Wagner's instrumental Prelude to act III of Die Meistersinger von Nüürnberg(1868) is a skeleton key to the entire opera. Within the opera, it is a psychological portrait of the protagonist, Hans Sachs. The standard-bearer for the Protestant Reformation, Sachs must surrender his personal claims on Eva in order to shepherd his flock, the stratified citizenry of Nuremberg, into a state of peaceful equilibrium. At the beginning of act III, however, Sachs has not assumed his destiny. The Prelude presents the protagonist beset by inner strife and pinioned at the crux of the Ideal and the Real. Sachs's internal conflict is made musically manifest when the breakthrough moment of the "Wach auf'" chorale (the "ecstasy") is subsequently overturned by the reprise of what Wagner calls the "cry of complaint" (the "agony").
By closely analyzing the interaction of musical form and programmatic allusion in the Prelude, this essay elucidates the function of religious symbolism in Die Meistersinger. The act III Prelude is shown to operate at three hermeneutic levels. First, an appeal to the collective cultural imagination of the audience, the Prelude is replete with textures and contrasts that evoke religious narrative. Second, it incorporates within its formal structure a "narrative of frustration" that links Sachs to the archetypal figure of the disillusioned, saintly artist in Wagner's writings. Finally, the Prelude participates as an intermediate station within a large-scale narrative of frustration that spans acts II and III. A new interpretation of the Prelude's form provides an alternative to the prevailing interpretation of an arch form and gives impetus to a host of hermeneutic forays into the thicket of Wagnerian sound and drama. Concluding with a perusal of religious metaphor in contemporary documents and examples of program music, this essay shows how the act III Prelude captures a moment not only on the stage of Die Meistersinger but also on the stage of nineteenth-century Western classical music.