The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Hans Sachs

1494-1576  [Accessed February 27, 2002]

Hans Sachs, 1494-1576, German poet, leading meistersinger of the Nuremberg school. A shoemaker and guild master, he wrote more than 4,000 master songs in addition to some 2,000 fables, tales in verse (Schwanke), morality plays, and farces. His Shrovetide plays, humorous and dramatically effective, present an informative picture of life in 16th-century Nuremberg. An ardent follower of Luther, Sachs wrote the poem "The Nightingale of Wittenberg in Luther's honor. Many of his melodies were later adapted as Protestant hymn tunes. Hans Sachs is a principal character in several operas, notably in Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Meistersinger: Pronounced As: mistrsingr, Ger. mishtrzingr [Ger.,=mastersinger], a member of one of the musical and poetic guilds that flourished in German cities during the 15th and 16th cent. The guilds or schools comprised chiefly artisans who claimed artistic descent from the courtly minnesingers. Each member was required to compose and sing according to rigid technical formulas laid down in the Tabulatur. Candidates for the coveted rank of Meister were judged in public contest. Some of the song texts of Hans Sachs and others became famous, but it was Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) that popularized knowledge of the movement.

Note: A kind visitor to this site offered the following correction (for which I am appreciative): "Instead of pronouncing the word as "mishtrzingr," a closer approximation would be "my-ster-zinger," with the accent on the first syllable.  (In German, the "st" combination sometimes becomes pronounced as "sht," but only at the beginning of a word.)

Minnesinger Pronounced As: minisingr , a medieval German knight, poet, and singer of Minne, or courtly love. Originally imitators of Provençal troubadours, minnesingers developed their own style in the 13th and 14th cent. Some of their poems are among the best of Middle High German lyric verse. Important exponents of Minnesang included Heinrich von Morungen, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Oswald von Wolkenstein, as well as Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and other authors of epics. Wagner's opera Tannhäuser is based on minnesinger art and tradition.

Source: [Accessed March 1, 2002]

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 10. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 17-21.

In the sixteenth century, Nürnberg, the eye and ear of Germany, as Luther termed it, set the fashion for other towns, and was regarded as the classic home of the Carnival-play. But from the days of Hans Sachs, whose first piece was written in 1516, Nürnberg dramatists ranged far beyond the old farces. Sachs surpassed all his contemporaries in fertility and artistic power; for there was no province in which he did not try his hand, no interest of the time which did not find an echo in his writings; yet in his versification he persistently adhered to the worst traditions of the close of the middle ages. He had no idea that there could be any fixed relation between matter and form, and in no writer of the sixteenth century is the want of aesthetic culture which characterizes the epoch so apparent. At the same time, he is not incapable of artistic composition, and we may even say that he is the greatest poetical genius that had appeared in Germany since the Minnesingers. Although a Protestant, he had not the combative temperament of Hutten or a Manuel; his poetry was not inspired by indignation, and he retained his poetical composure in the midst of the troublous times in which he wrote. His power of easy creation resulted from the peacefulness of his nature; he looked on the world with an untroubled glance, and could enter into his life with a sympathy free from all egotism. What he himself observed he was able to reproduce in words; but he endeavored to represent many things which had never fallen under his observation, and he made the mistake of thinking that every form of poetry was suitable for every theme. He treated many of his subjects in lyrics and in epic rhymed couplets, as well as in dramatic form. It is a pity that he did not likewise treat them in prose, for his Reformation pamphlets show us that in prose writing he commands a clear and flexible style.

Hans Sachs made use of all forms of literature in his efforts to diffuse information on various subjects; he was a real teacher of the people, and his teaching was of a comforting and conciliatory character, springing from his own kind and gentle nature. He always unites description and reflection; he is a master of description, and makes use of it on every possible occasion, but his reflections are for the most part trivial. He pictures graphically to himself all the scenes which are within his power of imagination. As an instance of this may be mentioned his story of the peddler who goes to sleep in a wood, and has his wares plundered and his clothes damaged by apes. The heat, the weary peddler, the quiet of the wood, the shade, the cool spring inviting to rest, the dream which conjures up before his eyes a vision of the village festival and of large receipts; the devastation caused by the apes, and the exact contents of the basket ransacked by them--all this is most vividly described. He does not think of telling us at the outset what the peddler's pack contained; we only learn it when the things themselves come to light, action thus taking the place of mere description. In other cases, too, we notice that he tries to give his story a poetic form. Thus, when wishing to describe the latest victories of Charles V, he pictures himself as coming one day into Nürnberg from the country to make purchases, as seeing with astonishment many signs of festal rejoicing, and at length asking an explanation from an old man, who then gives him a short narrative of the events.

