Wagner's Libertarian Masterpiece

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Often confused as an artwork in support of the centralized state
and a vehicle for virulent German nationalism, Die
Meistersinger von Nürnberg
(the Mastersingers of Nuremburg)
is an unalloyed expression of several ideas that can best be called
libertarian. It is the longest individual opera in the repertoire
of most opera houses today, and will take approximately six hours
with time for two intermissions. According to Professor Hans Rudolf
Vaget, it is the opera that is used to initiate newly opened opera
houses in Germany.1
It has been identified with German nationalism almost since its
initial performance, a scant three years before the Franco-Prussian
war created the centralized Wilhelmine Second Reich. After World
War I, at the restart of the Bayreuth festival in 1923, the rousing
chorus that ends the opera was oversung by an audience eager to
announce "Deutschland über Alles." It was a piece
exalted by the Nazis, who took inspiration from it to stage party
rallies in the unspoiled late medieval/renaissance atmosphere of
the city (later ruined
by Allied
). It would seem to be an unlikely piece to support any
libertarian or minarchist positions, but a more nuanced examination
shows that the Richard Wagner of 1867–8 had matured from the
revolutionary of 1849
, who befriended Mikhail Bakunin, advocate
of arson over Europe (and inspiration
for George W. Bush's second inaugural address
?), and embraced
property and liberty.

The opera concerns the activities of a group of artisans in 16th
century Nürnberg who have banded together into a guild to further
the production and performance of art music. One of their number,
Veit Pogner, proposes that to show his support for art, he will
pledge his fortune and only daughter Eva's hand in marriage only
to the Meistersinger who can sing a song worthy of her (well, it
is the 16th century, after all!). A young knight, Walther,
seeks to win her hand by competing with an original song of his
own design, although he has had no formal instruction in the Mastersingers'
rules. He is rejected by the examiner, the town clerk Beckmesser,
who counts his many strikes against the rules. Only one Meistersinger,
historical poet and cobbler Hans Sachs, seems to recognize worth
in the knight's song. He prevents the knight from eloping in Act
2 by judging Beckmesser's wooing song, finding that it also conflicts
with rules both written and unwritten. Act 3 requires Sachs to take
his knight-pupil in hand in the crafting of a mastersong, while
rejecting the temptation to compete for the girl's hand, desperate
as she is to avoid having to choose Beckmesser. In the end, the
knight wins the girl, widower Sachs wins the adulation of the city,
and finally he brings the knight into the master's guild.

One suggestion that the opera has a libertarian bent is the list
of Wagner’s fans in libertarian circles.  Murray Rothbard loved
Wagner, a love reflected in and exceeded by his wife JoAnn, who
was a loyal member and benefactor of the Wagner Society, serious
scholar of his operas (the music, the language, the history), and
rapt attendee at Bayreuth and anywhere else she could hear the Ring
or any part of it. As a scion of the great Mitteleuropean Jewish
culture, Mises was certainly familiar with the opera, and if he
did not appreciate the economic model
therein, he
certainly was warmly attracted
to the utopia of the cobbler-poet.
I can't help but imagine that an aged Mises, in flight to New York
in 1940 from the European world that he knew, took some comfort
in thinking of himself as a Hans Sachs, an éminence
whose progeny would be the scholars and economic
revolutionaries he would come to shepherd through teaching and writing
while affiliated with NYU.

While Mises' economic thought was praxeological,
we cannot conclude from the opera whether Wagner would agree. Contrasted
to praxeology is the modern insistence in economics on econometrics,
or measurement, an effort to make economics a "hard" science.
This is best captured in Lord Kelvin's comment: "I often
say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express
it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot
measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge
is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning
of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to
the state of Science, whatever the matter may be." Hans
Sachs, Wagner's mouthpiece, has however a different understanding
of the world. He sings a song of praise for Walther's aria, which
he alone seems to have appreciated:

Und doch,
‘s will halt nicht geh’n:
fühl’s und kann’s nicht versteh’n: –
nicht behalten, – doch auch nicht vergessen:
fass’ ich es ganz, kann ich’s nicht messen!

And yet
it just won’t go.
feel it, and cannot understand it;
cannot hold on to it, nor
yet forget it;
if I grasp it wholly, I cannot measure it!

Doch wie
wollt’ ich auch fassen,
unermesslich mir schien?
Regel wollte da passen,
war doch kein Fehler drin.

But then,
how should I grasp
seemed to me immeasurable?
rule seemed to fit it,
yet there was no fault in it.

It would seem possible to understand a subject completely, like

Human Action
, and yet not even begin to measure it!

After singing this aria, Sachs resolves to keep the artist Walther
in the city of Nürnberg. And this setting is the first indication
that this is an opera with minarchist overtones. Medieval Nürnberg
was a Free Imperial City, a place whose destiny would have been
set by the burghers of the town itself. (One recalls the expression
macht frei
," indicating that here were no serfs, but free
men.) It is a small world (even if it was the site for the invention
of the globe
); in Act 2, Eva does not even know all the small
alleys of the city. Still it was a prosperous world as the crossroads
of several trade routes; the city's access to spices has made it
the world capital
of Lebkuchen
to this day. Sachs sings of his city "nestled
in Germany's middle, my beloved Nürnberg." The principle
of subsidiarity
was in effect here, and laws and regulations
were made closest to the people to whom they applied.

