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Who Is Hans Sachs?
(Originally published January 2013)

August, 2017
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

If life did not imitate art, where would we be?  Eyeless in Gaza, like Milton’s Samson.  But art affords us limitless life, raining and reigning amongst the thorns and roses.  Since I was a child I have loved Italian opera. I was fortunate that besides the Kennebunkport Playhouse – where I grew up on Tallulah Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, Edward Everett Horton, Wilfrid Hyde-White and others of my pre-teen vintage – we had the Arundel Opera Theater, a semi-professional outfit that put on such schmaltzy shows as Blossom Time, Song of Norway, The Vagabond King, Desert Song, Rose Marie, and The Student Prince.  As a child I fell in love of course with all the heroines and some of the chorus girls – I remember asking my mother, when I was about ten, how old you had to be to get married; and when I was sixteen I sent a love sonnet to Tallulah Bankhead which, fifty years my senior, she somehow managed to ignore.  The opera company also did two or three Gilbert and Sullivan shows each season, and by the time I went away to school I knew all of the patter songs by heart.  Or, at least, the words.  In my youth I had not yet learned that in order to perform those songs you really have to be able to sing.  Not to seem too high-brow to the locals, they would present two or three Grand Operas each summer, in English, with the recitatives reduced to spoken dialogue.  The musical accompaniment consisted only of two concert grand pianos, one a Steinway, the other a Chickering, and by some standard I suppose these were pretty lame productions, and the theatre closed when I was seventeen; but for ten years I was absolutely dazzled every summer, acquiring a modest working knowledge of a great deal of music which I have spent the rest of my life trying to refine.  I didn’t get to the Met until my senior year in school, but then I was really hooked, especially after their spring tour that year (1963) when La Traviata came to Boston with Anna Moffo, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill.  (I sent Anna Moffo a sonnet – and she, only a few years older than I, wrote me a letter saying that the airline had lost her luggage and she would like another copy!  So much for Tallulah.)

My devotion to Italian opera was deeply intensified by Franz Werfel’s Verdi – A Novel of the Opera (Viking, 1925) which I discovered when I was a college freshman.  The novel turns heavily on the threat Verdi felt imposed upon him by the stormy advent of Richard Wagner, and I was so moved by the German Werfel’s portrayal of the Italian Verdi as Hero and of the German Wagner as Arch-Enemy that for many years I reveled in my own ignorance, enjoying G.B. Shaw’s dislike of the Teutonic Titan, endlessly repeating Mark Twain’s remark that “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds” without, I think, really understanding it.  I took a course in opera that left the “Tristan Chord” mute to my uneducated ear while I held that Joan Sutherland was, after all, an angel come to earth.  I supposed that The Ring Cycle was probably as tiresome as Tolkien and that Brünnhilde was as boring as Bilbo Baggins.  I allowed vaguely that there was a good wedding march in Lohengrin, and almost by accident I noticed (in a Saturday afternoon Met broadcast) that Brünnhilde’s Magic Fire Music is singularly beautiful – but these perceptions were roughly on a par with a colleague’s discovery, after seeing with his family years ago West Side Story on Broadway, that the show has parallels in Romeo and Juliet.

 The almost unbelievably unintelligent progress I am describing is blessed, in light of my present topic, by a great irony.  For forty-five years or so I had occasionally wondered what the Prize Song in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg might sound like.  Something special, I imagined, but in my sworn antipathy to Wagner I never bothered to find out until a year ago, after conductor Raphael  Frühbeck de Burgos and bass-baritone James Morris came to the Boston Symphony with excerpts from the opera.  James Morris as Hans Sachs was so compelling that I resolved to plug this gaping hole in my educational dike, and there’s the irony; for it was the voice of Hans Sachs that led me from my delusion about Wagner.  “Überall Wahn!” he sings in his Act III monologue, “Everywhere delusion!”  “Jetzt schau’n wir, wie Hans Sachs es macht/ das er den Wahn fein lenken kann, /ein edler Werk zu tun”-- “Let’s see what Hans Sachs can do to guide this delusion some nobler work to make.”  He can do a lot, and that he does.

