This is also one of the simplest pages musically. It doesn’t have the contrapuntal richness of the rest of the work; it’s as if Sachs is really listening, like it’s an earworm.
Wagner puts Walther’s song in slow motion, with different harmonic settings, and Sachs speaks over it with this descending bass line; the song is boring deeper into his conscience, into his soul. “Meistersinger” is a clever piece, in that way there’s an artificiality to it, because it’s so craftily put together. It’s when things are simple that Wagner wants a message really to come through.
“Meistersinger” is often treated as a fraught work. How do you think about its historical associations, especially the few minutes at the end, when Sachs warns darkly of the need to defend “holy German art” from external threats?
There’s no question it’s nationalistic, but it’s not Nazi. I think that’s important to remember. What Wagner is saying is that society, or outward forces, are going to put our traditions — our way of doing things — at risk, and so we have to be strong in defending that. Now, he uses what to us are more than nationalistic words, and that’s unfortunate because of the history of the Second World War. But everybody, I think, defends their culture, their country, their beliefs in different ways. You’ve got to say that in classical music, the Germans have had a lot to give.
I don’t go into a deep depression when I’m conducting that moment. The words Sachs uses at the end were prompted by Wagner’s wife, Cosima, who felt that it needed to be underlined. The whole color of the piece changes for two pages; it’s weird; it becomes melodramatic, even, so you can tell Wagner’s heart was not in it, really.
It doesn’t sound like him?
No, you know what it sounds like? It sounds like Italian opera. It sounds as if it’s not to be given undue weight. That’s my feeling.