Room 40--A great operatic moment

My first contacts with opera were with the standard repertoire of opera arias—things like Celeste Aida, the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor (I remember the Three Stooges perform it with Curly dressed as a woman with thick glasses), some cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Largo al Factotum from The Barber of Seville being sung by Alfalfa in The Little Rascals. Basically, the music didn’t seem very interesting. I was a few hundred years behind every one else. I was getting off on the L’Homme Arme mass by Josquin des Prez. I was obsessed with construction and form in music. To me, that was the ultimate musical expression. 16th and 17th century sacred works were the diamonds I was discovering…until

I heard the conclusion of the Second Act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner. It forever changed my opinion about opera because, here was a dramatic demonstration of polyphonic (or contrapuntal) writing the likes of which I had never heard.

It is night and the only people left on the streets of the town are Hans Sachs, the cobbler, and Beckmesser, the town clerk. Both he and Walther will compete for the hand of Eva in marriage at the coming singing contest. While Sachs is finishing a pair of shoes, Beckmesser wants to try out the song he has written for Sachs’ criticism. In the actual contest, mistakes or faults in the song would be marked on a chalk board with a piece of chalk. In this case, Sachs will pound on the last of the shoe to mark errors. Beckmesser accompanies himself on a lute and the song begins rather simply but Sachs marks a few errors and he corrects Beckmesser. Beckmesser is frustrated for awhile until he thinks he sees Eva. He begins singing louder and louder and gradually wakes up the town. Chaos ensues until the town crier seems to restore order.

The amazing thing is that it’s all based on one simple lute song. Listen to how it grows and grows. Listen!

The recording was made in 1976. It’s conducted by Sir Georg Solti. Label=Decca Catalog number=475 6680

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