Storm at Sea, 1865 (oil on canvas), by Gustave Courbet (1819–77)
Sieh, die Maschine:
wie sie sich wälzt and rächt
und uns entstellt und schwächt.
Hat sie aus uns auch Kraft,
sie, ohne Leidenschaft,
treibe und diene.
Behold the Machine:
how it rolls and wreaks vengeance
and drains and deforms us.
Yet since it receives strength from us,
let it without vehemence
drive and serve.
The eighteenth of The Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
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Composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was twenty-nine at the premiere of his Der Fliegende Holländer
, (The Flying Dutchman
) an opera generally regarded as the first flowering of a genius who would follow it with works of more profundity. But as usual with Wagner, an alternate view is equally valid: The Flying Dutchman
can also be seen as a reactive culmination of the great cultural flowering of Romanticism. Though his later creations are indeed among the most profound written for any medium, if Wagner had written nothing after The Flying Dutchman
he would be still be remembered as a great composer. Enrichment from Wagner’s most mature and abstract work, his 1882 Parsifal,
is significantly aided by some prior study and knowledge, as its diaphanous textual symbolism and ethereal aural beauty combine into an experience without parallel in the opera house. The Flying Dutchman
, however, is the most accessible of his music dramas (Wagner rarely used the word, “opera” to describe his works), and one in which the depth of his future creations can be most easily approached.
There was a time before him and a time after: Richard Wagner remains, in this 200th anniversary of his birth, the most controversial and visionary figure in Western art. He is emblematic of the “artist,” imbuing the word with ambiguous meanings it never before had. And small wonder: from nearly any perspective: political, philosophic, cultural, musical, theatrical, societal, racial, or religious, one can umpire any principle with some example in the life and/or works of the man, as testified by the estimated 30,000 books about him, a number that grows precipitously each year. This accounts for the wide array of visual styles associated with Wagnerian productions, because his ambiguous creations can support (nearly) any eccentricity foisted upon them.
Wagner is distinctly uncooperative to write about. It is obvious that he left the world a set creations unparalleled in their intellectual and emotional depth, but he also left us the idea that artists exist at the periphery of a society only they can accurately view, a position that still exacts a cultural toll whenever and wherever public funding for the arts is discussed and/or whenever art attempts a political statement. Every opera composer since Wagner has either emulated or reacted passionately against him; none could ignore him. Few artists in history were as vilified in their lifetime as Wagner, who fundamentally reordered the foundations of tonal harmony and permanently altered the expectations of what opera could communicate.
His status as this contradictory and pervasive cultural icon was largely posthumous, preceded by a time when he was simply an aspiring composer dreaming of breaking into the dominant poetic expression of his era. Romanticism rejected the emotional symmetry of the Enlightenment, preferring to traffic in the extremes of human emotion. Nothing in a Romantic-era story was more desirable than solitude with nature, either in a forest or in that grandest of human metaphors, adrift on the sea. Romanticism had little to do with current notions of “romance”; rather, the movement was an attempt to release the imagination, not through reality, but through the portrayal of deep melancholy and heightened emotions that bordered on violence. Apocalyptic storms mirrored hearts in turmoil; craggy coastlines were the settings of jagged relationships. Ancient natural beauty only threw into relief the pain of living and the brevity of it all. The musical apogee of Romanticism was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 of 1824, music unlike any heard up to that time. The open fifths that begin the work haunted Wagner “as a greeting from the spirit world,” and they can be found in The Flying Dutchman’s
opening measure, conjuring the spirit of the title character’s torment.
Wagner’s theatrical ideal was Aeschylus, his musical idols Beethoven and—it is easy to forget— Vincenzo Bellini. Following The Flying Dutchman
, Wagner eventually rejected the established tenets of Romanticism, further steeping himself in what he considered the only eternal art: German and Norse epic literature. From the 1840s onward he set out to revolutionize the opera house from what he considered decorative display and frilly sentimentality. His voracious literary appetite yielded the characters of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Hans Sachs, Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal, and Siegfried; characters that would consume the remainder of his complex creative life.
Wagner worked hard to sculpt his personal narrative. In 1839, fleeing creditors in Riga, Russia, where he had been general music director for two seasons, Wagner sailed on the Thetis
towards London. Rough seas forced them shelter in the port of Sandvike, Norway, which became the setting of The Flying Dutchman,
the name of which we hear in the work’s opening moments. He tried, retroactively, to claim that this harrowing sea voyage inspired him to write The Flying Dutchman
, which remains part of the lore of the work to this day. In actuality, he had sketched most of the text and some of the music already, though the voyage did contribute two artistic inspirations: the antiphonal “Ghost” chorus was inspired by Wagner hearing the echoes of the ship’s crew at port in Sandvike. Wagner’s original libretto set the work in Scotland, a common setting of Romantic-era art, as it was the farthest-flung outpost of Europe and held great mystery and adventure in its highlands and foggy moors. Did Wagner change the opera’s setting to Norway simply to distance his creation from his main source, Heinrich Heine’s 1833 retelling of the ancient Dutchman legend, or was he inspired simply by his unsettling nautical escape from Riga? Wagner acknowledged Heine’s influence, strongly at first, much more grudgingly as his career took flight. There is some logic in simply thinking that Wagner liked the alliteration of the Norwegian names more than the Scottish. As usual, with Wagner, the truth is murky.
