I saw Wagner’s wonderful Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg at Glyndebourne yesterday – England’s top-notch country house opera house. The British Establishment were out in force, in black bow tie, braving the drizzle as they picnicked on the lawns. I’d seen the opera only once before, in Budapest, in the 1990s. It was a clunky performance with sets constructed, it seemed, from pictures cut out of the back of breakfast cereal packets, and it put me off the opera for two decades, no matter that I love all the others, Parsifal most of all, and live a largely Wagnerian life. Only now do I realise what I’ve been missing. There’s nothing clunky about Meistersinger at all – the Glyndebourne production is lively, joyous and funny. And how apt that it should emphasise Wagner’s pro-Remain sympathies at this dangerous time.
Though Wagner’s music isn’t whistled in the street, his vision in Meistersinger of art lived hand in glove with craft and ordinary suburban life, is wonderfully tempting, if also utopian. He was never exactly a craftsman himself (at least never a baker, cobbler, locksmith, or tailor), but as a poet and composer he sensed his indebtedness to ordinary German life, craft and culture.
The opera tells the story of an aspirant poet/composer/singer, Walther von Stolzing, who is eager to joint the guild of Mastersingers. To do so, he is told, he must learn and follow the guild’s strict rules of composition. The wisest Master, the cobbler, Hans Sachs, sees that Walther’s talent is too great to be constrained by the guild’s stultifying rules, and he persuades the guild that they must bend and adapt to genius when they hear it. Walther, fails at first to persuade the Guild of his talent, but under Sachs’ kind guidance, he eventually wins them over. But, impatient with their pedantry, he is at first unwilling to accept their accolades. Again, Sachs explains that just as the Guild must reform and adapt, so Walther must accept that his talent exists within a tradition created and preserved by others. He must understand that art and culture belong not only to him but to their lesser guardians, the Guild and the people. He accepts.
Better to remain, and reform, than to reject. Better to lead than leave. Wagner was right.
There’s a lot of Wagner’s theory of art in Meistersinger, and it goes on at length about ‘heilige deutsches kunst’- sacred German art. Many see supremacist nationalism in this, but Wagner would equally have argued that for the English there is also ‘sacred English art’, living and breathing in the English shires. Each to his own. And if we could only live and breathe European values, he might have added, as well as national values, we might also one day create ‘heilig Europäische Kunst.’
The British Establishment, in their black ties, braying and whinnying in their own particular way at Glyndebourne yesterday, no doubt took note that reform is possible and that rejection is the wrong path.
And , as if the great master had cast his spell over the land, the polls look better today. The mood may yet swing in favour of Remain.