Hans Sachs is a cobbler.  The last scene of the opera, set on the meadow outside Nuremberg where everyone gathers for the song contest, begins with the Shoemakers’ Guild’s praise for their patron, Saint Crispin. (St. Crispin’s feast day, incidentally, is October 25, which Shakespeare’s Henry V immortalizes at Agincourt: “He that outlives this day and comes safe home/ Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named.”  Time hath at his back a wallet wherein he puts alms for oblivion, including the maker of Cinderella’s glass slippers – sexy perhaps in their way but, I would think, dangerous to dance in.  Chaucer’s Wife of Bath had shoes “ful moyste and newe,” Chaucer’s womanizer Absolon in The Miller’s Tale had “Poules wyndow corven on his shoos”, like mine, and Alfred Noyes’s highwayman had boots “up to his thigh.”  In Book II of his Essays Montaigne says: “The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mould.”  We are tired of emperors and in need of cobblers.)  The song contest, for membership in the Guild of Mastersingers, is essentially a contest between the nastily pedantic Sixtus Beckmesser and the noble, slightly naïve knight, Walther von Stolzing, for the hand of the beautiful Eva Pogner, whose father (in a gesture quite unthinkable these days) has given her as the prize for the winner of the contest.  Sachs has made shoes for both Beckmesser and Eva, but his real role is to enable Walter to turn his morning dream into the Prize Song, “Morgenlicht leuchtend,”  “morning light glowing.”

This Sachs is able to do in Act III, explaining to Walther that his initial trial entry was a failure because he broke so many of the Mastersingers’ rules and that to succeed he must make his own rules and follow them.  The Masters’ Rules, Sachs says, were fashioned by men who, oppressed by the daily cares of life, longed to preserve youth and springtime.  Hans Sachs holds that the value of rules can be proved by occasionally allowing an exception.  Dreams and poems are good friends, he tells Walther, and herein lies his genius.  As Walther sings his wonderful morgen traum, Sachs writes it down, recognizing that it is a prize song, lacking only a third stanza.  When Eva appears, pretending that her shoe hurts but really hoping to see Walther, the sight of her inspires Walther to compose his third stanza, and the noble work of Hans Sachs is complete.  That he is able to do this for Walther is the essence of his identity in two related ways.  First, he is in love with Eva himself, though he sees that he is too old to make her a suitable match; and, second, he turns his own love into Walther’s art – whose potential he alone has recognized from the first.  After Walther’s initial failure, Sachs reflects in a monologue on the song that so confounded the Masters when Walther sought candidacy in the Master’s guild earlier that day.  He compares Walther to someone who is inspired by birdsong but is not yet capable of recreating the song himself.  “Macht’ er den Meistern bang, / gar wohl gefiel er doch Hans Sachsen”: he may have made the Masters nervous, but Hans Sachs liked it.  When at last Walther wins the song contest and the hand of Eva, he has unified the two parts of Sachs’s identity: his own love and his ability to perceive the nascent artistry of another.

There are numerous analogies in our literary and cultural heritage to Hans Sachs, the self-effacing “arm einfältig Mann” (poor artless man), as he calls himself, who has the power to bring forth the best in the loves and arts of others without particularly experiencing or even enjoying them himself.  Prospero, in The Tempest, is a magician, but he does not use his powers for his own advantage.  His Milan dukedom usurped by his brother, he does not mourn his loss (“Me, poor man, my library/ Was dukedom large enough”) but devotes his life to cleaning up the lonely island on which he has been cast adrift, especially for the benefit of his daughter, Miranda.  He frees various spirits from the witch Sycorax, and they now serve him to subjugate the beastly Caliban and, ultimately, to bring together Ferdinand and Miranda in a blissful union:  “O brave new world,” she says, “That has such people in it!”  “ ’Tis new to thee,” Prospero replies, much as the older experienced widower Hans Sachs casts his blessing on the wedding of Eva and Walther.  At the end of the play Prospero determines to bury his magic staff and drown his magic book, for his noble work, like the work of Hans Sachs, is finished:  “Our revels now are ended….  We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on,” just like Walther’s prize song.

 John Jarndyce, in Dickens’s Bleak House, becomes the guardian of Esther Summerson, supposedly an orphan, and much of the novel is occupied with Esther’s devotion to him.  Inevitably, if unseemly, he eventually writes a letter asking her to marry him, and she accepts his offer from a sense of duty and gratitude, though she loves young Doctor Woodcourt.  When he discovers the true state of her heart, he surrenders her to Woodcourt thus: 

My darling girl, in what there has been between us, I have, I hope, been really solicitous for your happiness.  When I wrote you the letter to which you brought the answer, I had my own too much in view; but I had yours too.  Whether, under different circumstances, I might have renewed the old dream I sometimes dreamed when you were very young, of making you my wife one day, I need not ask myself….  When it was that I began to doubt whether what I had done would really make you happy, is no matter.  Woodcourt came home, and I soon had no doubt at all.

