When Wagner worked on one of his operas, he drew upon existing stories and re-shaped them. This was certainly the case with “The Flying Dutchman”.
When Wagner was a young man, almost all trade and travel by sea was in sailing ships. The hazards of a life on the ocean wave were well known: storms, rocky shores, and being becalmed far from land, with supplies running out. Sailors told tales of shipwreck, accidents, strange creatures emerging from the sea, islands that, once sighted, could not be found again, and ghost ships. It was perhaps from sailors’ tales that the legend of the Flying Dutchman grew.
The legend is first mentioned in writing in 1790, but thereafter, the story was told and retold, often with new details added. In all the early versions, “The Flying Dutchman” was a Dutch ship, not a person. According to the most widely told version of the story, though the wind was against him, its captain vowed to take his ship round the Cape of Good Hope or be damned for eternity. His words were heard by the Devil, and, when he failed to round the cape, he was condemned to sail the seas for evermore.
Sailors thought that a sighting of the ship was a bad omen. It looked dark and sinister.
The German Romantic poet and writer Heinrich Heine wrote a novel, “The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski”, in which a character sees a performance of “The Flying Dutchman” at an Amsterdam theatre. It was published in 1833 and was a key inspiration and source for Wagner. Heine introduced an element that is crucial to Wagner’s opera: the hope of redemption for the sea-weary captain. His ship could put to land once every seven years, and, if at that time, he could find a woman who would be faithful to him.
In 1839, seeking to escape from their creditors, Wagner and his wife, Minna, hurriedly left the Baltic city of Riga (now in Latvia, but then part of the Russian empire) on board the ship “Thetis”. They were bound for London. The “Thetis” was caught in a fierce storm as it approached the North Sea, and took refuge in Sandvike Bay, in the small island of Boroya.
In his autobiography, Wagner wrote:
“A feeling of indescribable well-being came over me as the sailors’ calls echoed round the massive granite walls while they cast anchor and furled the sails. The sharp rhythm of these calls clung to me like a consoling augury and soon shaped itself into the theme of the sailors’ song in my “Fliegender Holländer. Already at that time I was carrying with me the idea of the opera and now, under the impressions I had just experienced, it acquired a distinct poetic and musical colour.”
Wagner probably began composing “The Flying Dutchman” around a year after his voyage on the “Thetis”.
Wagner at first planned to set the action of “The Flying Dutchman” in a port in Scotland, but changed its location to Norway: not only that, but the Norwegian captain, Daland, states, “This is Sandvike: I know the bay well.”
He added a new character, Erik, the huntsman, who is a rival suitor to the Dutchman for the hand of Senta, the heroine. Erik fulfils the dramatic role of offering Senta both his love and a safe but conventional life, in contrast to the fate that he believes surely awaits her if she pledges herself to the Dutchman.
While Wagner otherwise followed Heine’s general story line, he introduced a change that made the whole work more dramatically charged: for the Dutchman to find redemption, he would not only have to find a woman who loved him, but one who loved him enough to give up her own life for love of him.
Wagner completed the entire work on 19th November 1841. It was performed for the first time in his native Saxony, at Dresden on 2nd January 1843.
Peter Wapnewski, “The Operas as Literary Works” in Ulrich Muller and Peter Wapnewski (eds), “Wagner Handbook”, pp. 14-19.
Barry Millington, “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth”, pp.41-49.
Ernest Newman, “Wagner Nights”, (1988 edition) pp. 9-28.
The relevant Wikipedia article is useful on the legend of the Flying Dutchman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Dutchman
(Article written by John Gee)