1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Meistersinger
MEISTERSINGER (Ger. for “master-singer”), the name given to the German lyric poets of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, who carried on and developed the traditions of the medieval Minnesingers (q.v.). These singers, who, for the most part, belonged to the artisan and trading classes of the German towns, regarded as their masters and the founders of their gild twelve poets of the Middle High German period, among whom were Wolfram von Eschenbach, Konrad von Würzburg, Reinmar von Zweter and Frauenlob. The last mentioned of these, Frauenlob, is said to have established the earliest Meistersinger school at Mainz, early in the 14th century. This is only a tradition, but the institution of such schools originated undoubtedly in the upper Rhine district. In the 14th century there were schools at Mainz, Strassburg, Frankfort, Würzburg, Zürich and Prague; in the 15th at Augsburg and Nuremberg, the last becoming in the following century, under Hans Sachs, the most famous of all. By this time the Meistersinger schools had spread all over south and central Germany; and isolated gilds were to be found farther north, at Magdeburg, Breslau, Görlitz and Danzig.
Each gild numbered various classes of members, ranging from beginners, or Schüler (corresponding to trade-apprentices), and Schulfreunde (who were equivalent to Gesellen or journeymen), to Meister, a Meister being a poet who was not merely able to write new verses to existing melodies but had himself invented a new melody. The poem was technically known as a Bar or Gesetz, the melody as a Ton or Weis. The songs were all sung in the schools without accompaniment. The rules of the art were set down in the so-called Tabulatur or law-book of the gild. The meetings took place either m the Rathaus, or town hall, or, when they were held — as was usually the case — on Sunday, in the church; and three times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide and Christmas, special festivals and singing competitions were instituted. At such competitions or Schulsingen judges were appointed, the so-called Merker, whose duty it was to criticize the competitors and note their offences against the rules of the Tabulatur.
The literary value of the Meistersinger poetry was hardly in proportion to the large part it played in the life of the German towns of the 15th and 16th centuries. As the medieval lyric decayed, more and more attention was given to the externals of poetic composition, the form, the number of syllables, the melody; and it was such externals that attracted the interest of these burgher-poets. Poetry was to them a mechanical art that could be learned by diligent application, and the prizes they had to bestow were the rewards of ingenuity, not of genius or inspiration. Consequently we find an extraordinary development of strophic forms corresponding to the many new “tones” which every Meistersinger regarded it as his duty to invent — tones which bore the most remarkable and often ridiculous names, such as Gestreiftsafranblümleinweis, Fettdachsweis, Vielfrassweis, geblümte Paradiesweis, &c. The verses were adapted, to the musical strophes by a merely mechanical counting of syllables, regardless of rhythm or sense. The meaning, the sentiment, the thought, were the last things to which the Meistersingers gave heed. At the same time there was a certain healthy aspect in the cultivation of the Meistergesang among the German middle classes of the 15th and 16th centuries; the Meistersinger poetry, if not great or even real poetry, had — especially in the hands of a poet like Hans Sachs — many germs of promise for the future. It reflected without exaggeration or literary veneer the faith of the German burgher, his blunt good sense and honesty of purpose. In this respect it was an important factor in the rise of that middle-class literature which found its most virile expression in the period of the Reformation. The Meistergesang reached its highest point in the 16th century; and it can hardly be said to have outlived that epoch, although the traditions of the Meistersinger schools lingered in south German towns even as late as the 19th century.
Specimens of Meistersinger poetry will be found in various collections, such as J. J. Görres, Altdeutsche Volks- und Meisterlieder (1817); K. Bartsch, Meisterlieder der Kolmarer Handschrift (Publ. of the Stuttgart Literarischer Verein, vol. lxviii.; 1862). Of the older sources of information about the Meistersinger the most important are Adam Puschmann, Gründlicher Bericht des deutschen Meistergesangs zusamt der Tabulatur (1571; reprinted in W. Braune's Neudrucke deutscher Literaturwerke des 16. und 17. Jahrh., 73, 1888), and J. C. Wagenseil, De civitate Noribergensi (1697). See further J. Grimm, Über den altdeutschen Meistergesang (1811); F. Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Zur Geschichte des deutschen Meistergesangs (1872); R. von Liliencron, Über den Inhalt der allgemeinen Bildung in der Zeit der Scholastik (1876); G. Jacobsthal, “Die musikalische Bildung der Meistersinger” (Zeitschrift für deut. Altertum, xx., 1876); O. Lyon, Minne- und Meistergesang (1882); K. Mey, Der Meistergesang in Geschichte und Kunst (1892). The art of the Meistersingers has been immortalized by Richard Wagner in his music drama, Die Meistersinger (1868).
(J. G. R.)