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Selected Topics in The Art of Poetry & Tone in Drama of the Future as Illustrated in Der Fliegende Holländer

    Richard Wagner is known in the musical world as much for his operatic output as for his voluminous body of prose works, many of which extensively (often times notoriously) address and comment on specific ideas, compositional dilemmas and artistic goals which he would later realize in his musical works. Sometimes the essays defended his past works, sometimes they analyzed his newest efforts; but one essay, a sprawling, three-part volume in its own right, entitled The Art of Poetry and Tone, not only opens the door for Wagner’s later works (Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde) but prophesizes and prescribes techniques for operatic composers for decades to come. It is ironic, or at the very least of great interest, then, that in Der fliegende Holländer, completed and performed nearly a decade before this essay was penned, one can see the seeds of this new musical language, the beginnings of this new artistic philosophy, and the birth of the ideas which would lead him to produce some of the most unique and influential operas in the history of music.

    Three distinct sections of the 390-page essay will be discussed here: Wagner’s description of the relationship between spoken word (libretto or poetry) and lyric (sung text); the role of melody and harmony; and the role of the orchestra. It is most useful, given the narrative nature of the overture to Holländer, to start with the last of these topics, the role of the orchestra.
    “The orchestra indisputably possesses a faculty of speech” says Wagner as he opens part V of the essay. This is indeed true in Holländer,  where the orchestra plays two major roles; to foreshadow, recall, and even incite action onstage (whilst performing with singers) and to give a virtual narration of the entire plot in the overture (see Appendix for a catalogue of the themes and motifs to be discussed herein). Wagner most ascribes to the orchestra the execution of gesture, of not merely playing a melody as much as evoking a mood. (Wagner, 316-7)

    The overture embodies this role completely, and through using motifs and variant melodies, subtle orchestrational color shifts, and rhythm, Wagner creates not only a symphonic work which tells the opera’s story linearly, but also a string of tightly woven moments; vignettes which transcend orchestration in the traditional sense. Music indeed had a long history of using its extant sound library to create imitative colors depicting nature, etc.; but Wagner’s overture goes further, ignoring classical precepts of orchestration and development in favor of pure expression of the mood and depiction of the scene and in this sense, he wrote the overture with one foot planted firmly, however unknowingly, in Impressionism.

    To take one example (for there are hundreds in the overture alone), in the opening sequence a shrill open fifth is being cried out by high woodwinds, strings, and trumpets. But until the horns enter with the Dutchman’s theme, where are we, the listeners? We have been thrown into this world, this land of folk tales, curses, redemption, of the struggle of man against God, man against man, unrequited love and the sacrifice which brings salvation. This is the stuff of legend, illustrated countless times over from fairy tales to the Bible, and it’s all there in that first terrifying tremolo. We immediately know: urgency, passion, struggle....this will be what the opera is about. Wagner accomplishes this by using what he needed to: two notes, followed by a melody which is practically only these two notes again. From the very start we see Wagner’s stepping from the classical to the future: the tonic-dominant relationship is there, but it exists as a matter of course; there is no introduction, no real exposition; we are hurled into the action. The listener does not hear downbeats as much as feel the rise and fall of the eternal sea (mm6-32); harmonic rhythm is less important than rhythmic rhythm (mm179-194). The overture’s form is determined only by the sequence of action in the plot, and its orchestration is devised with an ear bent towards color before all else; the result is a new sound, in a sense a predecessor to film music, were the notes are slave only to the Dramatic Action, and are composed and constructed, and sometimes contrived and contorted, towards this end alone. But it is not only in the overture that this devotion to the dramatic element reigns supreme; every element which had been fighting in a decades-old struggle for more freedom from compositional rules finds itself gaining ground in this opera, and although there is a more evident connection to tradition in the vocal music, even here we can see Wagner’s vision for the future of opera and drama taking shape.

    “Dramatic Action, with all its motives, is an action lifted high above life, and intensified to the point of Wonder.” (Wagner, 321) We will see how Wagner attains this Dramatic Action by pushing away from traditional operatic composition into his own sea of possibilities.

