Wagner’s Debuts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The legendary German composer Richard Wagner would later say that The Flying Dutchman was the true beginning of his compositional career. The opera, centered on the myth of the tortured, wandering soul, exhibited many innovative compositional techniques that foreshadowed Wagner’s later revolutionary style. It provided the first true example of Wagner’s mastery of poetry, drama, and music.

Summary of Event

In the minds of many scholars and opera lovers, as well as that of the composer himself, Der Fliegende Holländer (1843; The Flying Dutchman: A Romantic Opera in Three Acts, c. 1876) was the first true work of Richard Wagner’s compositional career. He would later say that the work was “already typical of my true style.” His style, later perfected in the complex, massive four-opera Ring Cycle (Wagner) Opera;Ring Cycle cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1874; The Ring of the Nibelung, 1960), can be seen in its earliest stages in The Flying Dutchman, including stylistic features that would become typical of his later, more intricate works. Flying Dutchman, The (Wagner) Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;The Flying Dutchman[Flying Dutchman] Opera;The Flying Dutchman[Flying Dutchman] Opera;The Flying Dutchman[Flying Dutchman] Music;German [kw]Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Debuts (Jan. 2, 1843) [kw]Flying Dutchman Debuts, Wagner’s (Jan. 2, 1843) [kw]Dutchman Debuts, Wagner’s Flying (Jan. 2, 1843) [kw]Debuts, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (Jan. 2, 1843) Flying Dutchman, The (Wagner) Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;The Flying Dutchman[Flying Dutchman] Opera;The Flying Dutchman[Flying Dutchman] Opera;The Flying Dutchman[Flying Dutchman] Music;German [g]Germany;Jan. 2, 1843: Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Debuts[2280] [c]Theater;Jan. 2, 1843: Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Debuts[2280] [c]Music;Jan. 2, 1843: Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Debuts[2280] Heine, Heinrich Meyerbeer, Giacomo Schröder-Devrient, Wilhelmine

While traveling by sea in 1839, Richard Wagner received the first inspiration for the opera when his ship hit stormy waters off the coast of Norway. Norway According to Wagner’s own account, the crew’s shouts as men scrambled about the ship would later evolve into the sailors’ song in The Flying Dutchman. Inspired by this journey, as well as by German poet Heinrich Heine’s published version of the Flying Dutchman legend, Wagner set to work on the opera in 1840 and 1841.

The Flying Dutchman is a legendary folk character who is cursed to sail the seas with his crew for all eternity unless he can find a faithful woman; he is allowed to alight on shore every seven years to search for such a woman, but—as the opera opens—all of his past attempts have failed. Unbeknown to him, the daughter of another sailor he meets when coming onshore has been obsessed with his story for years. In act 2 of Wagner’s version, Senta (the daughter) sings the Dutchman’s legend while spinning with her friends and gazing at the Dutchman’s portrait on the wall; during this song, she states that she wants to be the one that releases the Dutchman from his curse—she can remain faithful to him.

When Senta meets the Dutchman, she tells him of her pledge, and the Dutchman realizes that he has finally found the faithful woman for whome he has been searching. However, Senta’s suitor, Erik, to whom Senta had previously vowed to be faithful, chastises her for this decision. The Dutchman overhears this and thinks Senta has betrayed her vow. Senta, in an altruistic act of love, throws herself into the sea to prove to the Dutchman she is willing to die to save him; the Dutchman’s curse is thus broken.

Unlike many opera composers, Wagner wrote his own libretto rather than collaborate with a dedicated librettist. He possessed skills as a poet as well as a composer. He wrote a preliminary version of Heine’s myth in 1840 as part of his attempt to break into the Paris opera scene, having been forced out of his previous conducting position. He sent a prose draft of The Flying Dutchman to Giacomo Meyerbeer, Meyerbeer, Giacomo a successful composer who had great influence at the Paris Opera.

In addition to the prose, Wagner had by then composed three individual musical pieces for the opera: Senta’s ballad, the sailors’ chorus, and the Dutchman’s crew’s chorus. He told Meyerbeer that these pieces were ready to be played for the Paris Opera as part of an audition. However, this audition never took place, and the overture to Meyerbeer marked the beginning of Wagner’s unsuccessful attempts to make a name for himself in Paris. To make matters worse, the Paris Opera’s management approved of Wagner’s text but hired an in-house composer to turn it into a one-act opera performed before a ballet.

