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Apart from classical music enthusiasts, a smattering of the admirable citizens of Nuremberg, elder Germans or the general public outside of that country, I wonder how many have heard of Hans Sachs? I for one, wouldn’t have if it was not for my enjoyment of opera and the music of Wagner in particular.
According to written accounts, it was said, “there never was a happier, wittier and wiser German shoe-maker” and no figure was better loved in the works of Wagner than that of songwriter, storyteller and poet, Hans Sachs.
Although almost four and a half centuries have passed since his death, he is still mention- worthy, if only for his prolific output in the revolutionizing of fifteenth century, German folk music.
At the time of Sachs’s birth in Nuremberg, in 1494, Germany was a musical nation where order and rigid rules had taken place in the form of master-singer guilds. Over the years the affiliation of these guilds had created regulations which hindered the development and the joy which is needed for the spontaneous creation of rhythm and melody.
Hans Sachs was a cobbler, where guild rules were as stiff in relation to his profession as they were to music. Shortly after completing the lengthy, shoe-making apprenticeship, he left home to travel around the country, cobbling his way along to make a living. In these wanderings and whenever possible, he would attend events, put on by the guilds of other towns and cities. At these, he listened and in his head recorded the words and music, later to be set-down on paper and which would make him famous.
On returning to Nuremberg as is a youth of 19 or 20, the enterprising young maestro set up his own shop, cobbling his neighbour’s shoes. He also joined the Nuremberg Master-singers guild which was to be the beginning of one of the most amazing literary careers on record.
Over the years, the beauty which was instinct in the ancient songs of the troubadours had been strangled by the stringent rules of the guilds. What remained was only the dead, dry bones of song. Sachs had the creativity and boldness to make music dance and cavort, and poetry to laugh again.
The art of the master-singers music underwent an incredible revolution at the hands of this multi-talented shoe-maker. Sachs preached no dogma but settled down and wrote material with so much charm and wit that it was soon widely accepted. He had that exceptional gift to be able to write almost anything well. In his poetry and tales, to the setting down the scores of the old folk songs, he put to good use the material which he had collected during his earlier wanderings.
Sachs wrote tragedies, religious and secular and even comedies. In all, he wrote over two hundred plays and more than fifteen-hundred stories and some of them are still peerless in their humour. Such was his fame in those times that:
“Not thy Councils, not thy Kaisers,
win for thee the world’s regard,
But thy painter Albrecht Durer and Hans Sachs
As an ardent advocate for the Reformation (1517-1648), Sachs wrote, Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall (The Wittenberg Nightingale) in support of the rebellious preacher, Martin Luther. This celebrated, 700 line poem became a rallying hymn for religious freedom, giving a big boost to the Protestant cause which at that time was spreading like fire through northern Europe,.
“Awake, awake! Day draws near!
In the green woods,
I hear the delightful nightingale singing;
Its song resounds through hill and valley”.
In this dramatic poem, he used a form of rhyming verse passed down from the before Middle Ages, known as Knittelvers. (old German for “rhyme”) This structure comprised of 8 or 9 syllable lines arranged in rhyming couplets, although in some cases the rhyme was not always pure. It was used in all unsung, both lyrical, epic and dramatic poetry.
We have Sachs to thank for some of the treasured words which Wagner, three-hundred years later, would put to music and be left for the world to enjoy. In his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg), in which much of its atmosphere attempts to portray the Nuremberg of the era and the customs of the master-singer guild. One of the main characters in the drama, the cobbler-poet, is based on Hans Sachs, “ the most famous of the master-singers.”
It is hard to believe, but in all, this delightful cobbler, who continued all his life, working in his trade, composed over six-thousand works. He was, in fact, a library in himself, much of his work remaining as vivid and alive after four centuries, as when he would put aside his hammer and last, to take up the pen and write.
The venerable Hans died in 1576 at – in those days – the ripe old age of 82; a great figure in the artistic life of old Germany.
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