The legend of The Flying Dutchman
is as old as seafaring, and multiple permutations reemerged during the Industrial Revolution, as the tale of the mariner doomed to wander the seas aligned perfectly with the metaphor of mankind adrift in a soulless world of evermore sophisticated machinery. The basic story, while not specifically religious, is a parable of belief, for the wheels of the plot turn on rules and consequences: the Dutchman is able to come ashore only once every seven years, and if he can find a woman who will be faithful to him for life, his sin will be cleansed, his soul redeemed, and his watery curse ended. In most versions of the story, including Wagner’s, the title refers not to the man himself, but to his ship. Over time, several themes were superimposed on the tale, each reflecting a cultural shift of its time: in the late eighteenth century the story took on elements of crime and punishment, that the crew of the Dutchman was comprised of criminals doomed to never make landfall—shades of the British colonies in America, the loss of which in the 1770s left Britain with no place to send its prisoners, hence the brutal voyages of the “first fleet” from Britain to Australia. The most famous English-language version of the tale is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
, from 1798, pocked with allusions that entered the ninteenth-century lexicon: “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Beyond the legend itself, several works played important roles that culminated in Wagner’s opera. Goethe’s vast novel, Faust,
written and revised over decades, can be felt hovering over nearly every Romantic era story that followed it, and allusions to Faustian bargains are subtly found in The Flying Dutchman
. The youthful Wagner was fascinated with ghost stories and by what might now be termed, “the occult,” and in this he was of his time, for supernatural stories enjoyed wide popularity in the early years of Romanticism. Novels by Mary Shelley (Frankenstein
, 1818) and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (Prometheus Unbound
, 1820) set off decades of books about the dangers of modern science, and shades of both are cast upon The Flying Dutchman
Elements of two operas Wagner conducted as a young man can also be found in his Dutchman.
Now known only to connoisseurs, Heinrich Marschner’s 1828 opera, Der Vampyr
), was thought one of the great works of its day, and Marschner was one of the few of Wagner’s fellow composers he didn’t publicly trounce. More well-documented is the influence on Wagner of Weber’s Der Freischütz
(1821), an opera aligned with Wagner’s infatuation with the supernatural and that remains in the active repertoire of many German-speaking opera houses.
Paris was the most active operatic center for new works during Wagner’s formative years, and one forgotten opera he heard there played a unique role in The Flying Dutchman
. La Dame Blanche
(The White Lady
), provided the opening musical phrase of Dutchman
’s famous “Spinning” chorus, which Wagner stole with precision but made better, and also an aria of La Dame Blanche’s
leading lady bears close resemblance to what Wagner would make more memorable in his ballade
aria for Senta.
For all of the influence of French opera-comique and the German Romantic movement, The Flying Dutchman
owes its first performances, as do so many works we now know and love, to the advocacy of an important singer, one of the most renowned of her era, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804–1860) who premiered the role of Senta. Wagner wrote in his autobiography that witnessing her early performances as Leonore in Fidelio
inspired him to pursue a life in composition. Scholars closely examining the peregrinations of both have determined he could not have seen her as Leonore when he was sixteen, as he claimed throughout his life. But he certainly saw her later as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi
, and he conducted her in many roles in the early 1830s. Her greatness as a singer was eclipsed for a time following the posthumous publication of her prurient memoirs. They were, Wagnerian-style, almost entirely fabricated, but their sexual frankness ensured their popularity. For a brief time it was the book no one admitted buying but that everyone privately read.
Conceived as a character of the utmost nobility, Senta can seem simply a pawn for the men in the drama: her father, Daland, feels a bit too eager to sell her, and the Dutchman wants her for his own redemption before he knows her. But The Flying Dutchman
transcends the plot norms of its era with the only operatic quality that is ever transcendent: its dazzling score. Wagner wrote extraordinarily pictorial music several generations before the cinematic era, prompting various commentators to opine that Wagner, had he lived in the twentieth century, would have been a renowned film composer—a profession difficult to align with a man who dominated everything and everyone in his orbit. Rarely has a composer summoned more musical energy in a shorter time than Wagner did in this opera: listen to the inexorable drive to the end of the work with the arrival of the “Ghost” chorus. Or the rousing “Sailors” chorus that opens the final scene, or the huge choral conversation between the men and women, something never before seen to such an extent on the opera stage. The opera alternates between rousing nautical tunes and Bellini-inspired arching melodies that limn the work with fragility. Angels permeate the libretto of The Flying Dutchman
, and they find metaphysical musical expression throughout it, most poignantly in the in the opera’s final sung text, by Senta, “Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh’ ich treu dir bis zum Tod!” (Praise your angel and his vows. Here I am, true to you until death.)
Though it is counterintuitive to a man about whom there is so much opinion and documentation, there is ultimately no way to “know” Wagner nor is there a definitive way to perform him, because his art provokes inquisition and a continuation of life’s artistic search; it has nothing in it that approaches the static. For as long as we value in our culture the qualities of introspection, curiosity, and our unique ability to think about thinking, Wagner’s works will find their way, as they always have, into our definition of ourselves. That a person of such questionable integrity could invent works of such depth and value is perhaps a sign of cautious hope, and should give us pause. Many artists would be surprised at the longevity of their creations. Wagner, though, would likely feel about himself much as we do here in 2013: that it is difficult to recover from the unsettling wonder he set forth.
Patrick Summers is artistic and music director for Houston Grand Opera and principal guest conductor for San Francisco Opera.