Notes From an Opera

Notes From an Opera

What Wagner says (by implication) about crosswords


Joshua writes about the connections between music and puzzles:

In his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) Wagner uses the premise of a medieval song contest to lay out, and also demonstrate, some ideas about the creative process. The craftsmen in this German city are cobblers, bakers, smiths and so on by day, but they also form a guild of what we might call singer-songwriters, who operate according to a strict set of musical and poetic rules. (This much, incidentally, is based on historical fact.)

Into this setting comes a young upstart, Walther von Stolzing, who wants to enter the contest. He doesn’t know or care about the rules. All he’s got is his untamed native genius, with which he spins a song that is stirringly beautiful but also formless and undisciplined. The mastersingers send him packing—all except for one, the shoemaker Hans Sachs, who takes Walther under his wing and teaches him the basic principles of the craft. Out of this tutelage comes a prizewinning song that has all the beauty and originality of Walther’s first effort, but also the sturdy structural clarity that only creative constraints can provide.

I think about this opera and its underlying philosophy frequently, both during my day (and night) job as a classical music critic and in my parallel life as a puzzle maker. The principles it embodies strike me as widely applicable to any kind of creative endeavor. Raw inspiration, of the sort that sets Walther upon his path as an artist, is a necessary component. But it’s not sufficient; you also need a framework of rules and conventions to work within, and a set of constraints to push against.

These are among the issues I try to consider when writing about music: Does it operate clearly enough within existing conventions to be comprehensible, while still being sufficiently adventurous? And Henri and I do something similar in creating the Nation puzzle every week. We hew to the familiar conventions of cryptic crosswords—everything from grid symmetry to the two-part structure of cryptic clues—but also do our best to challenge them in ways that will surprise, and we hope delight, the solver.

And although it may be presumptuous to compare music to puzzles, here too Wagner points the way. For all its celebration of art with a capital A, Die Meistersinger is populated by craftsmen who don’t regard that distinction as quite so inviolable. For Hans Sachs, making a good song stems from the same impulse as making a good pair of shoes. I like to imagine that had he lived a few centuries later, he might have enjoyed a good crossword puzzle as well.

This week’s cluing challenge: WAGNERIAN. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

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