, must humble Nuremberg’s society with his song to achieve the buffa community of equals. Walther’s mission is problematic because it ties the ideal of the buffa community of equals to the sheer force of an individual, much like in the problematic opera, Don Giovanni. Figaro can achieve the buffa community of equals without this problematic force. This difference between Meistersinger and Figaro arises from both the unique symbolic trait of Walther’s humbling that Lucy Beckett is talking about in the above quote, and the differences between the master-servant culture in Le nozze di Figaro and the bourgeois culture in Die Meistersinger.
Walther’s sheer force as an individual can be seen best when one focuses on his relationship with Beckmesser. Beckmesser is a mastersinger who strictly abides by his narrow interpretation of the rules of the master song. As Beckmesser says to Hans Sachs in the third act when he assures Sachs that he will be able to perform the song Sachs has just given him, Beckmesser’s greatest ability as a mastersinger is articulating and performing master songs. This makes his inability to perform the song, which Walther actually composed, devastating to his character. Then, for Walther to humble Nuremberg’s society, he must perform the master song Beckmesser failed at performing. Walter must love Eva to sing the master song the best that he can, as is seen when he changes the final stanza while gazing at her, and the only way their love can be realized within the community is if he can sing the master song the best that he can. He does so by working within the “ordered and disciplined…rules of the society,” – he humbles himself in the act of humbling Nuremberg’s society, giving up his aristocratic status for love. Through this, the old aristocracy dies, but the buffa community of equals does not feel complete. This is because a new hierarchy is formed: that of the mastersingers over “the people.” While Wagner tries to make this fact as transparent as possible by setting the last scene outside in a natural setting, and having “the people” choose the hierarchy, it is still a hierarchy. In contrast, at the end of Figaro, there is absolutely no hierarchy left.
This difference can be seen as a function of the societies on which the operas are built. Meistersinger is built on a type of a bourgeois society, which is a product of Wagner’s whole social milieu. Even though the opera is set in an imagined, past utopian culture, Wagner brings to it his ideas of his modern culture. These ideas are expressed through the character of Hans Sachs. Through most of the opera, Sachs is dealing with cultural polemics. In act one, one of his first comments of the opera is about his ideal that “the people” should be the judge of the mastersingers’ songs. This is highly controversial among the mastersingers. In that same meeting, while many of the mastersingers don’t even want to let Walther try to become a mastersinger, Sachs is one of the few who thinks Walther should be allowed to try. In act two, Sachs simultaneously stops Walther and Eva from eloping, and spoils a serenade by Beckmesser to Eva. He stops Walther and Eva from eloping because he thinks they should work within the bounds of the Nuremberg culture. Indeed, Sachs shows that he thinks Nuremberg is the ideal society. In act three, Sachs starts to control the opera from the inside, guiding Walther into song, Beckmesser into folly, and the Nuremberg community into hearing the whole tale he has seen unfold before him. Hans Sachs, possibly as Wagner’s ideal for himself, pushes for the buffa community of equals, but in being so conscious of the polemics of the society, stops it from actually occurring. He gives “the people” the will to govern the society, and they end up creating a new aristocracy. There is no way to reconcile reality with the buffa community of equals through plot, it can only be realized through the music of an opera. However, in Meistersinger, Wagner does create an aesthetic phenomenon to justify the world for all eternity by creating a hierarchical society that is based on the aesthetics of music, where aesthetic worth is decided by “the people” (of course, “the people” of his imagined society actually have appreciation for this type of music – surely not the case if “the people” were in charge today).
In contrast, in Figaro, Mozart ignores that the polemics of his time are impossible to overcome, and achieves the buffa community of equals while creating an aesthetic phenomenon to justify the world for all eternity. Mozart lived in no more just of a time than Wagner lived. Feudal communities were not achieving the communities of equality like that in Figaro. Yet in Figaro, the community does not need to be justified as judge (like it does by Hans Sachs in Meistersinger), because the community in Figaro’s goal is clearly just from the beginning of the opera, and feels this way in the music. In opposition to this, the Count’s goal is clearly unjust from the beginning of the opera, and feels this way in the music. It is the classic case of the baritone wanting to ruin the soprano and tenor’s love. The Count wants to use the feudal right over his servants and sleep with Figaro’s fiancé – this does not coalesce with the buffa community of equals, thus, the Count’s will must be broken to realize it. Through a long and winding series of community building and strengthening events, most of the characters in the opera come together and humble the Count. With his music, Mozart makes this humbling feel deeply real. Reading the libretto of Figaro one could think that the Count will go back to womanizing as soon as the opera is over, but when presented with the music, no one can feel that way.
Both opera’s achieve Nietzsche’s ideal of an aesthetic phenomenon that justifies the world for all eternity: Meistersinger does it by humbling both the Nuremberg society and old aristocracy for an act of love, and creating a new hierarchy based on aesthetics and the will of “the people;” and Figaro does it by taking what is too silly to be said through reality, and making it feel true through song, as Bernard Shaw would say. What each opera can achieve, the other cannot because of the differences of cultures at the time they were written, and differences between the composers who wrote them. Wagner spent much time writing about problems with society. Mozart wrote many letter to friends and family about very personal matters. In their own ways, both composers were haunted by problems in the world that they wanted to see changed. In the end, the ideal communities of their operas are unattainable in real life. They surely did not exist in either Wagner or Mozart’s lifetime. But the representation of unattainable ideas is, of course, a goal of opera – to make the miseries of life a bit more bearable by singing beautiful songs about them. Both composers did this with their great comic operas.