This Week in Music History: Hans Sachs is born (1494)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The birth of an artisan and musical hobbyist who found himself the subject of works by Goethe and Wagner…


Hans Sachs, Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5

There are relatively few shoemakers with their own entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the standard reference work for classical music. But Hans Sachs was no ordinary shoemaker.

 

Sachs, a Nuremberg native born on November 5, 1494, is best remembered not so much for his shoes as for the parallel career he, ahem, cobbled together for himself. He was also a Meistersinger (literally a “master singer”): a member of a guild of technically gifted singers who wrote and sang their own songs, or Meisterlieder. The Meistersinger were generally artisans or tradesmen, so Sachs’s other, more mundane-sounding profession wasn’t unusual.

 

Sachs, a Nuremberg native born on November 5, 1494, is best remembered not so much for his shoes as for the parallel career he, ahem, cobbled together for himself. He was also a Meistersinger (literally a “master singer”): a member of a guild of technically gifted singers who wrote and sang their own songs, or Meisterlieder. The Meistersinger were generally artisans or tradesmen, so Sachs’s other, more mundane-sounding profession wasn’t unusual.

Hans Sachs is also one of the leading characters in Richard Wagner’s only comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868). Wagner’s character contains some touches of surprising historical validity: not only was Sachs a devoted member of the Nuremberg guild, but he was also a widower, just like in the opera.

There’s a dark side to the opera, though. It’s very probable that Sixtus Beckmesser, the pedantic town clerk whose obsession with rules turns him into the opera’s comedic villain, was written as a Jewish caricature, typifying the views that Wagner held about Jews and their inadequacy in music. On top of the opera’s antisemitism comes its nationalism: it ends with Sachs sternly warning the young Walther to “Honor your German masters.” This closing hymn to “holy German art” struck a profound chord with the Nazis: it was performed at the founding of the Third Reich in 1933 and became symbolic of their cause.

What can you do with such an opera today? Every director has to find their own way. Katharina Wagner’s Bayreuth production has Sachs deliver his final monolog in near-total darkness, letting the triumphalist music ring strangely hollow. Barrie Kosky’s recent production, which replaced Katharina Wagner’s in Bayreuth, places Sachs in the dock during the Nuremberg Trials. David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production (above), meanwhile, takes what looks like a more traditional approach. He sets the opera in the early 19th century—perhaps in Wagner’s own childhood—and lets the final scene play out more or less as intended, with the onstage chorus swept away by Sachs’s rhetoric. We don’t have to agree with the events we see depicted on stage, after all—and in its way, it’s all the more disturbing to see it play out like this.

Poor Hans Sachs: this 16th-century shoemaker hardly asked to be the focus of such notoriety. But, for better or worse, Wagner’s opera has certainly played its part in keeping his name in the history books.


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