Wagner's Libertarian Masterpiece


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 bombing). 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 fiery 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 grise 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: Ich fühl’s und kann’s nicht versteh’n: – kann’s nicht behalten, – doch auch nicht vergessen: und fass’ ich es ganz, kann ich’s nicht messen!

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

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

But then, how should I grasp what seemed to me immeasurable? No rule seemed to fit it, and 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 "Stadtluft 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"

In 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,

"Widely 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,

Doch 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.

"I 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 himself 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 caricature 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 here 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

Sachs! Seht, ihr bringt mich um! Wollt ihr jetzt schweigen? (SACHS) Ich bin ja stumm! Die Zeichen merkt’ ich; wir sprechen dann;

Sachs! Look! You’re ruining me! Won’t you be silent now? (SACHS) 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 men. 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 distinction 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’

Beware! 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!

Therefore 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

October 2, 2007