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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 23rd July 2010
David Winpenny has been watching the Proms – and draws a lesson for Ripon

The heart of an ancient city. A hornblower sets the watch each evening. There’s a conflict between modern ideas and an entrenched old order. Most of the populace is confused about what is happening. Some young people are out of control.

Sounds familiar? If you watched BBC 4 or listened to BBC Radio 3 last Saturday it probably is – because this is the underlying story of Wagner’s opera ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’. Performed at the second night of the Proms by Welsh National Opera, it starred the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as the enlightened poet Hans Sachs with whose help everything is sorted out – though not until after a great deal of confusion.

The story revolves around the Guild of Mastersingers, who meet regularly to sing and to compare the verse they have written for performance. Such guilds existed in Germany in the 14th to 16th centuries and the most famous was in Nurenberg, just over 100 miles north of Munich. And not only was the Guild of Nurenberg Mastersingers real and not, as is often thought, a figment of Wagner’s fertile imagination; so was Hans Sachs himself. Born in 1494, he was a cobbler, but also a leading voice in the Mastersingers – who were all tradesmen and amateur musicians. Caught up in the Reformation, he became a strong supporter of Martin Luther and wrote verses in his honour.

His reforming activities initially brought him into conflict with the Nuremburg authorities, who proscribed his work – until they, too, followed him in supporting Luther. The historical Sachs seems to have been a moderate voice in the early 16th century, advocating change without great upheaval. In Wagner’s opera he is also a voice of reason, though we see him troubled at times.

His troubles stem from a young knight, Walter, who wants to join the Guild of Mastersingers and win the hand of Eva, daughter of one of the leading citizens, Pogner. Pogner offers Eva as a bride to whoever wins the prize at the next Song Tournament – and as she already loves Walter, he really needs to win.

Unfortunately for the young and go-ahead Walter, the Guild is bound by ancient and complex laws and traditions. When he tries out a song before them the chief judge – the town clerk Beckmesser – is highly critical and declares that Walter has broken all the rules and will never be a Mastersinger.

Sachs thinks that this is harsh – he sees much to value in Walter’s song, and he thinks that tradition and ancient prejudice are stifling positive development in the Guild and in the city of Nuremberg. Beckmesser, as well as being a stickler for the way things have always been, is keen to win Eva for himself. In a series of comic moves, he find himself serenading a girl who he thinks is Eva but is in fact her maid Magdalena, who is engaged to Sach’s apprentice David. David, incensed, organises his fellow apprentices into a riot that results in a beating of Beckmesser. It is only quelled by the arrival of the Watchman, who blows his horn to set the watch.

Wagner’s opera is a comedy, and of course all ends happily. Walter composes and sings a new song, and is encouraged by Sachs to sing it in the tournament. He recognises that what Walter has produced does not exactly follow the Guild’s rules, but it is of such surpassing imagination and skill – not to mention beauty – that he deserves the win the Tournament. He does so, to the acclamation of everyone (except Beckmesser) and gains Eva as his bride.

Wagner, as a polemicist as well as a composer (and his own librettist), expected his audiences to take away a number of messages. One is that it is important to keep the arts alive. And if we find the closing words about the German people hard to take (especially as we see Wagner through the lens of German history) we can appreciate the deeper, underlying message – that any tradition, any community, needs to evolve.

So the parallels between old Nuremberg and modern Ripon may be closer than we think. As this column has frequently said, what we need is vision for the city, and a willingness to accept that what worked in the past is not necessarily what will work for today. It does not need revolution – the riot provoked by David’s apprentices did not change minds – but it needs open ears and open minds to hear and accept those voices that sing of the future of the city.

It may be too much to hope that the Beckmesssers of Ripon will easily accept change; but let us at least try to win them over to a new vision. Then perhaps Ripon, too, will sing!

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