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The History of 'The Flying Dutchman'
(German title: Der fliegende Holländer)
An Opera by
Richard Wagner

It was his stormy voyage to London in 1839 that set Wagner’s thoughts on the operatic possibilities of "The Flying Dutchman" legend, with which, as previously told, he was already acquainted. He had sailed from Pillau, a port on the Baltic, and the voyage was rich in disasters. "Three times," he says, "we suffered from the effects of heavy storms. The passage through the Narrows made a wondrous impression on my fancy. The legend of the Flying Dutchman was confirmed by the sailors, and the circumstances gave it a distinct and characteristic colour in my mind."

First performance of Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) in Dresden 1843
(Illustration source: Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung, 3 January 1843)

Shortly before this, "Rienzi" had been finished and laid aside, waiting for a manager who would produce it. From London Wagner now proceeded to Paris, as set forth in the biographical sketch. Presently he moved to Meudon; and there, in the spring of 1841, "The Flying Dutchman" was composed -- all except the Overture -- in seven weeks. The composer had shown a first sketch of the libretto to M. Pillet, the director of the Paris Opera, who liked it so well that he suggested having it translated into French and set to music by a French composer. Wagner’s poverty compelled a reluctant assent. He parted with his sketch for a trifle, and a forgotten musician named Dietsch used it, only to have his production fail completely when it was staged in 1842.

Meanwhile, Wagner had written his own music; and, in that connection, the following little bit of autobiography seems in place here:

I had now to work post-haste to clothe my own subject with German verses. In order to set about its composition I required to hire a pianoforte; for, after nine month’s interruption of all musical production, I had to try to surround myself with the needful preliminary of a musical atmosphere. As soon as the piano had arrived, my heart beat fast for very fear; I dreaded to discover that I had ceased to be a musician. I began first with the "Sailors’ Chorus" and the "Spinning Song." Everything sped along as on wings, and I shouted for joy as I felt within me that I was still a musician.

The opera finished, Paris would have nothing to do with it, any more than with "Rienzi." Wagner resolved to beat a retreat and try his own countrymen. Munich and Leipzig both declined the new work as "unfit for Germany." Finally, Dresden accepted "Rienzi," and that proving a success, Dresden accepted also the "Dutchman," which was first performed at the Royal Saxon Court Theatre there on January 2, 1843. The Dresden musical public were, unfortunately, not yet ready for so sincere an attempt to make a good play and to express its feelings in music -- in other words, to make the drama assert itself as well as the music, and both to help one another. The "Dutchman’s" reception was accordingly lukewarm and hesitating. The famous Mme. Schroeder-Devrient made a great impression as Senta (Schumann declared it was the most original presentation of a character she had ever given); but the public were as yet unworthy of the work. It was too serious for them, accustomed as they were to "glittering processions, splendid scenery and groupings, and imposing action coupled with brilliant music."

Nor was Dresden alone in its apathy. Ludwig Spohr, the great violinist and composer, produced the opera at Cassel in the summer of 1843; and it was staged at Berlin in 1844. But in all cases it failed to win the popular favour. Dresden would not listen to it until twenty years after the initial performance, and it was ten years after the Berlin production before it was heard anywhere. Wagner and his friends were dismayed. "I was in sufficiently ill humour to remain silent and leave ‘The Flying Dutchman’ undefended," says the composer. Gradually he realised that he must look elsewhere than to the general public for encouragement in his plan of making opera something more than a display of voices and scenery and pretty dresses. In his frequently quoted "Communication to My Friends" he writes:

From Berlin, where I was entirely unknown, I received from two utter strangers, who had been attracted towards me by the impression which "The Flying Dutchman" had produced on them, the first complete satisfaction which I had been permitted to enjoy, with the invitation to continue in the particular direction I had marked out. From this moment I lost more and more from sight the veritable public. The opinion of a few intelligent men took the place in my mind of the opinion of the masses, which can never be wholly apprehended, although it had been the object of my labour in my first attempts, when my eyes were not yet open to the light.

The first performance of "The Flying Dutchman" in England was at Drury Lane in July 1870. This was an Italian version, under the title of "L’Olandese Dannato." Signor Arditi, the composer of the celebrated "Il Bacio," was then the conductor at Drury Lane, and he has told all about the event in his Reminiscences.

"Mignon" and the "Dutchman" made the two novelties of the season; and the production of "Mignon" came first. Ambroise Thomas, the composer, was delighted with the result. On hearing that the "Dutchman" was to follow immediately upon "Mignon," he exclaimed "Good heavens! Arditi, you don’t mean to say that you are going to do ‘The Flying Dutchman’ so soon after ‘Mignon’! How will you manage it in such an incredibly short time?"

Arditi managed it, and with eminent success. He had the advantage of a splendid orchestra, including, as leader, no less a personage and virtuoso than Ludwig Strauss; and with such excellent men it was not difficult to accomplish a huge amount of work in a comparatively short time. The first performance in England of an opera by Wagner -- a composer who had so long been the object of heated discussion and bigoted, almost wilful misconception -- was an event of special interest. For twenty years Wagner had been agitating the world of music by strong denunciations of operatic precedents, and by his endeavours to practically illustrate his theories; hence any new work of his was eagerly anticipated by all musical enthusiasts.

"L’Olandese Dannato" came to the English public as a surprise -- a pleasant surprise. "The house," writes Arditi, "was well filled, the musical connoisseurs and professors of the metropolis being in noteworthy preponderance; and, despite the terrific heat, those who came at the beginning to scoff remained to the end to applaud with enthusiasm. I remember the surprise of myself and of Strauss when the Overture was vociferously encored... No one who heard that weird, storm-tossed music for the first time will forget the impression made upon them by the passionate singing of Mddle. de Murscka, Signor Perditi, Mr. Santley, and Signor Foli."

Some of the critics were as bitter in their condemnation of the opera as others were strong in their defence of it; but; generally speaking, the "Dutchman" produced a much better effect than was anticipated. Subsequent performances were sparsely attended. But this was easily explained by the declaration of war between France and Germany, which recalled thousands of German residents in London to the Fatherland, and cast a gloom over every kind of amusement.

The first production in English was by the Carl Rosa Company, at the London Lyceum in 1876 with Santley in the title-rôle, the opera made a tremendous hit. Coming on the top of the success of "Lohengrin" and "Tannhäuser" (the latter had been produced in Italian at Covert Garden just four months before), it helped to complete the foundation for that appreciation and understanding of Wagner’s works which now extend through all music-loving lands.

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