The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Meistersingers

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MEISTERSINGERS, mīs'tėr-sing-ėrz, or MASTER-SINGERS (Ger., Meistersinger), a society of German singers formed in the 14th century. During the long evenings of winter the worthy burghers of the German cities assembled to read the poems of the minstrels. Some of the hearers were naturally led to try their own skill in verse; others followed, and the spirit of the age soon embodied these votaries of the muse into societies after the fashion of corporations. Charles IV gave them a charter and a coat of arms. They met on certain days and criticized each other's productions, in which external correctness seems to have appeared to them the chief object; few, indeed, had an idea of the difference between poetical and prosaical ideas or expressions. Their attempts in the lyric style were chiefly limited to Spiritual songs; in the epic to rhymed versions of the scriptural narratives. They were also fond of the didactic style. The rules by which the members of the societies were to be guided as to the metre, etc., of their compositions were written on a table, and called tabulatur, for the sake of enforcing a strict observance of purity in language and prosody. The chief faults to be avoided were collected; they were 32 in number, and distinguished by particular names. He who invented a new metre, invented also a new tune, the names of which were the drollest and sometimes the most senseless imaginable. Besides their stated meetings they held public meetings, generally on Sundays and festivals in the afternoon in churches. In Nuremberg, where the master-singers flourished particularly, such meetings were opened with free singing, in which anybody might sing, though not belonging to the corporation. In this the choice of the subjects was left comparatively uncontrolled; then followed the chief singing, when only those who belonged to the corporation were allowed to sing, and only on scriptural subjects. The judges were called Merker, and sat behind a curtain. There were four: one watched whether the song was according to the text of the Bible, which lay open before him; the second whether the prosody was correct; the third criticized the rhymes; the fourth the tunes. Every fault was marked, and he who had fewest received the prize, a chain with medals. Whoever had won a chain was allowed to take apprentices, to have many of whom was a great honor. Money was never taken from apprentices. After the expiration of his poetical apprenticeship the young poet was admitted to the corporation, and declared a master after having sung for some time with acceptation. These strange societies originated toward the end of the 14th century at Mainz, Strassburg, Augsburg and continued in several free cities of the empire until the 17th, in Nuremberg to the 18th century, where probably the renown of Hans Sachs (q.v.), the famous shoemaker and poet, kept them longer in existence. The last society of the kind was that of Ulm, which was dissolved in 1839. Richard Wagner, in his musical drama, ‘Die Meistersinger’ satirized the art of these early masters. Consult Mey, K., ‘Der Meistergesang in Geschicht und Kunst’ (1892); Nagel, W., ‘Studien zur Geschicht der Meistersanger’ (1909).