Like Hans Sachs and Prospero, Mr. Jarndyce is here not sacrificing a dream, not making himself  a martyr.  Rather, he is bringing a dream into reality, creating, as it were, a prize song, a brave new world…for another.

In Cold Comfort Farm,” by Stella Gibbons, Flora Poste is Hans Sachs.  She tidies things (“messes or miseries,” “masses of mud”) up at the farm, seat of the  messed-up and miserable Starkadder family.  She encourages the evangelical Cousin Amos to go on the road in “one o’ they Ford vans,” thus liberating one of this grim, formidable, and freakish clan from the tyrannical Aunt Ada Doom, at seventy-nine still recalling with horrified relish having seen “something nasty in the woodshed” three quarters of a century ago.  She liberates Cousin Seth to “go on the talkies” where he would become “a world-famous, swollen mask,” starring in “Small Town Sheik” and other Hollywood extravaganzas.    She arranges a marriage between the aptly-named Elfine and Richard Hawk-Monitor, of “Howchiker” (Hautcouture) Hall, and her crowning triumph is to place the farm in the deserving hands of Cousin Reuben by showing Aunt Ada the latest number of Vogue and a prospectus of the Hotel Miramar in Paris.  Aunt Ada leaves for Paris by private plane on Midsummer’s Eve, and Flora, whose ambition at age nineteen is to write (when she is “fifty-three or so”) a novel as good as Persuasion, flies off  to marry her cousin Charles Fairford, with him in his aeroplane Speed Cop the Second:  “We’ve had a wedding here today, and I’ve tidied everything up.”  For her, as for Hans Sachs and Prospero, as for Eva and Walther, Ferdinand and Miranda, “to-morrow would be a beautiful day,”

Lionel Logue, in The King’s Speech, is Hans Sachs.  He is not a doctor; he is too old to play Richard III; but despite his having no credentials save experience, he is the speech therapist who is the salvation of the stammering King George VI.  He refuses to be called “doctor” (in fact he is not one), and he refuses to call the king anything but “Bertie.”  On the eve of the Second World War, he does not write the speech; he does not deliver the speech; but he produces the speech—the Prize Song—and continues in his role as long as the king reigns.  Lucien Lauren, in Secretariat, is Hans Sachs.  He doesn’t own the horse; he doesn’t ride the horse; he doesn’t really train the horse to win his phenomenal, record-breaking, record-still-unbroken race.  But he makes Penny Chenery Tweedy’s dream into a prize song.  Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire can’t run, can hardly breathe, but his runners run. Leaving Wodehouse out of it, even Jeeves is Hans Sachs in a kind of inverted way.  Though we are given to know that he once “had an understanding” with a young woman, he remains unmarried, and his most notable achievements are devices for keeping the fecklessly susceptible Bertie Wooster in that happy state.  These Hans Sachses of mine are not really inspirations, or inspirational.  They are not really teachers.  They are not disingenuously self-deprecating martyrs.  They are not selfish, but they are not selfless either.  They are not performers, though they might wish and deserve to be.  They are not really philosophers or poets (“lovers of wisdom” or “makers,” in Greek).  Each is, in Hans Sachs’s words, “ein arm einfältig’ Mann,” “a poor, simple man.”  That is true, to the extent that it is true of all of us, man or woman.  But each has an essence that is neither poor nor simple, neither impoverished nor artless.  Sachlich in German means essential.  I don’t know enough German to say that  there’s a connection with the name of Hans Sachs, but perhaps it is not a coincidence that he is essential, not in the sense of necessary but in the sense of embodying a single distinct quality that makes him what, or whatever, he is.  So, who is Hans Sachs?  Well, among others he is James Morris, who after almost half a century led me to The Prize Song, though he neither composed nor sang it himself.  The Dream and the Prize Song are one after all.

Charles E. Gould, Jr. is a retired member of the English department at Kent School, an antiquarian bookseller, and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine.