Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany), and died February 13, 1883, in Venice, Italy. He composed his opera Der fliegende Holländer (both libretto and music) in 1840-41, and revised it through 1860. The opera was premiered January 2, 1843, at the Royal Saxon Court Theatre in Dresden, with the composer conducting and Johann Michael Wächter in the title role. It reached the United States on November 8, 1876, when it was given in Italian at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The San Francisco Symphony has played excerpts from the work several times, first performing the Overture in March 1912. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances of the aria “Die Frist ist um.” In this aria, the bass-baritone is accompanied by two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Performance time: about ten minutes.
Wotan’s Farewell and the Magic Fire Music are extracted from Die Walküre, which Wagner wrote between June 1854 and March 1856. The opera was premiered June 26, 1870, at the National Theatre in Munich, with Franz Wüllner conducting and bass-baritone August Kindermann as Wotan. The American premiere took place April 2, 1877, at the Academy of Music in New York City. Alfred Hertz conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances of Wotan’s Farewell and the Magic Fire Music with soloist Josef Schwartz in February 1924. The bass-baritone is joined here by an orchestra comprising three flutes and piccolo (third flute also doubling piccolo), three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, eight horns, three trumpets and bass trumpet, four trombones, tuba, two timpani, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, bells, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about eighteen minutes.
Richard Wagner has been one of the most-discussed figures of cultural history ever since he began putting his emphatic stamp on the esthetic world of the mid-nineteenth century. He has been decried as the end of the musical tradition as it was known and loved, and revered as the wellspring of artistic modernity and a visionary whose conceptions continue to fuel the avant-garde.
It is marvelous to think that such strong opinions swirl around a composer who is known to modern music-lovers almost exclusively through ten compositions, all of them operas: Der fliegende Holländer (premiered in 1843), Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865), Die Meistersinger (1868), Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried (1876), Götterdämmerung (1876), and Parsifal (1882). Certainly they do not represent the entirety of Wagner’s creative output. Apart from these operas he wrote three others (early works rarely visited today) and about a hundred further pieces, not all of them complete or extant, for various vocal and/or instrumental forces. And then there is his literary oeuvre to contend with, a numbingly extensive outpouring of essays and other prose works, many of them bizarre and contradictory in their content.
Wagner’s career charted a long artistic path that ended far from where it began. His earliest operas amalgamated more-or-less standard traditions of German Romantic Opera (as codified in the works of Carl Maria von Weber, Heinrich Marschner, and others) and French Grand Opera (a large-scale enterprise typified by Giacomo Meyerbeer and his contemporaries in Paris). As Wagner’s career progressed, he moved increasingly toward realizing his ideal of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a work synthesized from disparate artistic disciplines, including music, literature, the visual arts, ballet, and architecture. The operas of Wagner’s maturity are so distinct in this way that they are often referred to not as operas at all, but rather as “music dramas,” in an attempt to underscore the singularity of his esthetic goals. Nonetheless, Wagner was not averse to extracting sections from these closely woven works to present apart from their operatic context, and on various occasions he conducted such excerpts as standalone concert works.
Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was Wagner’s fourth completed opera and the earliest to stake a claim in the ongoing repertory. He considered it his first work to adequately reflect his aspirations. “The period during which I worked in obedience to the dictates of my inner intuitions began with The Flying Dutchman,” he would write to his friend August Röckel in 1856. Working from Heinrich Heine’s Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski (a retelling of an earlier legend), Wagner wrote the three acts of the opera’s libretto and music between May 1840 and November 1841, but he returned to revise it in 1846, 1852, and 1860. Set along the Norwegian coast, it is a moody Romantic story about an unnamed Dutchman who is doomed to sail the seas, touching land only once every seven years, with his eternal cycle never to end until he is redeemed by a faithful woman. During one of his shore leaves he has the good luck to encounter Senta, who happens to be obsessed with the “Dutchman legend,” and he proposes marriage. Her erstwhile boyfriend makes a last play for her affections, and the Dutchman, overhearing the boyfriend’s proclamations of love, believes that Senta has betrayed him. He sets out to sea, but Senta proves her faithfulness by hurling herself off a cliff in the direction of his boat, after which she and the Dutchman ascend to heaven in an embrace of loving fidelity. (That women should sacrifice themselves to redeem their long-suffering men-folk seems to have been a natural expectation within Wagner’s world-view.)
In his autobiography, Wagner described how this opera coalesced in his imagination during a stormy sea crossing from Riga to London in July and August 1839, and particularly how he was inspired by the shouts of the crew that echoed against the granite walls of Norwegian fjords: “The sharp rhythm of this call clung to me like a consoling augury and soon shaped itself into the theme of the [Norwegian] sailors’ song in my Flying Dutchman. Already at that time I was carrying around with me the idea of this opera and now, under the impressions I had just experienced, it acquired a distinct poetic and musical color.” Presumably this experience accounts for Wagner’s moving the opera’s setting from the coast of Scotland to the coast of Norway, a change he affected only a few weeks prior to the premiere. This may have also been meant to put some distance between Wagner’s work and a parallel version, composed by the now obscure Pierre-Louis Dietsch, that opened in Paris just as Wagner’s rehearsals got underway in Dresden. Wagner himself was living in or near Paris when he wrote this work, hoping to make an impression in the city’s opera world but, in the end, failing to be anything but penurious and ignored.
