Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger' reaches back to Reformation, forward to World War II

Apr 27, 2013

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. Find more stories like this one at ColumbiaFAVS.com. You can get instant updates each day on Facebook and Twitter.

The best music endures through time and transcends history.  A piece of music performed at the MU Choral Union concert Thursday stretches back from its composition to the Protestant Reformation, then forward to Nazi Germany during World War II.

That piece is Richard Wagner’s opera "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg." The opera was first performed in the 1860s. I spoke with Paul Crabb, the director of chorale activities at MU, to find out more about the historical context.

"Die Meistersinger" includes some historical figures, along with the German tradition of holding singing contests. The part of the opera featured at this week’s concert – the Procession and Chorale – takes place in the middle of one such contest.

The crowd is gathered when Hans Sachs, a character based on a historical figure, enters the stage. When the crowd sees him, they burst into song.

“It begins with then, in the German, it’s ‘Wachet Auf,’ or ‘awake,’” Crabb said.

Awake – but there’s more to it than just the word. It’s also a reference to the Protestant Reformation, back in the 1500s. Sachs was part of that movement. 

“And when they sing 'Wachet Auf' at the beginning of that, that would’ve been associated with this awakening of this new type of religion,” Crabb said.

So, this opera written in the 1800s reaches back a few hundred years. Then, fast forward to Nazi Germany during World War II. The arts were strictly controlled at the time. But Wagner’s works were among those that were acceptable.

“Wagner was selected as a person who was representing the Germanic history, the Germanic purity and thought,” Crabb said.

That connection then gives this piece a painful underscore. Not that Wagner had a say in it – he died in 1883 – but it’s still a dark connection.

But, how much does all this matter?

From a musician’s perspective, the reason for singing a Wagner piece is because, well, it’s a great piece of music. It’s not about the politics.

“It’s important for us to know how to sing and play Handel as it is important to know how to sing Bizet, or to sing Purcell, or to sing Wagner, or Verdi, or whatever,” Crabb said. 

But the context adds an extra layer to our understanding of the piece.

“You understand it and actually express it differently than if you’re just singing, ‘awake,’ but there’s the full reference,” Crabb said. “And Wagner says hold ‘awake’ a long, long time. And, you know one of the ways of emphasizing something is to do it longer and louder, you know? And he does – he does it longly and loudly.”

And longly and loudly, the context of a song can help us reflect on the past.