Der fliegende Holländer
Premiered: 2 January 1843, Dresden
Off the coast of Norway, a mysterious sailor and his equally mysterious ship appears. We learn that the sailor, the eponymous Dutchman, is fated to journey the seas for eternity – only if he finds unquestionable devotion from another, will the spell be broken. Senta, a local seamstress, is smitten. To prove her faithfulness, she makes the ultimate sacrifice…
Looking back in later years, Wagner liked to present his Der fliegende Holländer (‘The Flying Dutchman’) as the first of his mature music dramas, the product of a German artist who had at last discovered his calling. In fact it was begun in France when Wagner was seeking his fame and fortune there, hoping to breach the citadel of the Paris Opera with a success to emulate those of Meyerbeer.
It was by no means his first opera. He had previously essayed the styles of German Romanticism in Die Feen (‘The Fairies’; 1833), French-Italian light opera in Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’; 1835) and French grand opera in Rienzi (1840). Evidence of his grand operatic ambition was there but, aside from some local appreciation, little sign of a major breakthrough. And already, aged just 30, his life had had its share of drama – posts in Magdeburg and Riga had been accompanied by the accumulation of debts and marital problems.
Now, inspired by his stormy sea journey away from the Latvian capital (and his creditors), he came up with a scenario – about a cursed Dutch sea captain destined to sail the oceans for eternity – that he thought might at least make a suitable curtain-raiser in Paris. He was unable to get it accepted there, but in elaborating it for the Court Opera in Dresden he was able to flesh it out into a full-scale, three-act opera. These days it is sometimes done in the three-act version with intervals, sometimes as a through-composed structure without them.
The Holländer certainly marks a step forward in Wagner’s stylistic development, not least in the way it to some extent abandons individual numbers in favour of continuous composition. Something akin to the traditional numbers is still in evidence – Senta’s Ballad and the choruses of the Norwegian and Dutch crews are examples – but the composer is keen to cover over the traces and prevent audience applause if possible. Senta’s Ballad is a particularly interesting case because such a ballad is a traditional feature of 19th-century opera.
But what Wagner does is to elevate his to a position of pivotal importance in his work. Coming as it does immediately after the metrical chattering of the Spinning Chorus, the Ballad lifts us out of the mundane, bourgeois, domestic sphere of the spinning maidens and into another world altogether: a world inhabited by a visionary woman who identifies her role as the redeemer of the accursed sea captain.
In Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner felt, not without justification, that he had begun a new stage in his career: as the creator of a drama in which the poetic text was no less important than the music – hence his insistence on writing both. It was to be another decade before he finally mastered the synthesis of music and text that was to characterise his greatest works.
But it was a major step, both in terms of its musical structure and in the dark, brooding nature of the work’s subject. The premiere in Dresden was not quite the success the more triumphalist Rienzi had been, but it was enough to earn him the job of Kapellmeister in that city.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.