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Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)


Overture "The Flying Dutchman"

Written in Paris in 1841, The Flying Dutchman was Wagner's second mature opera, and the one in which he established the principal of "leitmotifs" - themes associated with a particular character, place or emotion. It was first performed in 1842 in Dresden, but was not successful, and ran for only four performances. However it soon established itself as one of Wagner's more popular and accessible operas, and has stayed securely in the repertoire ever since.

He based the story on the legend of a phantom ship which rides the storms and cannot be sunk. The only live person on board is the captain, a Dutchman. This Dutchman had once sworn to round the Cape of Good Hope "even if it took until doomsday". The devil overheard him and took him at his word, and the Dutchman now lives for ever on a ship manned by ghosts, unable to find rest even in death. Wagner's version of the story has an extra twist - once every seven years the captain is allowed to go ashore and seek the love of a woman who would be true to him unto death. Such a woman - if he could find one - would free him from the curse.

This story struck a chord in Wagner, because in 1839 he had fled from his first job in Riga (in Latvia, on the Baltic sea) leaving a pile of unpaid debts, and taken a boat to London. Owing to dreadful weather this journey took a full three weeks, and the storms off the Scandinavian coast made a deep impression on Wagner.

Among the many themes in the overture, the second tune to appear represents Senta, the woman whose love rescues him from his curse. But the overture is dominated by the Dutchman's bold theme, at first surrounded by the whirling storm, but which by the end, under the influence of Senta's theme, has become a triumph of love and redemption.

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