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Richard Wagner

The Flying Dutchman

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer 1986

There were many variants of the legend of the Flying Dutchman before Wagner crystallized it in his opera. Sir Walter Scott, in his role of antiquarian researcher, claimed that it was based on fact: a murder was committed aboard a vessel with a cargo of gold; the plague broke out; and all ports were closed to the ship. From this—and from the sailors, superstition that the ship is still sighted at times near the Cape of Good Hope, always bringing bad luck with it—there naturally developed further embellishments: that the captain must perpetually play at dice against the devil with the captain's soul as the stakes; that once in seven years the captain may land and remain ashore so long as he can find a woman who will be faithful to him; and a number of others. Captain Marryat made a once-popular novel of it, The Phantom Ship, and Heine retold the tale in his Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski, characteristically putting a two-edged satirical point to it: men—don’t put your trust in women; women—don’t marry a rolling stone.

Wagner, equally characteristically, found more cosmic matter in the tale. He equated the Flying Dutchman with both Odysseus and the Wandering Jew; he equated the devil with flood and storm; and be equated (most characteristically of all) the release of finding a faithful woman with the release of death. Fortified with Wagner's musical genius, his version has eclipsed all others.

The determination to use the theme for an opera came to him, apparently, during a particularly stormy sea voyage between East Prussia and England. What was normally a week- long trip took over three weeks, and the sailors superstitiously thought that the presence of Wagner and his wife was responsible for the bad weather. At one point they put in for safety at the Norwegian fishing village of Sandwike. This became the scene of the opera, and the sailors' call in the opera is supposed to have been suggested to him there, with its echoing from cliff to cliff by the fjord.

Some weeks later in Paris, desperate for money, he sold a scenario for the work to the director of the Paris Opera. They would never put on the music of an unknown German composer, explained Monsieur le directeur, so there was no use in composing it. So Wagner accepted five hundred francs for the scenario and went home to compose the opera anyway. The Frenchman turned over the story to the composer-conductor Pierre Dietsch, whose Le vaisseau-fantome beat Wagner's opera to production by three months. It was a failure. But so was the first Paris production of Tannhauser, when Dietsch conducted for Wagner nineteen years later. Wagner's Dutchman was not very successful either when it opened at Dresden. After four performances it was shelved, in that city, for twenty years. Today, however, it is standard fate all over Germany and many other places as well.


Opera in three acts by Richard Wagner with libretto in German by the composer, based on an old legend as set forth in Heinrich Heine's Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski

DALAND, a Norwegian sea captain
SENTA, his daughter
MARY, her nurse
ERIC, a huntsman

Time: 18th century
Place: a Norwegian fishing village

First performance at Dresden, January 2, 1843


THE FLYING DUTCHMAN: Baritone. Long, long ago, the Dutchman tried to sail round the Cape of Good Hope in a furious storm and swore an oath that he would succeed even if it meant sailing for ever. Overhearing this, the Devil condemned him to sail for ever—only if he found a woman who would be faithful to him for life would he be released. Every seven years he is allowed to go on land to search for such a woman. It is the end of seven years and he sails into the Norwegian coast, alongside Daland's ship. The two men meet and he asks permission to meet and marry Daland's daughter, Senta. In return, he offers Daland great wealth. Daland takes him home to meet Senta, who recognizes him from the portrait which hangs on the wall in their house. The two are immediately attracted to each other, but the Dutchman overhears Erik declaring his love for Senta and assumes she has been unfaithful to him. Thinking himself doomed to sail the seas for the next seven years, he leaves. Senta leaps into the sea in an attempt to follow him. His ship slowly sinks and the two of them are seen rising together above the vessel Arias: Die frist ist um ('The time is up'); Durch Sturm und bosen Wind ver- schlagen ('Driven on through storms and violent winds'); duet (with Senta): Wie aus der ferne langst vergang'ner Zeiten ('As from the distance of time long ago'). Created (1843) by Michael Wachter.

Wagner 'Der fliegende Holländer' Die Frist ist um - Hermann Uhde

DALAND: Bass. A Norwegian sea captain, father of Senta. His ship is anchored in bad weather off the coast of Norway near to where he lives. Out of the mists he sees the Dutchman's ship appear. The Dutchman asks if he can marry Senta in return for great wealth, and Daland agrees, taking him home to meet her. Aria: Mogst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heissen? ('Will you, my child, bid this stranger welcome?'). Created (1843) by Karl Risse.

