1843: Wagner The Flying Dutchman Overture, age 30

Mr. Peabody Says:

No one is more polarizing than Wagner. As a human being he was really an awful man. It seems the only person in life he really loved was himself. He was always out of money, but when he asked for loans, he never paid the money back. Yet with all this negative stuff, some of his music is just ridiculously good.


This overture is just one part of a legendary recording that I once owned.


  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba
  • timpani
  • harp
  • strings
  • on-stage: 3 piccolos, 6 horns, tam tam, wind machine

Maybe now maybe the greatest drinking song ever…

I’m looking for a really well-staged version of this, but here is the main idea. Everyone is eating and drinking. Men and women are flirting. But at the end they find out that some of the men they have invited to to join them are the crew of the ghost ship, and the whole scene becomes very spooky. If the whole opera was this entertaining, I might become an opera fan.

It’s a love story and a ghost story:

The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. Wagner’s story is both a love story and a ghost story. Every seven years, the Flying Dutchman, who is condemned to roam the sea for having defied God, is cast ashore and can seek redemption. Only the love of a faithful woman, willing to sacrifice her life for him, can release him from his curse.

A new start…

In 1851 Wagner claimed that The flying Dutchman represented a new start for him:

“From here begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts.”

Today most people agree that this is the first of the really great Wagner operas.

Wagner was often broke:

While Wagner was writing Rienzi, which came right before The Flying Dutchman,  he owed so much money that he tried to flee his creditors. His plan was to escape to Paris via London and make his fortune by putting Rienzi on stage in Paris.

Things got even worse…

His plan was a disaster. His passport was seized by the authorities in the name of his creditors. Wagner’s whole life was full of such stories.

A dangerous sea voyage…

He and his wife, Minna, made  a dangerous escape on the ship Thetis, whose captain had agreed to take them without passports. It was a rough journey. A trip that was expected to take eight days took three weeks, and some suggest that this voyage might have been part of the idea for Wagner’s opera.

The creation took several years…

Wagner wrote the first draft of the story in Paris early in 1840, but he did not conduct the premiere until 1843. Wagner composed the overture last, and by November 1841 the orchestration of the score was complete.So I think it is safe to say that the whole opera was finished around 1842.


This is the first time Wagner used a number of leitmotivs (literally, “leading motifs”) associated with the characters and themes. The leitmotifs are all introduced in the overture, which begins with a well-known ocean or storm motif.

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