At its premiere, Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer was performed in a single act. Later, the composer adapted it to be performed in three acts with changes in the orchestration. I have studied the original and have happily used the final version in each of the productions I have conducted, as I will in this one. While restoring the original one-act performing edition may give the opera great sweep and line, the original orchestration is a bit crude and brass-heavy. Wagner’s revisions over several decades reflect his ever-growing mastery of his art.
For example, pay special attention to the orchestra when Senta first sees the Dutchman in Act II. Wagner’s original idea called for brass and timpani, but he finally chose only woodwinds and pizzicato strings followed by solo timpani playing softly. The timpani also plays an irregular rhythm, perhaps echoing Senta’s excited heartbeat. Also notable is Wagner’s longer and more sophisticated ending in his revision; in it we hear the orchestra solo, if you will, in a manner that would become a hallmark of his work. In this conclusion, the orchestra is tasked with rhapsodizing on a theme that the composer would explore throughout his career: love brings transcendence, but also death.
Holländer’s harmony is forward-looking as we might expect of Wagner, and its melodic interest is present in the orchestra at least as much as in the voice, which is also characteristic of his later work. We can also clearly see the composer moving toward a through-composed work dominated by motives and comprised largely of sung dialogue.
Still, insofar as the melodies call for the most ardent lyrical approach, they bring to mind the music of Italy; hence, the nickname, “Wagner’s Italian opera.” Wagner was clear about his admiration for the Italians in general and Vincenzo Bellini in particular—although describing Wagner’s own music as “bel canto” or as requiring bel canto singing is overstating the case. He simply expressed the wish that his fellow Germans would take a little inspiration from the Italians.
So at the same time that it ushers in a new era, Der fliegende Holländer is wonderfully familiar. Apart from its arias, duets, and ensembles in a sometimes-Italian flavor, the opera is anchored in other traditional forms that supply lyricism and vitality. For example, Wagner uses dance forms to unite the work; they contain rhythmic patterns that keep reappearing. The Norwegian sailors have two hornpipes, one in Act I (about fair sailing conditions) and one in Act III (addressing the Helmsman). Both are very like the traditional Celtic “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” The Norwegian maidens’ “Spinning Chorus” shares this rhythm as well, but it is a ländler, a dance a little slower than a hornpipe.
Standard forms are something of a gift to conductors, since they help guide us toward correct tempos. If we understand the hornpipe or ländler, even though the scene seems relatively upbeat, we will not push the speed much faster than humans can reasonably dance. Similarly, if we are familiar with Chopin or Brahms ballades, Wagner’s metronome indication for Senta’s aria—less bodeful than some would have it—makes perfect sense.
This is a pivotal opera in Richard Wagner’s career and the earliest work in the repertory of the opera house in Bayreuth dedicated to his work. It is in this opera that we first hear him tossing out conventions in his career-long quest for a fusion of music and drama. Der fliegende Holländer was a harbinger of compositions that would stun the musical world over the next few decades.