It is also a place where rules of commerce have arisen through
the process of spontaneous order; gold is central to that process.
Wagner's Ring Cycle's stage events are set in motion when a deformed,
cave-dwelling Nibelung
forswears love to forge a ring of gold from the Rhine that will
give him the power he can use to force others of his race to mine
more gold for him. In contrast, gold backs the fortune of Veit Pogner
in Die Meistersinger, and its use is not aimed at gold for gold's
sake, but it serves as the backbone of commerce and exchange, as
when Pogner assists the knight Walther in selling his estate.

Gold is not used for its intrinsic values, but serves the values
of its owner. Pogner's motivation for pledging his fortune and daughter
is announced in his act 1 aria, "Das
schöne Fest, Johannistag

deutschen Landen viel gereist,
hat oft es mich verdrossen,
dass man den Bürger wenig preist,
ihn karg nennt und verschlossen.
An Höfen, wie an nied’rer Statt,
des bitt’ren Tadels ward’ ich satt,
dass nur auf Schacher und Geld
sein Merk der Bürger stellt.
Dass wir im weiten deutschen Reich
die Kunst einzig noch pflegen,
dran dünkt ihnen wenig gelegen.
Doch wie uns das zur Ehre gereich’,
und dass mit hohem Mut
wir schätzen, was schön und gut,
was wert die Kunst, und was sie gilt,
das ward ich der Welt zu zeigen gewillt,

travelled in German lands,
it has often vexed me
that people honor the burgher so little,
call him stingy and peevish:
at courts and in baser places
I grew tired of the bitter reproach
that only in usury and money
was the burgher interested.
That we alone in the broad German empire
still cherish Art –
by that they set little store…
but how this may redound to our honor,
and that with high resolve
we treasure what is beautiful and good,
the value of Art, what it is worth,
this I became resolved to show the world.2"

Art, rather than being scorned by the bourgeoisie, depends critically
on a group of independent economic actors whose consumer choices
impute value to it. Furthering this point, each of the Meistersingers
is also a burgher or artisan, and dedicates his free time to art
music. This of course contrasts with the often puerile anti-bourgeois
sentiments of movements like Dada.
To steal a phrase from Mao, Wagner posits the bourgeois society
as the sea within which true art swims.

This is not to imply that Wagner is an anti-elitist. Art music
must appeal to the burghers and the Volk of the town, but also the
elite, in the guild of the Mastersingers. After being asked "Would
you abandon the rules to the people!" by the head of the guild,
Sachs replies that he knows the rules, and has worked long to preserve
them. However, once a year, Sachs sings,

einmal im Jahre fänd’ ich’s weise,
dass man die Regeln selbst probier’,
ob in der Gewohnheit trägem Gleise
ihr’ Kraft und Leben nicht sich verlier’!
Und ob ihr der Natur
noch seid auf rechter Spur,
das sagt euch nur,
wer nichts weiss von der Tabulatur.

should find it wise
to test the rules themselves,
to see whether in the dull course of habit
their strength and life doesn’t get lost:
and whether you are still
on the right track of Nature
will only be told you by someone
who knows nothing of the table of rules."

Here Wagner casts his lot with those who believe in Natural law,
and who believe that law is discovered, not made, something Rothbard
might have written into his own opera.

This natural-law focus is contrasted with the positive-law focus
of the town clerk, Beckmesser. Beckmesser has been cited as a Jewish
in a number
of publications
, and his pedantic insistence on the rules calls
to mind most immediately Shylock of The Merchant of Venice.

These explanations of his character ignore the more fundamental
facet of his character, however: he is a government bureaucrat.
You've met Beckmesser in modern America, many times, in the TSA
insistence on obedience
at the airport, in the lock-step obedience
demanded overseas and perhaps
to Federal policies, in the threat
to shock with 50,000 volts
when compliance is not immediate.

Rules take on a meaning of their own for Beckmesser, instead of
serving art, and he, as the marker for the guild, is more intent
on listening for their infractions than he is on listening for masterly
art, for which Sachs upbraids him in Act 1. This insistence on following
the rules strictly is turned back on Beckmesser in Act 2, as Sachs
marks his many faults against stated and unstated rules in a reprise
of a song contest that Beckmesser has judged in Act 1. Beckmesser's
exasperation at having the rules he so narrowly applies to others
used against him is palpable, as when he complains

Seht, ihr bringt mich um!
Wollt ihr jetzt schweigen?

Ich bin ja stumm!
Die Zeichen merkt’ ich; wir sprechen dann;

Look! You’re ruining me!
Won’t you be silent now?