Despite his lack of success in Paris, Wagner composed the remainder of the music for The Flying Dutchman throughout 1840 and 1841. In 1842, he left Paris for Dresden, where his previous opera, Rienzi (1840), was performed for the first time. The great success of Rienzi in Dresden led to approval for the performance of The Flying Dutchman. The premiere took place on January 2, 1843. The performance was conducted by Wagner himself and featured one of the leading German sopranos of the day, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient Schröder-Devrient, Wilhelmine , for whom Wagner had specifically written the role of Senta. The great success of the opera’s premiere resulted in Wagner’s appointment as co-chapel master at the king of Saxony’s court in Dresden.

The Flying Dutchman exhibited many revolutionary features that distanced it not only from Wagner’s earlier operas but also from those of his predecessors, such as Carl Maria von Weber, Louis Spohr, and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus [p]Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus;opera music . As a whole, The Flying Dutchman remained traditional in certain respects. Its overall structure was a series of discrete musical pieces, such as arias, duets, recitatives, and choruses. The integration of the chorus into the music followed the convention of early nineteenth century German and French operas (a convention Wagner would later do away with). However, it was what Wagner did with these traditions that was innovative. The individual pieces, including Senta’s ballad and the sailors’ choruses, were strung together into cohesive structures (“scene-complexes”), and in act 3, Wagner mixed the two arguing groups of sailors (the Norwegian sailors and the Dutchman’s crew) in a way that had never been seen before, creating a veritable onstage singing war.

Another revolutionary feature of The Flying Dutchman was Wagner’s portrayal of disparate dramatic elements through musical expression. In The Flying Dutchman as well as most of his remaining operas, earthly characters (in this case, Erik, Daland, and the Norwegian sailors) are associated with traditional musical harmonies and balanced textual phrases, whereas the supernatural characters (the Dutchman and his crew) are often accompanied by disjunct, asymmetrical textual phrasing and dissonant, nontraditional musical harmonies. This musical contrast paralleling the dramatic contrast would be a hallmark of Wagner’s work throughout the remainder of his career. For example, there is a similar musical contrast in Tannhäuser Tannhäuser (Wagner) (1845) between the angelic yet human Elisabeth and the hedonistic, supernatural goddess Venus. The woman is associated with tonal, square-verse music, while the goddess is aligned with chromatic, unstable, bacchanalian music.

A related innovation seen in The Flying Dutchman is Wagner’s technique of associating a particular melody with a dramatic character or event, the so-called leitmotif. Once associated with its dramatic concept in its first appearance, the repetition of this motif later in the work evokes the dramatic concept in the audience’s mind, even if the particular character is not on stage at the time. The Flying Dutchman contains several highly expressive leitmotifs, including the famous Dutchman motif heard at the beginning of the opera in the brass; the motif of the stormy sea, which features rapidly ascending and descending lines in the low strings; and the gentle redemption motif first heard during Senta’s ballad. Wagner’s use of the leitmotif, still in its nascent stages at this point in his career, would later become his chief mode of musical expression in The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde (1859), Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867; the meistersinger of Nuremberg), and Parsifal Parsifal (Wagner) Opera;Parsifal (1882).


Composed in 1840-1841 and premiered in 1843, Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman marks the true beginning of one of the most legendary compositional careers in music history. In The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, who would later create the revolutionary Ring cycle, can be seen maintaining certain German Romantic operatic traditions while simultaneously breaking ground as an innovative composer. He combined his mastery of poetry with new techniques such as the leitmotif, the musical portrayal of disparate dramatic worlds, and the construction of scene-complexes out of traditional operatic pieces.

In the two works that followed the 1843 premiere, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin (1850), Wagner began to develop in earnest the innovative techniques he first employed in The Flying Dutchman. Then, beginning with the four works of The Ring of the NibelungDas Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—Wagner almost completely abandoned the operatic traditions still seen in The Flying Dutchman in favor of his utterly new concept of the music-drama. His new concept included, however, the perfection of the innovative techniques seen for the first time in The Flying Dutchman.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bailey, Robert. “Romantic Encounters.” Opera News 65, no. 6 (December, 2000): 30-35. Contextualizes The Flying Dutchman within the German Romantic operatic tradition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Flying Dutchman. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 2002. A listening companion to the opera that includes a compact disc recording, illustrations, and historical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grey, Thomas, ed. Richard Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Comprehensive companion to the opera, including biographical and historical contexts, as well as a summary of its compositional history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Köhler, Joachim. Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans. Translated by Stewart Spencer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. A psychological study of Wagner, using his compositions to gain a better understanding of the man and his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">May, Thomas. Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus Press, 2004. May analyzes Wagner’s operas, maintaining they are richer and more artistically daring than commonly believed. Comes with two compact disc recordings of Wagner’s music.

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