The New International Encyclopædia/Meistersinger
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MEISTERSINGER, mīs'tẽr-sĭng-ẽr. The name given to those artistic poets, usually not of noble birth, who, as the immediate followers of the minnesinger, cultivated artistic poetry in contradistinction from the folk song. The word meister (derived, like English ‘master,’ from Latin magister) means a poet who has studied, as all laymen did, in church schools. Accordingly the meistersingers were distinguished from the common minstrels. They also formed a guild or caste. The meistersingers were wont to trace their origin back to ‘the twelve old masters.’ Various legends arose, explanatory of their origin. One Spangenberg even thought Moses was a meistersinger. David, also, was looked upon as a patron in whose time hundreds of meisters were supposed to have taught 4000 scholars, and Solomon also was reckoned in. Furthermore, the minnesingers were reckoned as members of their caste, but, as a matter of fact, they were different in many ways. Individual meistersingers out of modesty called themselves ‘lovers of art’ (Liebhaber der Kunst), and the whole body of them named themselves the ‘honorable’ or ‘praiseworthy society.’ We may suppose that associations existed as early as 1200. Heinrich von Meissen, called Frauenlob, may have had a school of song at Mainz. We cannot be sure of a regular school till 1450 in Augsburg. But the meistergesang had flourished in the fourteenth century at Mainz, Strassburg, Colmar, and Frankfort; in the fifteenth, at Nuremberg; later still it flourished in Breslau, Görlitz, and Danzig. In 1492 Strassburg had the first school founded by written statutes, and Nuremberg had what became, thanks to Richard Wagner, best known to this generation. The last school died out at Memmingen in 1844.
Each school had for the head mastersinger a chair called der Künste Stuhl (chair of the arts), or, as in Nuremberg, the Meisterstuhl (master's chair). In England this was called ‘the bard's seat.’ Later the singer seems simply to have stood in the midst of his hearers. To enter the guild a candidate had to pass an examination before four markers, usually in a church. He must devise some new arrangement or a new melody (Weise) without infringing any rule. One of the markers determined whether the theme was right, another whether the versification was right, and the others looked to rhyme and melody. One need hardly add that, in a school whose whole attention was given to technicalities, the possible mistakes were limited by set rules. The success of a mastersong hung upon its conformity with these rules. Indeed, the very essence became a formula or a series of formulas. The Tabulatur or tablature, a term borrowed from music, and not found among the earliest documents, signified a bit of music written not with notes, but with letters or figures, designed to initiate the student into vocal or instrumental music. This code had to be mastered by whoever wished to be a meistersinger. In order to teach scholars more easily the content of the code, it was drawn up in short poems. In fine, it was a book of rules, the text-book of the meistergesang.
The school had inside and outside members, called by divers names. There were patrons, servants, and masters or companions, as well as learners or apprentices; often there was a director. Meetings were held on festivals, chiefly on Sunday after service and in the church. Very often the singers met at an inn. Prizes were awarded, and those who sang ill were fined. The prize was sometimes money, sometimes a crown, as at Nuremberg in the time of Hans Sachs. Flowers had also an important part in these competitions. Often in the older days one singer would hang up a wreath as a challenge and as a reward for victory. Finally may be mentioned the fact that the meistersinger often wore a costume which was not seldom motley and which was often sumptuous.
The Taulatur dealt with three matters: (1) The kinds of poems and the parts of a meistergesang; (2) permissible rhymes; (3) the mistakes, which are the main business, and have to do (a) with errors of delivery, of melody, of structure and of opinion; (b) chiefly, however, with errors of rhyme or mangling of words or cacophony.
The various songs were divided into three strophes, and each strophe was divided into two Stollen and a discant or Abgesang. Plate gives a long list of the various features of rhythm and rhyme in this complicated poetry, in all of which we observe a singular likeness to the technicalities invented or slavishly aped by the lesser, and indeed often enough by the better, poets two centuries earlier in Southern France. The best feature of the meistersinger's art was that it throve among the humbler folk, refined them, gave them a sense of nationality, opened the way for the artistic treatment of better themes, and spread widely the love of artistic music among those who needed most a sense of form. Consult: Grimm, Ueber den altdeutschen meistergesang (Göttingen, 1811); Plate, “Die Kunstausdrücke der Meistersinger,” in Strassburger Studien, vol. iii. (Strassburg, 1888); Martin, “Urkundliches über die Meistersänger zu Strassburg,” in Strassburger Studien (ib., 1882); Streinz, “Der Meistergesang in Mähren,” in Sievers's Beiträge (Halle, 1894); Cyriacus Spangenberg, Von der Musica und den Meistersingern, written in 1584, ed. by A. von Keller (Stuttgart, 1861); Nürnberger Meistersingerprotokolle 1570-1869, ed. by Drescher, in Bibliothek des litterarischen Vereins in Stuttgart (Stuttgart, 1898); Mey, Der Meistergesang in Geschichte und Kunst (Leipzig, 1901).