” The Flying Dutchman ” is one of the most melodious of Wagner’s operas, and also one of the most popular in Germany. Its soprano rôle is well beloved by all Wagnerian singers, but for some reason the work is seldom given in this country. Americans have never had an opportunity to hear Madame Lehmann in this opera, but it is one in which she is well known abroad.
“Der Fliegende Hollander” is an early offspring of Wagner’s genius, and was composed at a time when Fate frowned upon him, and poverty and despair were his close companions. After six weeks of feverish labor, alone in hostile Paris, Wagner presented his beloved score to the orchestra of the “Conservatoire.” They promptly condemned it, which affords a notable ex-ample of the change in musical taste. Portions of the ” Flying Dutchman ” now hold a permanent place on French programs.
The plot, as well as the music, is as usual Wagner’s own. ” A daring captain, after frequent vain attempts to double the Cape of Storms, swears a mighty oath to persevere throughout eternity. The devil takes him at his word, and the hapless mariner is doomed to roam the seas forever.” Such is the legend of the Flying Dutchman, to which Wagner has added one redeeming clause : once in seven years the wanderer may land in search of a faithful wife. If she be true unto death the curse shall be lifted.
Wagner’s music is so powerful and absolutely appropriate that’ it seems to suggest the text, instead of conforming to it. No ordinary tunes or conventional harmonies could adequately depict the roaming, rest-less, Satan – chased sailor. The overture opens with the curse-theme, which seems like the phantom ship itself as we follow its course throughout the introduction. It rides over and under and around hurricanes of chromatics and tremolos. Chords sweep like a deluge over the luckless theme. But as neither rocks nor tempest can annihilate the accursed vessel, so this theme mounts ever uppermost. On and on, ” Ohne Rast, ohne Ruh,” must sail the Flying Dutchman. But the wanderer in his dark existence finds hope in the salvation-theme, a peaceful, religious phrase that is poised like a single star amid the tumultuous elements. Like all of Wagner’s overtures, this one has be-come a favorite program piece.
With the ascending curtain there arises from the orchestra a storm of restless tremolos and shrieking scales. The wind and waves thus rendered in the music are also depicted on the stage. An expanse of ocean occupies most of the scene, only in front the turbulent waves beat against a bleak Norwegian coast. Driven thither by the elements, a ship casts anchor at the shore. Daland, the captain, steps on land, while his crew noisily pull up sails and cast out cables. As they work they shout in unison a rude refrain that lends rhythm to their movements, ” Ho-lo-jo ! Flo-he! ” This is accompanied by surging waves of sound from the orchestra. Owing to the sudden storm, this ship has been carried seven miles away from the home port, to which it was returning after a long voyage. There is nothing to do but wait for a south wind to carry them back. Daland goes on board again and orders the sailors to rest. He also retires, after entrusting the watch to his boatswain.
Altho this boatswain has no name, he is no insignificant character, for to him falls one of the loveliest songs of the opera. He has a tenor voice, and is in love with a “blue-eyed mädel.” He makes a tour of the deck, and then seats himself by the rudder. The storm has abated, but we occasionally hear a gust of chromatics and a splash of chords. To ward off sleep, the boatswain sings of his sweetheart, and calls upon the south wind to blow their good ship home. This music is delightful and refreshing as a salt sea breeze. The sailor does not trouble himself with any fixed standard of tempo. He sings like the fitful wind, one moment “accelerando,” and the next ” una poco moderato.” He sustains the climaxes and indulges in sentimental “rubatos,” all of which is a touch of naturalness skilfully introduced by the composer. The boatswain makes another tour of the deck and then renews his song; but there is this time more languor in his tones. The phrases are separated by frequent ” rests,” the ” moderatos ” have developed into “largos ; ” the ” rubatos ” are exaggerated, and finally this sweet-voiced boatswain falls asleep.
Soon the clouds become black and lowering, the waves are white and towering, and the orchestra is like a seething cauldron of sound. The conductor stirs it up more and more, until he brings to the top that awful curse-theme of the Flying Dutchman. We lift our eyes to the stage, and lo ! over the dark waters comes another ship, strange and uncanny in appearance, for its sails are blood-red and they hang upon masts that are black as night. With a mighty crash this wanderer of the seas sinks anchor alongside the Norwegian vessel. The dreaming boatswain is aroused for a moment. He hums a snatch of his love-song, and then once again nods his head in slumber. A terrifying silence falls upon the music as we watch the ghostly crew of the phantom vessel noiselessly furl those crimson sails.