The aria “Die Frist ist um,” which falls in Act I, introduces the Dutchman. He broods mournfully on his fate. He has reached the moment in his eternal cycle when, after a seven-year spell at sea, he again heads to shore. He explains (in the portion beginning “Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schund,” recalling music heard in the work’s famous overture) how he has tried to break the cycle. He has hurled himself into the sea and driven his ship onto rocks, but death always eludes him. He addresses his anguish to heaven in a broadly paced passage, marked maestoso, beginning “Dich frage ich”; and at “Nur eine Hoffnung” he laments that his only hope of salvation is the end of the world itself.
Die Walküre is the second opera in the gigantic operatic tetralogy known as Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Taken as a whole it is surely the most imposing work in the canon of classical music: Wagner labored over it from 1848 until 1874, taking time out to write Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger along the way, and in the end its four pieces together would run some fifteen hours. That doesn’t count the intermissions and other respites that are most assuredly required in live performances, which invariably occupy four separate evenings typically scheduled within several days of one another.
Wagner turned to medieval Germanic-Nordic legends for his material, most specifically to a group of Icelandic eddas and sagas, an Old Norse prose narrative, and the Middle High German epic Das Nibelungenlied. He processed this material through his own ultra-Romantic sensibilities to yield a highly stylized, in no way colloquial text that evoked its ancient roots while rendering it captivating to mid-nineteenth-century audiences. He was nothing if not confident. In a letter to Theodor Uhlig, one of his closest friends and supporters, he spoke of his libretto-in-progress: “The whole will become—out with it! I am not ashamed to say so—the greatest work of poetry ever written.”
Trying to briefly summarize the interwoven plot threads of the Ring cycle is an exercise in futility, but for present purposes let us say that a central strand involves the waning power of the god Wotan. He has a bevy of daughters, the Valkyries, who careen through the air on their flying steeds, and the most forceful of them is Brünnhilde. He loves her the most, but when she disobeys him—she sways the outcome of combat between two adversaries in the wrong direction—it is his duty to punish her. In Act III of Die Walküre, he strips her of her Valkyriehood and condemns her to sleep on a remote mountaintop, where she will be prey to whatever man might stumble across her. She begs him to at least spare her the shame of such an assault, and pleads for him to surround her with a circle of fire that can be broached by only the bravest hero. He consents, places her on a mossy tuft, and kisses her eyes to induce slumber. We are far along in the story by this time, and the music recalls incidents of the past by summoning up melodies (“leitmotifs”) that had been associated with them. Brünnhilde falls asleep to a melodic contour that rises by a sixth and then settles (mostly stepwise) back down to the tonic note—the leitmotif of Magic Sleep, which will be heard a great deal through the end of the opera.
Now Wotan sings his heart-rending Farewell (“Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind”), in which he describes the blaze of fire that will protect her until its flames shall be breached by “one freer than I, the God.” Emotions race through his heart as he remembers happier times with his daughter. He cradles her as he builds to his final, grief-stricken kiss, where the harmony moves in a mysterious shimmer: “For thus the God leaves you, thus he kisses the godliness from you!” She sinks into deepest sleep, accompanied by the appropriate musical leitmotif. Now Wotan makes good on his promise. He summons Loge, God of Fire, directing him to blaze in a circle around Brünnhilde. The orchestra giddily portrays the flames as they spring up, and, after watching a while, Wotan sings out one final declaration: “He who shrinks before my spear shall never pass through the fire!” He leaves, knowing that he has done the best he could to protect his beloved but disobedient child, and, as the opera ends, the orchestra bathes the glittering flames in a texture of glowing warmth.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
RECORDINGS For Der fliegende Holländer, Otto Klemperer conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra, with bass-baritone Theo Adam (EMI Classics) | Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with bass-baritone Robert Hale (Decca) | Antal Dorati conducting the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra, with bass-baritone George London (London/Decca)
For Die Walküre, Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, with bass-baritone Hans Hotter (Decca) | Daniel Barenboim conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, with bass John Tomlinson (Teldec) | Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, with bass Gottlob Frick (EMI/ArkivMusic)
READING The Life of Richard Wagner, in four volumes, by Ernest Newman (Cambridge University Press) | Richard Wagner: Last of the Titans, by Joachim Köhler (Yale University Press) | The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Millington (Schirmer) | Wagner Remembered, by Stewart Spencer (Faber and Faber) | Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, by M. Owen Lee (Limelight Editions) | Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols: The Music and the Myth, by Robert Donington (Faber and Faber)