In his tales and dramas Sachs frequently endeavors to connect action with motive and to develop character; but he as frequently neglects this altogether, or attempts it only in the most superficial manner. He does not go so far as summarily to dismiss his characters from the stage when he no longer requires them there, but the reasons for their exit are often very insufficient. He divided his comedies and tragedies into acts, but the number of acts is quite capricious, and the division is often made at a most unfitting place. He twice dramatized the pretty story of Eve's good and bad children being examined by God in the doctrines of faith, and some of them answering badly in their examination. Each version has its special merits, but in the second the close of the act is made in the midst of the examination, where it is utterly out of place. With regard to his character-drawing, it is in treating serious subjects that Hans Sachs furnishes us with truly individual personalities, for then he draws them from his own experience. He represents in a touching manner the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and effectually enlists our sympathies on the side of our first parents, whom affliction only binds more closely together. Specially charming is his description of Eve's naive fear of God, whose visits alarm her; and of Adam as a father, instructing his boys how to behave before the good God, how to take off their caps, to bow and to give their hand. In Cain, the poet has given us an excellent picture of a naughty boy. The impetuousity and imprudence of the porter of Heaven, St. Peter, are drawn with inimitable humor in all Sach's farces and dramas. Frequently he paints not individuals, but types, like the masks of Italian comedy; in this he was influenced by the German poetry of the day, whose strength lay in satirical caricature. One or more of these typical figures regularly appears in every farce--the Catholic priest and his housefkeeper, the cheating landlord, the wicked and quarrelsome old dame, the sharp-witted wandering scholar, the unfaithful wife, the jealous husband and many others. In his invention of dramatic situations, striking speeches and comic scenes, as in his creation of characters, the poet has certain fixed models at his disposal, which he further embellishes by traits drawn from his own observation.

Sach's literary activity extended from 1514 to 1569. According to his own reckoning he had by the year 1567 written 4,275 master-songs, 208 dramas, 1,558 comic stories, fables, histories, figures, comparisons, allegories, dreams, visions, lamentations, controversial dialogues, psalms and religious songs, street and tavern songs, and a few prose dialogues--all in all, 6,048 pieces, large or small. It is in his farces and fables that he best satisfies the requirements of art; he is less happy in his Carnival-plays, and still less in his other dramas. His first tragedies, Lucretia and Virginia, dealt with stories of Roman liberty. It was not till 1533 that he turned his attention to the Scriptural drama, and not till 1545 that he began dramatizing tragic subjects drawn from tales, especially Boccaccio. The period of his greatest dramatic activity falls between 1550 and 1560; in these years he wrote plays in bulk, seizing alike on Scriptural, classical or romantic subjects. He represents throughout the sketchy style of drama; he only gives slight outlines, and does not develop, but compresses.

Hans Sachs died in 1576, in the eighty-first year of his age. Through his influence the Nürnberg school of dramatic art became the example not only for the towns in the immediate neighborhood, but also for Magdeburg, Augsburg, Breslau and Strassburg. And even in the present-day, relics of his dramas may still be found in the plays acted by the German peasants of upper Bavaria, as far as Hungary and Silesia. In those districts they have survived like popular songs.

HOASM.ORG [Accessed February 27, 2002]

Hans Sachs (1494 - 1576)

German Meistersinger. By trade a shoemaker, he was the chief exponent of Nürnberg Meistergesang. He provided tunes for stage productions in the 1550s, and was master of a song-school in 155561. By 1567 he had devised several thousand songs from 301 'tones' (standard melodies), some of which he had invented himself; these fell into sacred, secular and dramatic categories. A fertile poet, he wrote an allegorical work in support of Luther. His melodies, though perhaps somewhat stilted, are unusual for their melismas at the beginnings and ends of lines.

Western Germany,,  [Accessed February 27, 2002]

Monument to Hans Sachs

The statue of Hans Sachs managed to survive the destruction of Nürnberg by Allied bombing in January 1945, although all the buildings around it were demolished. New modern buildings have replaced the historic buildings that were destroyed.

Hans Sachs lived from 1494 to 1576, during the Renaissance period, and was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer and Martin Luther, who led the Protestant Reformation. Sachs was a folk singer who belonged to the guild of meistersingers or master singers in Germany. In 1515 he established his residence at Nürnberg after a period of traveling all over Germany writing and singing songs. He became a shoe maker but continued to compose thousands of poems and songs. His name was immortalized by Richard Wagner (1813 to 1883) who based an opera on him, called Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. A performance of this opera always preceded the annual Nazi rallies at Nürnberg in the 1930ies.

Statue of Hans Sachs, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, after Jan. 1945 bombing

Notes from Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany, 1869, to Awake, My Heart’s Delight, Awake

It is curious also to note that now, for the first time, Northern Germany furnishes the largest proportion of singers; hitherto the southern half of Germany had claimed nearly all its literary and poetical activity,--now on the contrary, the North supplanted the Southern "Volkslied" on its own ground.