There is a pause, and then, soft but ùnpressive, that remarkable curse-motif announces the approach of the Holländer him-self. He steps upon shore after another seven years of wandering. His stalwart figure is draped in a black mantle, he wears a full beard, and has a baritone voice.
The first solo of the Holländer is most interesting ; but those who expect a pleasing tune with a one-two-three accompaniment will be disappointed. One is apt to think that music must be always beautiful to be admired, but Wagner has taught that this idea is erroneous. Music should represent what the maker feels, just as painting does what he sees ; and in proportion to the correctness of his representation is the work to be admired. As a prominent example of this fact in painting, mention may be made of Munkacsy’s picture of Judas, which all admire but none call beautiful. And se this solo of the accursed mariner is not beautiful, as that term goes. How could it be? The weary, dreary, condemned Dutch-man communing with himself does not think of graceful melodies that delight the senses. His phrases, instead, are all angular, bitter, heavy, and despairing. He tells of his longing for rest, and he mocks at the hope of finding true love. Too often has he been deceived : “I wait and watch for the Judgment Day. Then only shall I rest !”
The Hollander leans mournfully against a rock, and the music subsides, until a light hearted melody directs our attention to the Norwegian ship. Daland has come upon deck, and is surprised to find another ship alongside. He calls the boatswain, who, half awake, commences to hum his love-song; but another call from the captain brings him to his feet. They hasten to signal the strange ship, but receive no answer; whereupon Daland, seeing the Hollander, steps upon shore to accost him.
Politely but unconcernedly the hero makes answer to all questions, and learns, in turn, that Daland’s home is but seven miles’ sail from here. The Hollander asks for a night’s lodging, and offers to pay liberally. He brings forth a casket of jewels, which he declares is but a sample of the cargo he carries. With bitter tones he adds: ” What joy are such riches to me? I have no home, no wife, no child; all my wealth should be yours if you could give me these.” He astonishes Daland with the sudden question, ” Have you a daughter? ” and on being answered: in the affirmative the Holländer proposes to wed her. Very nobly does this strange suitor plead his cause, his longing for love and rest. The music is here truly beautiful, for the hero is striving to win and please.
Captured by the prospect of wealth and also by the strange fascination of the Holländer, Daland consents to the proposition. Once again the sad seaman is tempted to hope. The music has become decisive and, because of rapid tempo, sounds quite joyous. On top of this pleasing climax there comes a happy cry from the Norwegian ship: “A south wind ! south wind ! ” The sailors sing their ” Ho-lo-jo ” chorus as they let down sails and pull up anchor. Daland goes on board, and the Hollander promises to follow. With a breezy accompaniment of wind instruments the two ships sail away and the curtain descends.
The prelude to the second act carries us from the storm-beaten coast of Norway to the domestic peace of Daland’s home. The composition is like a brisk sail over smooth harmonies. It opens with the boatswain’s song of the south wind, and after a succession of undulating passages finally lands upon the celebrated spinning-chorus.
A capacious room in the captain’s home is filled with a merry company of maidens, who, with their spinning-wheels, are working together under the watchful eyes of Frau Mary. The wheels whir and whiz, like a drone of bees, the orchestra keeps up a continuous revolving accompaniment, and even the melody, with its ingenious rhythm, simulates a whirling wheel. The picture is as pleasing as the music; both are unique and delightful. The girls spin industriously where the song goes fast, but unconsciously hold up with the ritardandos, and Frau Mary has frequent occasion to remonstrate.
Only Senta, the captain’s daughter, does not join in the song. She is sitting in a big arm-chair and dreamily regards a large picture that is hanging over the hearth. It is an ideal portrait of the Flying Dutchman, such as many seafaring folk possess. Senta is an imaginative girl, and has always been fascinated by the ” pale man ” on the wall and his story. She begs Frau Mary to sing the ballad of the Flying Dutchman. This request. being refused, Senta sings it herself. Truly wonderful is this ballad, with its blustering accompaniment and shivering climaxes. The final verse relates how every seven years the weary seaman lands in search of a faithful wife, but never yet has he found one. ” False love ! false faith ! Forever and ever must he ride the seas ! ”
Senta has become so wrought up by the song that she now sinks back in her chair from exhaustion, while the other girls sing with bated breath that beautiful melody of the salvation-theme. ” And will he never find her? ” they ask with childlike credulity. Senta suddenly springs from her chair and sings out with exultant tones : “1 am the one who could save him! I would be true till death ! May heaven’s angels send him to me! ” This music is of boundless intensity ; the strongly accented accompaniment sweeps forward and recedes like angry breakers, while the voice part soars above like a fearless sea-bird. ” Senta! Senta! Heaven help us, she has lost her reason ! ” exclaim the astonished maidens, and Frau Mary utters maledictions upon that ” miser-able picture,” threatening to throw it out of the house.
