“The Flying Dutchman,” composed in 184i and produced in 1843, was the first opera in which Wagner realized something of his new ideas of music drama. In several respects this overture is autobiographical. Its circumstantial background is Wagner’s flight, from his creditors in 1839, from Riga to Paris via London, and the terrific weather that his ship encountered on the North Sea. The boat was small, and. the trip lasted a fantastic number/ of days. The legendary Dutchman himself had hardly a worse time of it rounding Cape Horn. There was a moment of complete terror, when Minna, now Wagner’s wife, begged the composer to tie him to her with a rope, that they might drown together. The ship sought refuge in a Norwegian fjord.-Through the wind and mist the men on shore and the sailors called to each other, and this call, reshaped by Wagner’s genius, be-came the sailors’ chorus of the opera. But the triumphant creation in the overture, one which in itself would proclaim Wagner’s greatness, is the Dutch-man’s motive which sounds so eerily when it is flung out by the horns against the empty fifths of the strings at the beginning of the overture. To this motive Wagner adds, later on, the prayerlike theme of Senta, the maiden who at the last gives her life for the Dutchman’s salvation; subsidiary motives from the opera, such as the Spinning Song of Senta’s maidens, which seems to be heard amid the skirling of the elements, and the chorus of sailors; and, to complete the musical synthesis of the dramatic developments, the motive of redemption, heard as Senta throws herself into the sea.
The peroration of the overture, preceded` by a pause and an upward rush of the strings, summarizes dramatically the themes of Senta, of her sacrifice, and the motive, now in the major key, of the redeemed mariner.’ Wagner’s overture is a seascape; it is to the ocean what Weber’s “°Freischutz” overture is to the forest. But Weber’s forest is a German forest, a wood-land home of myth and folklore. Wagner’s ocean is the vast deep, a tossing waste of wind and spume and cloud wrack. The texture of Wagner’s music is coarser and more sensational than Weber’s, and has the grander sweep. Wagner is at home with storm and sea. In the figure of the Dutchman doomed, unless he should find the loving and rescuing woman, to sail the seas forever, he saw himself, alone and adrift in a hostile, uncomprehending world, seeking beauty and the realization of his genius.
But it is of interest, especially in view of Cosima Wagner’s later attempts to minimize the influence of Wagner’s first wife, that in the first draft of the libretto of “The Flying Dutchman” the heroine, now named Senta, was called Minna.
The resemblance in treatment between this conclusion and that of the “Freischutz” overture, plainly its model, is obvious.