Richard Wagner - Arie des Daland "Mögst du mein Kind" aus dem Fliegenden Holländer

SENTA: Soprano. Daughter of the Norwegian sea-captain Daland. She is teased by her old nurse and the other women for her obsession with the portrait of a man which hangs on the wall. She recounts the story of the Dutchman who is doomed to sail the seas for ever unless he finds a faithful wife. Her father returns, bringing with him a stranger, whom she recognizes from the portrait to be the Dutchman. He wants to marry her and, determined to save Ыш, she readily agrees. The hunter Erik, who is in love with her, tries to persuade her to marry him instead. Overhearing this conversation, the Dutchman presumes Senta to be unfaithful and himself to be doomed. He leaves. Senta follows him, jrumping into the sea. As his ship sinks, Senta and the Dutchman are seen together rising above the waves. Aria: Johohoe!... Traft ich das Schiff im Meere an ('Yoho! ... Have you seen the ship upon the ocean’一Senta's Ballad). Created (1843) by Wilhelmina Schroder-Devrient.

Joan Sutherland - "Johohoe! Traft ich das Schiff"

MARY: Contralto. Senta's old nurse. Aria (with chorus): Du boses Kind ('You idle girl!'). Created (1843) bу Тherese Wachter-Wittman.

ERIC: Tenor. A hunter. He is in love with Senta, daughter of Daland, and wants to marry her. The Dutchman overhears Erik trying to persuade Senta to agree and assumes her to be no longer faithful to him. Aria: Willst jenes tag du nicht mehr entsinnen ('Do you no longer remember the day'). Created (1843) by Herr Reinhoid.

Kevin Hanek (Erik) sings "Willst jenes Tags" from Wagner's "Der fliegende Holländer" with Pamela Lloyd (Senta) and Craig Ketter, piano, in a live performance at the Bechstein Music Center, New York, November 2008

DALAND’S STEERSMAN: Tennor. Daland's steersman. Aria: Mit Gewitter und Sturmaus fernem Meer  ('Through thunder and storm, from distant seas'). Created (1843) by Wenzel Bielezizky.

René Kollo - Richard Wagner Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) "Mit Gewitter Und Sturm"


Act 1

The first act opens with a chorus of Norwegian sailors who have been driven into the harbor of a fjord by a terrible storm. Their captain, Daland, explains this in a monologue and concludes by telling the steersman to keep watch while the rest of the crew gets a well-earned rest. The youthful steersman tries to keep himself awake by singing a sailor's love song, but sleep soon overtakes him, and a strange ship anchors alongside the Norwegian. A stern gentleman, dressed in black, appears on land from this ship. This is the Dutchman, and be sings at some length about his fate. Every seven years he is allowed to land in search of a woman who will be faithful to him unto death. Only such a woman can release him from his curse. Failing to find her, be must spend the rest of eternity on his ship, shunned by everyone, even pirates. When Daland meets this noble-looking stranger, he asks who he is, and learns that the Dutchman is seeking a safe place for himself, and is willing to offer a good share of his treasure for it. The Dutchman also asks whether Daland has a daughter, and when the answer is yes, he forthwith proposes to marry her, offering Daland untold wealth in exchange. He shows Daland a chest full of riches, and the greedy Norwegian accepts at once. He invites the Dutchman to follow him to his home, which is not far distant, and the act ends as the sailors sing again, preparing to take their ship into their own harbor.

Act 2

The second act opens with the familiar Spinning Chorus, which is sung by a group of Norwegian girls including Senta and her nurse, Mary, as they sit spinning, and expecting the return of their fathers, brothers, and sweethearts on Daland's ship. The act takes place in Daland's home, and the scene is dominated by a large portrait of the Flying Dutchman, who, up to this point, is only a legend. But the legend has completely captured the imagination of Senta, Daland’s daughter, and after the Spinning Chorus she sings a ballad that relates the Dutchman's story. She vows that she herself shall be the woman faithful unto death.