At this moment Erik, the young hunter who loves Senta, hastily enters, announcing that her father’s ship is landing. The dreamy heroine promptly revives at this news, and becomes as elated and excited as any of the girls. They all want to rush out and see the ship, but Frau Mary orders them back, directing them, instead, to the kitchen, where there is work to be done on account of this sudden home-coming. With much chattering and commotion the girls and Frau Mary go out, leaving Senta and Erik alone.
He detains her to listen to his vows and fears. Very tender and earnest is this song of love and doubt. Wagner knew well how to use the simple melody, which he considered essential to some emotions but out of place with others. Like the artist’s fine brush, it will not do for painting storm-clouds, but in scenes of delicate delineation it is used with good effect. Erik is troubled about a dream he had the night before. To the usual accompaniment of violin tremolos, he relates how he saw Senta’s father bring with him a stranger who looked like that picture on the wall. Already we hear far away beneath the tremolos, soft but distinct, the curse-theme of the Flying Dutchman. As the dream-song goes on this ominous phrase comes nearer, step by step, always in a higher key, always louder and more impressive. it represents, in fact, the actual approach of the Holländer. Senta listens as though entranced while Erik tells how he saw her come forward and kneel at the stranger’s feet. But the “pale man” lifted her in his arms and carried her away over the sea. To Erik’s horror, Senta turns toward the picture and cries out : ” He is seeking me ! I would save him ! ” The young hunter sadly goes away, believing that she is out of her mind.
Senta continues gazing at the picture. The music has become soft and slow, and the curse-theme pervades the air like a ghostly presence. But the heroine sings to herself that beautiful salvation-motif. The phrase is finished with a startled shriek, for the door has opened,, and there before the astonished girl stands her hero” der Fliegende Hollander! ” Daland, her father, is also there, but Senta has neither sight nor thought of him. She stands immobile and amazed, her eyes never turning from the Hollander. When Daland comes nearer, she grasps his hand, whispering, ” Who is that stranger ? ”
The father has carefully prepared his answer, and it is the finest bass solo of the opera. After telling Senta that the stranger has come to be her bridegroom, he turns to the Hollander, asking, ” Did I exaggerate her loveliness? Is she not an ornament to her sex? ” In this phrase the listener is surprised with a genuine ad libitum colorature passage, a style of musical decoration in which Wagner seldom indulges. But in the original text this bit of fioritura falls upon the word zieret (” ornament”), and thus is a striking example of Wagner’s theory that music must fit the words. Daland sings on for some time, until he notices that neither Senta nor the Hollander accord him any attention. They are still gazing at each other, and the father very wisely goes out.
The leading theme of his aria slowly departs from the orchestra, and then, softly and hesitatingly, the curse-theme and salvation-motif enter side by side. They move around a little, as tho to make themselves at home, and then begins the great duet between soprano and baritone.
The Hollander recognizes in Senta the angel of his dreams, and she finds his voice greeting her like familiar music. A beautiful melody is borne upon the orchestra like a boat on the breast of a stream. As the graceful structure floats past, the soprano and then the baritone enter upon it. They glide on together, over smooth places, upon tremulous undercurrents, but finally touch upon the salvation-theme, which, through-out the opera, is typical of the seaman’s haven. t often arises above stormy passages like a mirage of the longed-for harbor.
After this vocal excursion the Holländer asks Senta if she is willing to abide by her father’s choice and to vow eternal faith. Her consent is glad and free. There is another ensemble introducing a new and stirring joy-theme. The highest note al-ways occurs upon the word faith, thus fulfilling the substance of the text, which is, ” Faith above all ! ”
Daland reenters and is delighted to find such unity of voice and purpose. He wishes the engagement announced at the evening fête which his sailors will have to celebrate their home-coming. Senta repeats her vow to be faithful unto death, and the act closes with an exhilarating trio.
