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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY FIVE Ice Cream and Die Meistersinger

We made it to Ansbach and supper at the Bratwurst Glockle and then pushed on to Crailsheim: I am writing now from the Eiscafe Venezia with the blue glint of a Schmetterling ('butterfly') ice cream asking for my attention. Germans love ice cream and they have some great flavours – Sahne Kirsch (cherry with cream) was my reserve choice; the Race Marshal opted for her usual biker's helping of Schokolade (chocolate); and we could have had champagne, beer, pear-parsley, pumpernickel, rose or even tuna.

As the name of our cafe suggests, ice cream is here because of Italian immigration. Factories churn out 85% of Germany's ice cream but a good portion is local and fresh, made primarily by Italians or by Germans of Italian heritage. The Sarcletti family opened an ice cream parlour in Munich in 1879 - when Carl Linde was installing refrigeration at the Spaten brewery. The Sarclettis now have a lovely cafe offering meals as well - including their cross-over steamed pasta with vanilla sauce.

ice cream in the colours of the German flag (c)

Ice cream as a phenomenon really took off after the war, when the first waves of Italian immigrants arrived and found willing customers among American troops. Today, Germany is the largest market for ice cream in Europe and they have a statistic to be proud of: minors eat 15% while afficionados over the age of 55 eat 40% of the annual production, a treat that costs them one billion euros.

There were no ice cream parlours in Nuremberg when Wagner was considering Die Meistersinger, nice though it would be to see Hans Sachs enjoying a cornetto. It is even doubtful that Wagner could have afforded one – he was in penury when he visited Nuremberg in 1861, and composed Die Meistersinger primarily for the money. His scoring was crafted to suit the resources of lesser opera houses so that, as he told his publisher, Franz Schott, they would need 'neither a so-called leading tenor nor a great tragic soprano'.

He also wrote despairingly to Schott: "Schleunige Hilfe! Otherwise I'll go into the water!" To which appeal for 'help urgently', Schott replied: 'I cannot provide you with the larger amount requested ... a music publisher cannot meet your needs - only an enormously wealthy banker or a prince who has millions at his disposal can do this.'

Wagner was to find his 'prince' in the shape of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, though Schott did remain financially important, supporting the first Bayreuth Festival and paying Wagner a huge fee for Parsifal, his last work.

Schotts (no longer a family firm) are and have been vital in the world of music. In addition to Die Meistersinger, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, they published Donizetti, Rossini, and Liszt. From the twentieth century, their stable includes Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Carl Orff, Hans Werner Henze, Tippett, Ligeti, Penderecki, and Alexander Goehr - as well as the film music of Nino Rota, Howard Shore and Erich Korngold (John Amis once remarked 'more korn than gold').

Nuremberg appealed to Wagner as a setting for his opera because here the medieval was encased in amber. Nothing had happened to change the city since the sixteenth century. This stasis was partly due to the economic decline that set in after the discovery of a sea route to India, ruining the overland trade in spices, but principally because the ruling aristocracy imposed strict planning laws that forbade development.

Wagner was following in well-worn footsteps in his enthusiasm for the city in amber. Wilhelm Wackenroder, the co-founder of German Romanticism, was equally inspired:

Nuremberg! O town of erstwhile universal fame! How gladly I wandered through your narrow crooked streets; with what childlike love I observed your ancestral houses and churches which bear the firm imprint of our fatherland's ancient art! What heartfelt love I feel for the creations of that age, creations which speak so vigorous, powerful and true a language! How they draw me back to that grey century when you, Nuremberg, were the life-teeming school of our fatherland's art and when a truly fruitful and prodigal spirit flourished within your walls: when Master Hans Sachs and Adam Kraft the sculptor and, above all, Albrecht Durer and his friend Wilibaldus Pirckheimer and so many other highly praised men of honour were still alive! [trans. Stewart Spencer]

'We live by the spirit. The rest belongs to death' - Durer's engraving of Wilibaldus Pirckheimer, humanist and friend of Erasmus (c)rijksmuseum

Wagner, writing to Franz Schott, characterised Nuremberg as the 'real nerve-centre of German life .... the old, true seat of German art, German uniqueness and splendour, the powerful old free city, well-preserved like a precious jewel...' And for the first production of Meistersinger, he insisted that his set designers travel to Nuremberg to sketch the actuality of a medieval town.

It is a testament to Wagner's fortitude that he could still focus on artistic excellence. The 1860s had been the most dreadful decade. He only returned to Germany in 1862 after being forced to flee to avoid arrest for his part in the 1849 uprising in Dresden. His wife, Minna, had become clinically depressed: Wagner had been unfaithful with the wife of one patron and was now infatuated with the wife of another - Mathilde Wesendonck, for whom he wrote the Wesendonck Lieder, settings of five of her poems.

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Ferdinand Sohn (c)wikicommons

After the Wesendonck affair, Minna and Wagner lived apart and their miserable relationship ended with her death in 1866. In those years, Wagner had to endure mocking laughter at his Paris reworking (complete with ballet) of Tannhäuser; he had to abandon the Vienna production of Tristan und Isolde, after seventy seven rehearsals; and he became so dispirited after two decades of trying that he now saw no hope of completing Der Ring des Nibelungen.

So in 1868, as opening night in Munich loomed, Wagner could hardly take another body blow. He had found the 'prince' that Schott had suggested - King Ludwig II - who was funding the production. Meistersinger really needed to be a success. Wagner anxiously watched the first performance with King Ludwig from the Royal Box. And when it was over and the audience clapped and called out his name, Wagner stepped forward and bowed in triumph - but the cheers turned to gasps of horror: he had stepped in front of the King, an appalling breach of protocol.

though badly damaged by bombs and street fighting, Nuremberg remained quintessentially medieval (c)wikicommons

I feel sad that Nuremberg is fading into the distance: in many ways, it is Germany. But Crailsheim has its attractions: the starting point might be the fabled Restaurant der Hirschgarten - perhaps crispy potato and mozzarella Ballchen in a sour cream sauce or, difficult to decide, pike with asparagus and Butterkartoffeln.

This is the song on the theme of infanticide that I couldn't remember on Friday -

An inventive ice cream chef -

Wesendonck Lieder with Kirsten Flagstad and Hans Knapptersbusch -

Same from Jessye Norman/Colin Davis -

Furtwangler conducting the overture to Die Meistersinger in 1942. The cameraman has made some wonderful August Sander-like portraits for Fred at the end -

By way of comparison, this is Arturo Toscanini conducting the overture -

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