Conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) performs the “Overture” of The Flying Dutchman (German: Der fliegende Holländer), WWV 63, a German-language opera in three acts, with libretto and music by Richard Wagner. Recorded at the opening concert (Eröffnungskonzert) of the Rheingau Musik Festival 2017 at the Kloster Eberbach (Eberbach Abbey) on June 24, 2017. Published by the hr-Sinfonieorchester channel.
The premiere of the opera was in Dresden in 1843. Wagner claimed in his 1870 autobiography Mein Leben (English: My Life, covering the years from the composer’s birth in 1813 to 1864) that he had been inspired to write the opera following a stormy sea crossing he made from Riga to London in July and August 1839 (then he was only 26 years-old). In his 1843 Autobiographic Sketch, Wagner acknowledged he had taken the story from the German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic Heinrich Heine’s (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) retelling of the legend of “The Flying Dutchman” in his 1833 satirical novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski). The central theme is redemption through love.
The Flying Dutchman (Dutch: De Vliegende Hollander) is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. The myth is likely to have originated from 17th century nautical folklore.
From Riga to London
By the beginning of 1839, when he was 26-year-old, Richard Wagner was employed as a conductor at the Court Theatre in Riga (today the capital and the largest city of Latvia, in 1839, it was an industrialized port city of the Russian empire). But, his extravagant lifestyle plus the retirement from the stage of his actress wife, Minna, caused him to run up huge debts that he was unable to repay.
At that time, he was writing Rienzi, one of his early operas, and hatched a plan to flee his creditors in Riga, escape to Paris via London and make his fortune by putting Rienzi on to the stage of the Paris Opéra. But, the plan failed as his passport having been seized by the authorities on behalf of his creditors. Wagner and Minna had to make a dangerous and illegal crossing over the Prussian border, during which Minna suffered a miscarriage.
The captain of the ship named Thetis had agreed to take them without passports. The couple boarded to the ship and started their journey – which was hindered by storms and high seas. At one point, Thetis took refuge in the Norwegian fjords at Tvedestrand, and a trip that was expected to take eight days finally delivered Wagner to London three weeks after leaving Riga. It was like their ship they would never make any port again, like the “Flying Dutchman” in the legend. This, inspired Wagner to write his opera.
Wagner’s experience of Paris was also disastrous. He was unable to get work as a conductor, and the Opéra did not want to produce Rienzi. The Wagners were reduced to poverty, relying on handouts from friends and from the little income that Wagner could make writing articles on music and copying scores. Wagner hit on the idea of a one-act opera on the theme of the Flying Dutchman, which he hoped might be performed before a ballet at the Opéra.
“The voyage through the Norwegian reefs made a wonderful impression on my imagination; the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which the sailors verified, took on a distinctive, strange coloring that only my sea adventures could have given it.”
Wagner wrote the first prose draft of the story in Paris early in May 1840, basing the story on Heinrich Heine’s satire “The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski” (“Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski”) published in Der Salon in 1834. In Heine’s tale, the narrator watches a performance of a fictitious stage play on the theme of the sea captain cursed to sail forever for blasphemy. Heine introduces the character as a Wandering Jew of the ocean, and also added the device taken up so vigorously by Wagner in this, and many subsequent operas: the Dutchman can only be redeemed by the love of a faithful woman. In Heine’s version, this is presented as a means for ironic humour; however, Wagner took this theme literally and in his draft, the woman is faithful until death.
By the end of May 1841 Wagner had completed the libretto or poem as he preferred to call it. Composition of the music had begun during May to July of the previous year, 1840, when Wagner wrote Senta’s Ballad, the Norwegian Sailors’ song in act 3 (“Steuermann, lass die Wacht!”) and the subsequent Phantom song of the Dutchman’s crew in the same scene. These were composed for an audition at the Paris Opéra, along with the sketch of the plot. Wagner actually sold the sketch to the Director of the Opéra, Léon Pillet, for 500 francs, but was unable to convince him that the music was worth anything. Wagner composed the rest of the Der Fliegende Holländer during the summer of 1841, with the Overture being written last, and by November 1841 the orchestration of the score was complete. While this score was designed to be played continuously in a single act, Wagner later divided the piece into a three-act work. In doing so, however, he did not alter the music significantly, but merely interrupted transitions that had originally been crafted to flow seamlessly (the original one-act layout is restored in some performances).
In his original draft Wagner set the action in Scotland, but he changed the location to Norway shortly before the first production staged in Dresden and conducted by himself in January 1843.
In his essay “A Communication to My Friends” in 1851, Wagner claimed that The Dutchman represented a new start for him: “From here begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts.” Indeed, to this day the opera is the earliest of Wagner’s works to be performed at the Bayreuth Festival, and, at least for that theatre, marks the start of the mature Wagner canon.