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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Mastersingers of New York

or "The Big Score."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
My new (well, gently used!) score of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Photo by the author.
Twenty years ago, I first encountered Wagner's Die Meistersinger. I had just graduated college. One day, Mom and I went to lunch in Greenwich Village, and visited Academy Records, which was still located on a shelf behind the register at Academy Books. My graduation present: that first recording of Wagner's Ring cycle (the Boulez, later traded in for the Haitink and still later for the Solti.) Since Mom was feeling generous that day, she also let me have an opera I knew next to nothing about at the time: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Now, I'm not trained as a professional musician. My degrees are in history and something archaic called "print journalism." But I minored in music at Fordham and I was lucky enough to have a music teacher (Dr. James Kurtz) who insisted that we learn to read and study scores. Starting with Beethoven's piano sonatas in Dr. Kurtz' "The Age of Beethoven" class, I learned how to follow the little black dots and trace the melodic flow and the harmony line in conjunction with recordings of works. (Two years of trombone in junior high school band helped--that's where I learned to read music in the first place.)

In recent years, partially because of the work I do on this blog, I've gained an interest in reading and learning from orchestra and opera scores. I learned all kinds of weird things from them, a whole new language. In this world "P." means "trombone" ("Posaunen") and "F." meant "bassoons" ("Fagotto"). I learned tempo markings, key signatures and ultimately how to read a work on paper and refer back to my memory, being able to "hear" the music while reading the score. (To practice this, try reading a symphony score while riding on the New York subways--without headphones or earbuds.)

So I've started a collection, a modest one of scores of operas and orchestral works. Mahler, Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies. Some of the big Strauss operas including Salome, Elektra and Die Frau Ohne Schatten. More recently, it's been Wagner operas, starting with Lohengrin and Der fliegende Holländer. And yesterday afternoon, I bought, for just $15, the 800+ page Dover edition of the complete orchestral of Die Meistersinger.

A few weeks ago, I spotted the Meistersinger score in the back of Academy Records, the W. 18th St. emporium that ranks as my preferred New York record store. (I had been shopping for an LP set of Die Zauberflöte for my four-year-old niece. I chose the Klemperer recording, without dialogue.) There it sat, as thick as a Brooklyn phone directory, with a slight tear in the cover that accounted for the steep price discount. Yesterday, it was still there.

Not wanting to tempt fate or disappointment, I took it home, along with a set of Eugen Jochum's Staatskapelle Dresden recordings of the Bruckner symphonies. On the subway, a German family of tourists noticed the "book on Wagner" and asked me if it was in German or English. I showed them the pages, smiled and said "Neither!" This morning, I sat down, and followed the complicated first act, with audio accompaniment provided by the 1994 Wolfgang Sawallisch recording on EMI, which is still, 20 years later, my favorite recording of this opera.

Wagner threw everything he learned as a conductor into the score of Meistersinger, filling the staves (the Prelude alone is 34 pages of music) with complex writing for winds and strings, a foursquare background that he uses to depict the conservative world of the good burghers of Nuremberg.  In the Prelude,  he starts to treat sections of his orchestra and individual instruments like the stops on a massive organ. Strings stop mid-phrase, cutting out for a wind ensemble. The long tuba solo acts like an extended obbligato passage for that imaginary organist's left hand. The stolid, diatonic phrases for brass that are locked into strict 4/4 rhythms that, due to their inflexible nature, make this the longest of Wagner's major operas.

When the first act starts, the quick curtain-up and sudden appearance of the chorale with the addition of an actual accompanying organ part is simply dazzling. But look at the score, and you see how he works his magic. In the opening hymn, four choral parts are used, but the sopranos sing a different rhythm, creating the sound of a municipal Nuremberg congregation where everyone is not in perfect unison, the sound of ordinary people singing. It is an artful device, along with the church-bell notes in the woodwinds, a marvelous aural trick that also shows up in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler.
A glimpse of one of the trickier sections of Meistersinger, the "song school" scene.
Photo by the author.
Once the soloists arrive, the challenge for the score-reader  is to keep up. The pages of the  score becomes divided equally between parts for the orchestra (up top) and for the young lovers, the apprentices and eventually the whole company of mastersingers, all of whom have their own individual parts to sing. The little filigrees in the David-and-Walther "tones" dialogue are fascinating in their detail.

Things get positively apoplectic in the "Singing School" scene, and the score shows how the composer uses short phrases, tossed between singers and instruments and cross rhythms to create the illusion of chaos--but all in perfect order. Skipping ahead once the act finished, I learned that Wagner does this to even greater effect in the riot scene that ends the second act.

So that's it. I'm now the owner of an 800-page orchestral score, a lifetime companion offering hours of pleasure and a new perspective on one of my favorite operas in the repertory. And yes, I'll be seeing the opera (again) at the Met in December. I never miss a Meistersinger.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.