Meistersinger appears on its face to be a paean to German art, expressed in a tribute to German musical heritage. And most pronounced in that heritage is the mastery of counterpoint and of well-tempered tuning.
So the great work begins in C-major, ends in C-major, and features passages of fugal writing (such as the Act II riot) and heady counterpoint (such as the explanation of the tablature). It is a comedy and comes across as one in the theatre. A finale with extended G-diminished chords with flitters in the flute, resolving to triumphant C-major smashes. All very well
But wait — that very first cadence on page one. A C-major chord to open up the proceedings, yes, and a melody in C. But what is that bass line? C-B-A? And what’s that C-sharp in the fourth beat of the second bar? Followed, at the first beat of the third bar, with an F-major chord over a G in the bass? That’s not kosher. Bach would disapprove surely. Must have been written by someone who thinks that a scale consists of 12 tones, not eight. Someone who has ventured into The Dark Side and is willing to live in a world where suspended chords do not always resolve to the sub-dominant and where dissonance is not just tolerated but fostered.
I was newly reminded that Meistersinger was composed by the author of Tristan while playing through the section of Act III immediately following Walther’s first entrance, and before his first tentative recitation of his Dream. (To be clear, using the Schirmer piano-vocal score, I refer to the section beginning on page 374, second system, to page 388, last bar of the second system.) This is remarkable writing, not at all out of place in Tristan.
Dominated by a single prominent motif, Wagner plays free with the tonality of the music and uses pliant harmonies to create a sensitive and tender accompaniment to the gentle teachings of Sachs. Ironically, Sachs’ words introduce the requirements of formality and respect for musical tradition to an instinctively rebellious artist. The score seems to embrace exactly that event as it treats a tonal motif not just with ascending keys but indeed with a voluptuous and ever-morphing feast of harmonies observed and harmonies overcome.
I commend this section to readers better able to explain the tremendous achievement that it displays. Quite jaw-dropping, at least to me.