Indeed I’m dumb!
I was marking the faults: then we’ll talk;

All the above is done to great comic effect. This brings up another
point about Sachs' mastery that he might share with Rothbard: he
is not exasperated with the difficulties of the world, but approaches
them as one of the merry
. As Lew
Rockwell himself
says, he remains of good cheer in the face
of difficulty. He refuses even to demonize Beckmesser, insisting
he's not a bad fellow, just a little misguided. His bemused manner
also lets Walther know that those who oppose him are not evil, but
differ, and further that as the owners of capital, they are free
to set its price:

Die Hoffnung
lass’ ich mir nicht mindern,
nichts stiess sie noch über’n Haufen;
wär’s nicht, glaubt, statt eu’re Flucht zu hindern,
wär’ ich selbst mit euch fortgelaufen!
Drum bitt’ ich, lasst den Groll jetzt ruh’n!
Ihr habt’s mit Ehrenmännern zu tun;
die irren sich, und sind bequem,
dass man auf ihre Weise sie nähm’.
Wer Preise erkennt und Preise stellt,
der will am End’ auch, dass man ihm gefällt.

I shan’t
let my hope diminish;
nothing has yet overthrown it;
were it so, then believe me, instead of hindering your flight
I would have run away with you!
So please give up your resentment now!
You are dealing with men of honour;
they make mistakes and are content
that one takes them on their own terms.
He who decides prizes and offers prizes
expects also that people should please him.

Here also the idea of freedom comes to the fore. If Mises thought
that he was the last knight of European liberalism, he at least
understood the importance of living in liberty, and fighting to
keep things in the private space. Hans Sachs would understand the
between freedom and liberty
; the knight Walther wishes to flee
"forth in freedom, where I belong, where I am master in my
own house," but Sachs knows that must not happen for many reasons,
not least being that the rules must admit a singer as masterly as
Walther. Living in liberty requires facing the forces that would
oppress, no matter how much an individual could flee or possess
internally the personal quality of freedom.

And liberty and commerce form the backbone of the opera's closing
aria. The most controversial part, which given subsequent German
history can seem a little creepy, is this:

Das uns’re
Meister sie gepflegt
grad’ recht nach ihrer Art,
nach ihrem Sinne treu gehegt,
das hat sie echt bewahrt:
blieb sie nicht adlig, wie zur Zeit,
da Höf’ und Fürsten sie geweiht,
im Drang der schlimmen Jahr’
blieb sie doch deutsch und wahr;
und wär’ sie anders nicht geglückt,
als wie wo alles drängt und drückt,
ihr seht, wie hoch sie blieb im Ehr':
was wollt ihr von den Meistern mehr?.

That our
Masters have cared for it
rightly in their own way,
cherished it truly as they thought best,
that has kept it genuine:
if it did not remain aristocratic as of old,
when courts and princes blessed it,
in the stress of evil years
it remained German and true;
and if it flourished nowhere
but where all is stress and strain,
you see how high it remained in honour –
what more would you ask of the Masters?

Habt Acht!
Uns dräuen üble Streich':
zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich,
in falscher wälscher Majestät
kein Fürst bald mehr sein Volk versteht,
und wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand
sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land;
was deutsch und echt, wüsst’ keiner mehr,
lebt’s nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr’

Evil tricks threaten us:
if the German people and kingdom should one day decay, under
a false, foreign rule
soon no prince would understand his people;
and foreign mists with foreign vanities
they would plant in our German land;
what is German and true none would know,
if it did not live in the honour of German Masters.

Drum sag’
ich euch:
ehrt eure deutschen Meister!
Dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging’ in Dunst
das heil’ge röm’sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil’ge deutsche Kunst!

I say to you:
honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!

What appears at first as something that could be abused by a nationalist
centralizing government is in fact no such thing. Art was supported
previously in the courts of old (and one recalls here that the Holy
Roman Empire was an unconsolidated reign of over 300 independent
countries), and now by the burghers, on whom Wagner has said that
it depends critically. The State, however, has nothing to do with
it: if it crumbled into dust, art (and one presumes commerce) would
yet remain; it precedes and will supersede the State. In this sentiment,
Wagner echoes the Durants in The Story of Civilization: “Civilization
is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood
from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things historians
usually record – while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes,
make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, whittle statues.
The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the bank.”

There are many other points to the opera that the libertarian would
enjoy from a philosophical standpoint, but we leave those for discovery
in the theater itself. Die Meistersinger will not return to the
Metropolitan Opera until perhaps the 2008-09 season. When it does
so, the libertarian will not be disappointed to invest six hours
to enjoy Wagner's libertarian masterpiece.


  1. New
    York Wagner Society Lecture and discussion on "Between Music
    and Autobiography: On the Meaning of u2018Holy German Art' in
    Die Meistersinger." 22 April, 2003.
  2. Libretto
    and translation from http://www.rwagner.net/libretti/meisters/e-meisters-a1s3.html

2, 2007

Thomas Schmidt
[send him mail], a
Brooklyn native, is eternally grateful that he took music theory,
even if he could never distinguish between a diminished seventh
and augmented fifth chord.

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