The story takes place in Nuremberg during the middle of the 16th century. At the time, Nuremberg was a free imperial city, and one of the centers of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The story revolves around the real-life guild of Meistersinger, an association of amateur poets and musicians, mostly from the middle class and often master craftsmen in their main professions. The Mastersingers developed a craftsmanlike approach to music-making, with an intricate system of rules for composing and performing songs. The work draws much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the Nuremberg of the era and the traditions of the Mastersinger guild. One of the main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure: Hans Sachs, the most famous of the historical Mastersingers.
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