IIIE: The Meistersingers

By far the largest body of German monophony in the 15th and 16th centuries is the music of the Meistersinger.

Probably the first important Meistersinger was Michel Behaim of Heidelberg (1416-1474) whose journeys found him active as soldier and singer in the service of German, Danish, and Hungarian princes; the last was Adam Puschmann (1532-1600), a pupil of Hans Sachs. In the period from 1450 to 1600 Meistersinger guilds flourished in all the important German towns. The singers considered themselves musical and poetic heirs of the Minnesinger. But there is a fundamental sociological difference between Minnesinger and Meistersinger, as well as a qualitative difference in their musical products. The Minnesinger were professional musicians, often of noble birth; most of the Meistersinger, on the other hand, were musical amateurs who earned their living as tradespeople. As a result, the compositions of the Meistersinger lack the plasticity and warmth of the Minnesinger melodies; and their art, like most organized amateur activities, was overburdened by an intricate system of rules.

The Meistersinger attributed their origin to twelve great masters who supposedly were contemporaries under Emperor Otto I (912-973) and sang for him and Pope Leo VIII. Actually, however, these masters were Minnesinger who lived between the 12th and 14th centuries. It was not until the 15th century that musicians called themselves Meistersinger or were described as such; and even some of these -- for example, Behaim, RosenpIüt, Veit Weber -- still spent much of their time traveling from one place to another specifically as minstrels.

Schools were established wherever there were Meistersinger guilds; the oldest school was that at Mainz. Each school had its Tabulaturor list of rules. The customs prevailing in the contests held at the schools are faithfully depicted in Wagner's Die Meistersinger.There were normally not one but three or four Merker(markers), whose duty it was to listen for infractions of the rules and mark the contestant accordingly. Penalties for such infractions were painstakingly listed in the Tabulatur.The members of the Nuremberg school were divided according to their accomplishments as follows: a Schüleror apprentice was one who had not yet learned the Tabulatur;when he had, he became a Schulfreund;a member who knew well four to six "tones" was, a Sänger;one who wrote songs to existing "tones" was a Dichter;and the inventor of a "tone" was a Meister.

There is some confusion about the exact meaning of the word "Ton"and the distinction between it and Weise(tune). Tonseems to have meant usually the verse and rhyme scheme of the poem or that scheme together with the melody; Weise,the melody alone. But the two words were frequently used interchangeably. The Meistersinger had a large supply of "tones" -- many of them borrowed more or less accurately from the Minnesinger -- which had individual and sometimes fantastic names, e.g., "the tone of the proud miller's daughter ," "the ape-tune," and "the tone of the red bat." The four most important ones, called the "crowned tones," were by Mügling, Frauenlob, Marner, and Regenbogen. The Meistersinger, it seems, frequently employed the melodies of the old "tones" and created new texts in the same metrical and rhyme patterns that governed the original texts. But the number of old melodies used was strictly limited by the Tabulatur,for example in Nuremberg to three or four, in Colmar to seven. The rules required that no melody for a new Meistertonshould remind one of the melody of an old Meisterton.Consequently, the Meistersinger strove for melodic originality at all costs, with results that seem somewhat labored.

The Bible was the chief source of the texts, which often included a reference to the chapter and verse on which they were based. More attention seems to have been paid to the choice of the text and especially to its versification than to the melody: Meistersinger who visited neighboring guilds more frequently wrote down the words of new songs than the music; and most of the penalties listed in the Tabulaturenapply to improper versification, false rhymes, and the like. Since each verse or line had to be sung in one breath, it was ruled that no verse could exceed thirteen syllables in length. But there seems to have been no limit to the number of lines allowed in one strophe; and we find Puschmann remarking that a strophe of 100 lines is really long enough.

Most of the songs were cast in the old Bar-form of the Minnesinger. The Abgesangfrequently included a repetition of the Stollenmelody. The music in most Meistersinger MSS is written in some form of Hufnagelnotation. The notes are all of equal length. It is only in a few of the later MSS that attempts were made to employ mensural notation. The influence of plainsong is noticeable in many of the melodies, in which the ecclesiastical modes govern the melodic structure. Other songs, however, betray an affinity to folk song and an approach to major and minor tonalities. On the whole, it may be said that the melodic structure of the Meistersinger tunes represents a transitional stage between the church modes and the major and minor scales.

Characteristic of the master-songs are the melismas, called "Blumen," by the Meistersinger, on a word or syllable, usually at the beginning of a line or at an important caesura. The position of these melismas has given rise to the theory that they replaced instrumental preludes, interludes, and postludes performed in conjunction with Minnesinger pieces. (Instruments were not employed by the Meistersinger.) The Blumenmay be divided into two types: those that are freely interpolated cadenzas; and those that may be considered elaborations of the basic melody.

The most famous of all Meistersinger is Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet of Nuremberg (1494-1576). He was extraordinarily prolific, his extant works numbering more than 6,000, of which two-thirds are master-songs.

The Meistersinger made a sincere effort to perpetuate the musical treasure of the Minnesinger, but their stifling pedantry, their isolation from the main currents of contemporary musical life,' rendered their compositions, in comparison with the older German monophony, forced and stuffy. Nevertheless, the Meistersinger made an important contribution to the history of music. All countries had church music, and other countries had court music, but only in Germany was there such intensive musical activity among the bourgeoisie. The Meistersinger were instrumental in bringing music into the middle-class home; and they may have laid the foundations for the widespread love of music among all classes that helped in making possible the preeminent German musical productivity of later centuries.

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