Monday, April 17, 2023

Wagner - Overture to 'The Flying Dutchman'

 In 1839, the young Richard Wagner was the conductor of the Court Theater in Riga, Latvia. In what turned out to be a recurring problem as a result of his extravagant lifestyle, he racked up huge debts. He hatched a plan to escape from his debts by taking his completed opera Rienzi to Paris for its premiere and make his fortune. This plan was initially halted when his passport was taken by the authorities on direction from his many creditors in Riga. 

He and his wife illegally crossed the Prussian border, and they found a captain of a ship that would take them to London. The trip should have taken about a week, but due to high winds and rough seas, the trip took over two weeks. His arrival in Paris turned out to be a disaster as well. His opera wasn't performed at the Paris Opera, and he had to rely on hand outs and the meager money he made writing articles for periodicals of the time. 

It was while he was in Paris that he had the idea to write a one act opera based on the Flying Dutchman legend. Wagner wrote in his Autobiographical Sketch  of 1842:

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 colouring that only my sea adventures could have given it.

It was his hope that the short opera would be accepted by the Paris Opera for performance. His experience of the sea journey, especially when the ship had to take shelter in a Norwegian fjord from the rough seas, that inspired him. He based the libretto on a story written by the German author Heinrich Heine that was based on the story. Heine's story was written as a satire, but Wagner made the story a serious tale of redemption through the love of a woman.

The legend of The Flying Dutchman went through many versions, with the first version in print being in 1790. In brief, the legend said that a ship that was trying to round the African continent couldn't find a pilot to guide it into port, and was thus lost, with it appearing in bad weather. The legend eventually took on the story of a sea captain that swore at the wind and said he would round the Cape even if it took until judgement day. Later writers introduced the theme that the ghost ship would try to offer letters addressed to long dead people to another ship, with the result that if they took the letters disaster followed. 

Wagner's entire opera takes around 2 hours to perform, rather economical for a work of his. Some of his later operas can take upwards of 4 hours or more to perform. The Overture to The Flying Dutchman takes about 11 minute to perform, and like many overtures to grand opera, it is a snapshot of the work. The overture begins with the turbulent sea. There is a momentary calmness afterwards, when a motif from the opera is played, after which the music gains in passion once more. all of the motifs and snippets of melody heard in the overture are taken from the opera. 

It can be a challenge for all but the staunchest opera lovers to be able to enjoy the entire work, but the overture gives the more casual listener a chance to hear the passion and the beauty that Wagner put into it.