A young hunter, Eric, now arrives with the news that Daland's ship is in the harbor. Everyone goes out to greet it, excepting Eric, who detains Senta a while. He is in love with her and expects to marry her, but he is deeply disturbed over her queer fascination for the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Desperately he tries to persuade her to come to her senses and promise to many him, but she gives only vague, equivocal answers. Their conversation is ended by the arrival of the father, who brings along the Dutchman himself. He looks so much like the picture that there can be no doubt who he is. And when the father tells of his plans to marry Senta to his guest, she agrees at once, as in a trance.

There is then a long, strange love duet between the two who have just met, and the act ends as Daland gives them bis blessing.

Act 3

The last act takes us again to the fjord. Both ships—the Dutchman’s and the Norwegian’s—are in the harbor, and the Norwegian sailors and their girls are trying to get the crew of the mysterious Dutch ship to join them in some fun. For a long time their jolly invitations go unheeded, but then the crew of the Dutch ship answers—briefly, mysteriously, derisively. The Norwegians are mystified, sing their chorus once more, and then depart.

Once more Eric pleads with Senta to give up her infatuation with the Flying Dutchman and to return to her old love. The Dutchman, overhearing this very eloquent love-making, decides that Senta, like all other women, is unfaithful to him. Despite her pleas, hе orders his men to get ready to sail once more, and he boards the ship. In desperation Senta climbs high up on a hill. "I shall be faithful unto death," she cries, and she flings herself into the fjord. The Dutchman's ship sinks, and the horrified Norwegians on land see Senta and the Dutchman united at last—under the waters. He has found his typically Wagnerian redemption. 

Legend of Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman (Dutch: De Vliegende Hollander) is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. The myth is likely to have originated from the 17th-century golden age of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The oldest extant version has been dated to the late 18th century. Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.

The first print reference to the ship appears in Travels in various part of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward (1790) by John MacDonald :

The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman. The common story is that this Dutchman came to the Cape in distress of weather and wanted to get into harbour but could not get a pilot to conduct her and was lost and that ever since in very bad weather her vision appears.

The next literary reference appears in Chapter VI of A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795) (also known as A Voyage to New South Wales), attributed to George Barrington (1755–1804):

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions and doom, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

The next literary reference introduces the motif of punishment for a crime, in Scenes of Infancy (Edinburgh, 1803) by John Leyden (1775–1811):

It is a common superstition of mariners, that, in the high southern latitudes on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman ... The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation; and to have been stricken with pestilence ... and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.

Thomas Moore (1779–1852) places the vessel in the north Atlantic in his poem Written on passing Dead-man's Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Late in the evening, September, 1804:

"Fast gliding along, a gloomy bark
Her sails are full, though the wind is still,
And there blows not a breath her sails to fill."

A footnote adds:

"The above lines were suggested by a superstition very common among sailors, who call this ghost-ship, I think, 'the flying Dutch-man'."


Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a friend of John Leyden's, was the first to refer to the vessel as a pirate ship, writing in the notes to Rokeby; a poem (first published December 1812) that the ship was "originally a vessel loaded with great wealth, on board of which some horrid act of murder and piracy had been committed" and that the apparition of the ship "is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens."

According to some sources, 17th-century Dutch captain Bernard Fokke is the model for the captain of the ghost ship. Fokke was renowned for the speed of his trips from the Netherlands to Java and was suspected of being in league with the Devil. The first version of the legend as a story was printed in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for May 1821, which puts the scene as the Cape of Good Hope. This story introduces the name Captain Hendrick Van der Decken for the captain and the motifs (elaborated by later writers) of letters addressed to people long dead being offered to other ships for delivery, but if accepted will bring misfortune; and the captain having sworn to round the Cape of Good Hope though it should take until the day of judgment.

She was an Amsterdam vessel and sailed from port seventy years ago. Her master's name was Van der Decken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the devil. For all that, never a sailor under him had reason to complain; though how it is on board with them nobody knows. The story is this: that in doubling the Cape they were a long day trying to weather the Table Bay. However, the wind headed them, and went against them more and more, and Van der Decken walked the deck, swearing at the wind. Just after sunset a vessel spoke him, asking him if he did not mean to go into the bay that night. Van der Decken replied: "May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment." And to be sure, he never did go into that bay, for it is believed that he continues to beat about in these seas still, and will do so long enough. This vessel is never seen but with foul weather along with her.

The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder c. 1887 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

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