Wagner makes his orchestral preludes conform to a distinct purposethat of connecting the acts. So with the next introduction we hear the joyous theme of the recent duet gradually modulated into a whispering memory of the boatswain’s song. This, in turn, develops into a new and noisy nautical refrain, that is continued till the curtain rises, and then is sung by the Norwegian sailors who are on the deck of their ship. They are merry-making. The ship is illuminated with gay lanterns, as are also the tavern and houses in the foreground. But not so the stranger’s vessel that lies alongside at the back of the stage. t is engulfed in gloom and silence like the grave. The gay Norwegian chorus has a peculiar rhythm that suggests the flapping of sail-cloth in a brisk wind ; it has sharp, rugged accents and a spirited tempo. The song is ended with a regular hornpipe dance on deck. This bewitching dance-melody seems thrown in to show what Wagner could do in that line if he wanted to.
Some maidens come from the tavern with a basketful of provisions. While the sailors continue dancing to the gay orchestral accompaniment, the girls sing among them-selves in quite another strain. As their conversation should be most prominent, the dance-melody is promptly changed from major to minor, which always gives a subduing and receding effect like ” scumbling over ” in painting.
The girls go toward the Holländer’s ship, intending their provisions for the strangers, who seem to be sleeping profoundly. The girls call to them, but only a ghostly silence rewards their efforts. They sing a winning waltz phrase inviting the strangers to join their fête; they offer every inducement to arouse the silent crew, and finally resort to a great outcry : ” Seamen ! Seamen ! wake up ! ” But again only prolonged stillness is the answer.
The well-meaning maidens are thoroughly frightened, and they hasten away after handing their basket to the Norwegian sailors. These proceed to enjoy the contents. They fill their wine-glasses and repeat the merry opening chorus.
In the mean time the sea surrounding the Holländer’s ship becomes suddenly turbulent, a weird blue light illumines the vessel, and its crew, which were before invisible, are seen to move about.
The Norwegians cease singing, while their ghostly neighbors begin to chant in hollow tones that terrible curse-theme. Tremolos and chromatics descend upon the orchestra like a storm of hail and rain that almost drown the singers’ voices. To a demoniacal refrain full of startling crescendos and pauses they sing of their gloomy captain
“Who has gone upon land to win a maiden’s hand.”
Then they laugh an unearthly ” Ha! ha ! ”
The Norwegian sailors have listened at first with wonder and then with horror. Like children afraid in the dark, they decide to sing as loud as they can. So their gay sailors’ chorus rings out above the steady curse-theme of the Hollander’s crew. The Norwegians urge each other to sing louder. Three times they start their song in a higher key, but that fearful refrain from the phantom ship overcomes every other sound. The Norwegians are too terrified to continue. They cross themselves and hurry below deck. The sign of the cross arouses another mocking laugh from the crew of the Flying Dutchman. Then sudden silence falls upon them. The blue flame disappears and darkness hangs over all, while in the orchestra there is a long-sustained note, and then one soft minor chord like the shutting of a door upon the recent musical scene.
The succeeding harmonies are of another character, as distinct as a new stage-setting. A phrase that well simulates hurried foot-steps accompanies the hasty entrance of Senta and Erik, who is much agitated. He has just heard of her engagement to the stranger, and can scarce believe it. He upbraids and pleads in one breath, while Senta begs him to desist. But the despairing Erik kneels before her and sings with grief-stricken tones of their past love. Like all of Erik’s music, this cavatine is simple and sincere, as one would expect from a peasant lad.
While he is kneeling before her the Holländer comes upon the scene unobserved. With tones as furious as the orchestra accompaniment he cries out : ” Lost ! My happiness is lost ! Senta, farewell ! ” He summons his crew to haul up anchor and let down sails. ” False love ! false faith ! I must wander the seas forever ! ”
A tempestuous trio follows the Holländer’s outcry. Senta reiterates her vow, and with intense fervor declares he must not leave her. Maidens and sailors rush to the scene, but all stand back in amazement as they hear the stranger announce : ” You know me not, else had you ne’er received me. My ship is the terror of all good people. I am called Der Fliegende Hollander ! ” With this word he springs upon board; the crimson sails expand upon the black masts, and the ship leaves shore ; while the ghostly crew chant their blood-curdling ” Jo-hoho!”
But this is our last hearing of the curse-theme. Senta has rushed upon a high rock projecting into the sea. With full voice and soaring tones she calls to the receding ship : My vow was true ! I am faithful unto death ! “whereupon she throws her-self into the waves.
No sooner has she done so than the phantom vessel sinks from sight. The music also tumbles down a tremendous chromatic, then it mounts again, changing from minor to major, which gives an effect of sudden peace. The Holländer has found true love. He rescues Senta, and we see him clasping her in his arms, while the chords of the salvation-theme rise above the other harmonies like the spires of a beautiful city. The haven has been reached at last.