Healing a World Gone Mad

Classic Arts Features   Healing a World Gone Mad
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz shows us the historical figure who inspired Wagner's Die Meistersinger von N‹rnberg.

An icon of goodness and reason, Hans Sachs is remembered today as the solid citizen in Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but this charismatic burgher is no mere figment of the composer's imagination. Instead, Wagner based him on the historical Hans Sachs, a shoemaker who lived richly and fully as a craftsman, poet, dramatist, theologian and Mastersinger.

Born in Nuremberg in 1494, Sachs grew up there, married twice and died there in January 1576. Because he lived more than eighty years‹remarkable at a time when most people never saw 50‹he watched the world change, and at a wild pace. The age of the explorer-adventurers exploded around him; Martin Luther introduced the Protestant faith; Leonardo drew models of flying machines; and Michelangelo tackled blocks of marble hauled down from quarries in Carrara. Albrecht Dürer, a Nuremberg celebrity like Sachs, created works depicting their world, and hundreds of years later, Wagner acknowledged the artist in the first act of Meistersinger, when Eva praises "Master Dürer."

The historical Hans Sachs was well prepared to live in such a world. He owed his broad knowledge to his parents, who sent him to the local Latin School in an age when few could read and write. After finishing his courses, he embarked on the traditional "Wandering Years," moving from city to city and meeting popular Mastersingers along the way. Then he went home to stay. Although he was already a master shoemaker, he launched a literary career that lasted from 1514 to 1569. In fact, he was the first author to have an edition of his "complete works" in print in his lifetime. Though rooted in medieval culture, his writing foreshadows the dawn of the Renaissance.

Sachs wrote more than 6,000 works in all, including thousands of Master Songs, more than 200 dramas, 1,500 comic stories, fables, histories, allegories, dreams, visions, laments, religious songs, street and tavern songs, prose dialogues and intellectual "disputations," which were sometimes given "live" as planned debates, staged in a church, a school or even a private home. Some of his farces and comedies are as bawdy as Geoffrey Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and "Reeve's Tale," and, like other works of the genre, they are often peopled with lecherous priests who have young "housekeepers" or elderly husbands with pretty wives (age: eighteen) and young apprentices (handy around the shop) or field hands who either board with them or find ways to get into their houses. These plays, which are laugh-out-loud funny, were seen as "indecent" by more than one Victorian prude, but they were right in the mainstream of medieval theater. Some of Sachs's many tales are taken from Italian sources, such as the works of Giovanni Boccaccio; among his tragedies are Lucretia, Virginia and others based on Roman models. Lisabetha, a German drama, dates from 1546. One religious play is about Adam and Eve in Paradise; another portrays a gruff Saint Peter.

Some of Sachs's subjects are similar to Wagner's operas. In The Court of Venus, written in 1517 as a Carnival-play, he described Danheuser, a prisoner of the goddess, who clearly suggests Wagner's Tannhäuser. And in the 1550s, inspired by another medieval romance, Sachs wrote a seven-act tragedy about Sir Tristrant, the beautiful Queen Isalde, King Marx and their fatal triangle. Nor was that his only reference to the lovers, for other allusions to them were tracked by the distinguished scholar Eli Sobel among the original manuscripts of Sachs's Master Songs. In Act II of Meistersinger Wagner, too, alludes to the Tristan story when Eva speaks to Sachs about the man who might win her hand. When she hints that a widower such as he might be a suitable husband, he quickly responds, calling her "My child" and saying he is too old for her. As he says, he will never become another King Marke. Instead, he will help her find the right man, the right young man.

Because Sachs adored Martin Luther, whom he affectionately dubbed "Doctor Martin," his works reflect his deeply felt Protestant faith. In fact, he was still in his early twenties when Luther shook the foundations of religion by nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. Quite naturally, the Roman Catholic hierarchy could not let him go unchallenged. Hauled before the authorities in two cities, Luther was ordered to recant and send a letter of submission to Pope Leo X. Although he promised to write it, he did not, and instead he began questioning papal infallibility.

The Pope's answer: excommunication and the denunciation of Luther as a heretic.

Luther's answer: burn the Papal decree that informed him of his outlaw status.

Soon Luther was banned from the Holy Roman Empire and imprisoned in Wartburg Castle, where he began translating the Bible into German. Sachs, living in solidly Catholic Nuremberg, showed enormous courage in supporting Luther. And quite beyond mere support, he wrote a poem about Luther, calling him the "Wittembergische Nachtigall." It quickly became famous. Dating from 1523, it portrays Luther as "The Nightingale of Wittenberg;" Christendom is represented as a flock of sheep hounded by wolves (the Catholic priests) and menaced by a Lion (Pope Leo X, or "Papa Leone"). But suddenly the sheep hear the Nightingale heralding the dawn of a new day, and, following the Nightingale's song, they find safety in a beautiful meadow.

Wagner used this beloved poem in Meistersinger, in the Midsummer's Day scene of the last act, when the people of Nuremberg gather in an open meadow for the song contest. Wagner, in his wisdom, assigned the historical Sachs's actual lines to the chorus, which sings "Wach' auf!"

"Wake up! It is almost daybreak.
I hear a wonderful Nightingale singing
from a branch of the hawthorn tree.
His voice rings out over mountain and valley.
Night fades in the western sky.
Day dawns in the east.
Morning's red blush
breaks through the dull, dark clouds."

Quite predictably, Sachs's praise of Luther got him in trouble with the local authorities, who summoned him to appear and reprimanded him, though he was never imprisoned as Luther was.

In time, Sachs's reputation as a poet was so great and his influence so wide that he was revered in Nuremberg, especially after he emerged as the leader of the city's celebrated Mastersingers. This is how we see him in the opera: as a citizen, tradesman and Mastersinger, standing for rectitude, generosity and balance.

Hans Kohn, the recognized authority on nationalism as a force in history, saw in Sachs a master of moderation and common sense, not just an author of poems, plays and songs. In fact, Kohn believed that Sachs's remedy for the ills of his own day could heal the wounds of our modern age. Looking back at the riot of Midsummer's Eve, when madness ruled, he sings, "Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!" Alas! "The whole world's gone mad!" he laments in his moving monologue in Act III of Meistersinger. But he knew how to set things right.

"Wach' auf!" Sachs calls to us across the centuries. Wake up! And put madness aside on this radiant morning.

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