But the South could still boast of possessing at Nuremberg the best poet of his day, the one who linked the times that were passing to the new period that was coming in, for he characteristically belonged to the Middle Ages, and yet was among the earliest and warmest adherents of the Reformation.

Nuremberg itself was one of the most splendid results of those ages. It was a great free city, whose social polity was the pride of its citizens and the admiration of strangers, wealthy, and full of stirring and successful commercial enterprise; the home of the great mechanical and scientific inventions of the day; and rich in treasures of Gothic art in its streets and churches. Martin Schön was engraving, and Albert Durer was painting there, where, according to the old doggrel rhyme--

"Hans Sachs, who was a shoe-
Maker, and a poet too,"

was winding up with his own name the long roll of her "Master-singers," and opening the way to the new style of modern poetry.

Hans Sachs was the son of a tailor, and was born in 1494, during a fearful epidemic of the plague. His parents were industrious, God-fearing people, who early sent him to the grammar-school; but as his health was not strong, they thought it better he should be put to a trade than allowed to study as he wished. At fourteen, accordingly he apprenticed to a shoemaker, but about the same time he made the acquaintance of Leonard Nunnenbeck, who was a weaver and also the most celebrated "Master-singer" of the day.

Nunnenbeck remarked the boy's talent, and at once received him among his pupils; and when, at seventeen, Hans Sachs set out on his wanderings, his object was to perfect himself not only in the craft of shoemaking, but also in that of verse-making. He visited the great schools of his art in Mayence and Strasburg, and ere long made such progress that he himself acted as teacher in Frankfort and Munich.

He was a favourite everywhere for his talent and his wit, but he led a singularly pure and abstemious life; and at twenty-two returned to his native city, presented his master-piece as a shoemaker, and when admitted to the guild, married, and settled down in Nuremberg. Here he spent the rest of his long life,--for though he was a delicate child, he lived to be eighty-one,--working sometimes at his trade, sometimes giving instruction in the art of composition, more often engaged on his own compositions.

These earned him in his own day great renown and a wide popularity, and he was the first author who lived to see a complete collected edition of his own works. It was published at Nuremberg in 1558, in five folio volumes. He was indeed a most prolific writer, surpassed only by Lopes de Vega, for he published more than six thousand poems, of course of very varying excellence. Almost every style of poetry, except the dramatic which he but slightly attempted, is largely represented among them,--lyrical, narrative, satirical, humorous and earnest.

His highest merit, which won for him the admiration of Goethe, lay in his short tales, many of which are comic, though all have some moral point, and which are told with a spirit and humour, a freshness and pathos that both render them attractive in themselves and valuable as a vivid picture of the life of his times. The greater number of his more humorous poems belong to his later years; most of his earlier ones are serious--first love-songs of a very pure and domestic character, then poems chiefly of the political and religious class.

Such works, handling the most important topics of the day and circulated on broadsheets as fast as they were written, helped to form the public opinion of the times as powerfully as newspapers do now, and it was no slight gain to the cause of the Reformation that so ready and favourite a writer should from the first have taken that side.

In 1523 he published a poem which soon spread all over Germany, called the "Nightingale of Wittenberg." It described the state of Christendom, by picturing the miseries of a poor flock of sheep which have fallen among wolves, and are especially exposed to the rapacity of a lion (Leo X.), who had craftily undertaken to defend them. Suddenly they hear the clear notes of a nightingale, foretelling the day-dawn, and the sheep who follow this voice are led out into a lovely sunny, safe meadow.

His keen, shrewd rightmindedness made him appreciate how great an influence the new mode of thought would inevitably exercise on the domestic life, and also on the social and political condition of the nation; and hence many of his poems take up the questions of the honourableness of marriage, the necessity of concession on the part of the rulers, and of love of the commonwealth and readiness to make sacrifices for it on the part of the people of Germany.

He saw, too, the dangers of discord and quarrels among the Reformers; and when Luther dies, he represents Theology as weeping over the coffin of the man of God, and mourning the treatment she receives at the hands of presumptuous secretaries. He comforts her by telling her that she has yet defenders left, and that Luther's doctrine has at least put an end for ever to all the monkey-tricks of relics and shrines, pretended miracles and indulgences. But he does not conceal his fears of the dissensions among Christians themselves, and exhorts them to hold fast by the pure Gospel: "Love God above all, and thy neighbour as thyself; against that doctrine ban and edict, clergy and laity, school and preaching, monks and old women, will alike be powerless."

The most famous of his hymns is one that he wrote during the terrible siege of Nuremberg in 1561:-- "Why art thou thus cast down, my heart?" Of his others we give two; the first is called Awake, My Heart’s Delight, Awake.


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