Work: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act 1 Prelude
About This Work
One man's opium-assisted nap on a summer afternoon in 1797 -- and its consequences -- provided a most memorable and picturesque bellwether for the impending century's most pervasive aesthetic movement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge awakened and, likely in
turns groggy and ecstatic, set his immortal poem "Kubla Khan" to paper. With this partial, fleeting account of his midsummer afternoon's dream, the poet introduced to the annals of Romantic legend and imagination the mythic locale Xanadu. Coleridge's vaporous Utopia endured even into the twentieth century as a metaphoric paradise revisited in contexts ranging from the foreboding personal reserve of tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane, 1941) to a gaudily neon-lit, roller rink/nightclub (Xanadu, 1980). Indeed, the motifs of "Kubla Khan" and its creation--dreams, mythology and mythic places, and imagination itself -- are recurrent throughout all of Romantic thought, in music as in literature and the visual arts. They find particular significance in the works of Richard Wagner, whose operatic catalogue clearly suggests a preoccupation with such sources of creative impulse. Even in the case of the composer's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867), which was inspired by actual personages and events, the spirit of its genesis echoes the fantastic circumstances and scenario that bore "Kubla Khan." Of the origin of the Prelude, Wagner himself wrote:
"As from the balcony of my flat, in a sunset of great splendor, I gazed upon the magnificent spectacle of 'golden' Mayence, with the majestic Rhine flooding its outskirts in a glory of light, the Prelude to my Meistersinger again suddenly made its presence closely and distinctly felt in my soul. Once before I had seen it rise before me out of a lake of sorrow, like some distant mirage. I wrote down the Prelude exactly as it appears today in the score, containing the clear outlines of the leading themes of the whole drama."
The nobility of character that Wagner ascribes to Meistersinger's dramatis personae is suggested at the outset of the Prelude, which opens with a heraldic theme in which the prominence of the brass foreshadows its prevalent use throughout. The treatment (including later development) of this theme and those that follow demonstrate the masterful handling of orchestral balance, color, and virtuosity that have come to be identified as hallmarks of Wagner's compositional style. Particular beats are set into relief by the whizzing upward sweep of unison strings, while the winds are exploited individually for particular timbral characteristics and en masse for sheer volume and incisiveness of attack. The largely chordal and sonorous nature of Wagner's treatment is interspersed with more overtly contrapuntal episodes, effecting a gradual buildup of force that reaffirms the initial grandeur and sense of purpose as the Prelude segues into the opera's dramatic action.
-- Michael Rodman
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