    The first character we will be concerned with is the title role, the Dutchman1. The ship is seen approaching the berthed Norwegian vessel in Act I with thunderous noise, as if it brought the storm in with it. This tumult fades and trickles down until a solo trumpet intones the Dutchman’s theme, identifying for even the least observant listener that for this man’s sake was that overture written, and that for his own sake he must go ashore. The ensuing aria is at once hesitant and unremitting, uncertain and focused, exhausted and intensely committed. The stage is set for our tortured captain to explain how he returns to shore seeking redemption, but must always return to his damned sea-enslaved limbo. This man has seen centuries of history, encountered thousands of souls, and has faced bitter rejection and defeat countless times. How can one embody an existence like this? Wagner does it with just one note, and that note one bears expectation and desperation, the desire for something to come, but a lack of faith  that it ever will.     “Die Frist ist um”: in it Wagner says so much. He has accomplished his own process of condensing immense emotional content into concise, economical words, and then using the musical setting to “expand this concentrated, compact point to the utmost of its emotional content.” (277) In the aria to follow, as the Dutchman recounts his cursed life, the orchestra not so much accompanies the voice as it does paint the backdrop of the words. While the aria has clear verse structure and even some end rhyme, the attention of the listener lies more in the relation between orchestra and singer than formal structure. The strings’ maelstrom subsides to a hint of the redemption theme as he declares “den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht!” (Wagner, 82) His words “Wann dröhnter, der Vernichtung Schlag”, sung on resounding high E’s dropping to the octave below, are answered by the orchestra’s tuba mirum blasts (94). This is an important moment; before we have heard the orchestra ‘echo’ sounds onstage (55), but the trumpet that the orchestra blows here does not exist, save in the tortured mind of the Dutchman. He thinks he hears it, but we the listeners actually do. This is but one example of how the orchestra relates to the singers not as an accompanying force, nor as an imitator nor instigator; rather, the orchestra in Holländer functions as the voice of the subconscious, be it the inner feelings of a character or the loftier idea of creating the state of reality. Many of its functions seem similar to that of an accompanying or characterizing orchestra; the fanciful, parlor-dance music which often plays under Daland (108, 235), the strong, almost brutal exclamations of Erik (206); but the relationship is deeper than that. For instance, how the Dutchman’s passions rise and fall like the sea (123-4); through the orchestration we see how the two are irrevocably linked. Also, when Daland is prematurely counting his newfound wealth, the Dutchman stands pensively brooding on his possible freedom, and we hear both characters in the music, not because of specific themes (because none of the recognized motifs are used here) but because the Dutchman is influencing the scene, darkening Daland’s greedy excitement, and Wagner found a way to express this subtly in the music (110-1 turns dark around 113-4). The Dutchman is not of this world, at least not anymore, and Wagner illustrates this. When he speaks, time seems to stop (79, 232-3, 238); but his spirit accomplishes this even if his form is absent (167, 182). When Daland arrives with the Dutchman, Senta is transfixed; his aria, with dance like rhythms and contours, is overshadowed by the musical presence of the Dutchman in the timpani and the string harmonies. (233) The apex of this subconscious-music is heard when Senta confronts the Dutchman face to face; here stands a woman obsessed with saving this legendary man, and here stands the tired and tormented man, staring at what he knows will be his salvation. What can they say? They say nothing, but Wagner makes the orchestra have the conversation for them (243-245), including the only time the relentless horn call of the Dutchman stutters (245, Duet), as if he, who has seen everything, knows not how to proceed now that his salvation may be at hand. As Wagner says, “That which is now revealing itself to the eye in physical Show and by means of Gesture...speaks it out so far as there has been no need for any third party [words] explain...their understanding by the eye, or to interpret their meaning to the directly-seizing ear.” (Wagner, 323)   

    Rather than having the voice be a vehicle to fill in harmony or provide melody, Wagner makes the orchestra paint the words and moods, and melodies and harmonies seem to write themselves spontaneously. (299, 311-12)  It is because of this that we realize the dramatic difference between, for instance, Senta’s and Erik’s tremoli (Wagner, 218-223), even though they are notationally identical. The idea of performing similar notes differently was not new, but Wagner’s plan that every musical decision, whether made by singer, performer, or conductor, be governed firstly by devotion to the Dramatic Action was the start of something revolutionary. “The lyric moment has therefore to grow out of the drama itself, to appear as necessarily conditioned by its course.” (Wagner, 305)

    The vestiges of traditional opera, though present in Holländer, are adapted by Wagner for his own uses; verses have irregular phrase length, to better suit the dramatic significance of the words (Wagner, 82-3); duets exist but often involve non-rhetorical, non-repeating simultaneous texts, the comprehension of both being necessary to follow the flow of action (248). These traditional ideas of parallel phrase lengths and musical ‘numbers’ would soon be things Wagner would completely eschew to create his most famous works. This departure from traditional form and style, arguably present in all of Wagner’s work, reached its point of no return in Holländer.

    Holländer was a stepping stone between the world Wagner inherited and world he sought to create; in it we can see and hear the birth of a revolutionary musical language and a new system of composition. Wagner likened melody floating on harmony to a boat gliding across a placid lake, “carried yet self-moving, moved and yet ever at rest...” (Wagner, 314-5) But, in essence, Holländer is Wagner’s boat, surely steering toward the deepest point in his lake, where he will plunge into the depths of its waters to find a new natural vision, viewing drama as nature governs the lights in the sky, the organic pulse of life, and the immutable modulations of the waters.

Works Cited

Wagner, Richard. “The Art of Poetry and Tone in the Drama of the Future. “Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Vol. 2: Opera and Drama) tr. William Ashton Ellis. New York: Broude Brothers, 1966. pp277-350.

Wagner, Richard. Der Fliegende Holländer. ed. Felix Weingartner. New York: Dover Publications, 1988.

Wagner, Richard. The Flying Dutchman. James Levine, Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Sony Classical, 1997.

*Although it may be evident which source is being cited, score or essay, all subsequent citations of one source contain only page numbers; when “Wagner” appears again, it is referring to the other source.
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All rights reserved. No content on this website may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission.