Heinrich Heine Tells the Flying Dutchman’s Story
From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski
You certainly know the story of the Flying Dutchman, the cursed ship that has sailed the seas since time immemorial. If another ship should cross its path, an envoy of the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly crew will approach the ship and beg the unsuspecting sailors to deliver a packet of letters. These letters must then be nailed to the ship’s mast, or disaster will strike—especially if there is no bible on board or if no horseshoe is attached to the main mast. The letters are always addressed to unknown people or people who have long been dead: Someone might suddenly receive a love letter addressed to their great-grandmother, who has lain in her grave for a hundred years. This terrifying ship—this wooden ghost—takes its name from its captain, a Dutchman who once, in the midst of a violent storm, swore to the devil that he would sail around a cape (the name of which now escapes me) even if it took until Judgment Day. The devil took him at his word, and the Dutchman must now wander the sea forever—or until true love delivers him from this fate. The foolish devil, believing that no such love exists, allows the captain to set foot on land once every seven years in search of a wife. But the poor Dutchman! He has more than once found a woman and married her, only to find himself begging to be saved from this new, domestic purgatory and returned to his ship!
It was on this fable that the play I saw in Amsterdam was based. Seven years have once again passed, and the poor Dutchman, more exhausted than ever by his endless wandering, comes ashore, makes friends with a Scottish merchant, sells the merchant some diamonds for a pittance, and when he hears that his customer has a beautiful daughter, asks for her hand in marriage. This trade, too, is completed. Now we see the Scottish merchant’s house; the maiden waits for her groom with an apprehensive heart. She casts wistful glances at a large, weathered painting hanging in the parlor, which depicts a handsome man in Spanish-Dutch dress. It is an old heirloom, and according to her grandmother, it is a perfect likeness of the Flying Dutchman as he appeared in Scotland a hundred years earlier, during the time of King William of Orange. But a warning has been passed down along with the painting: that the women of the family should avoid its subject. It is for this reason that the young woman has, ever since she was a child, learned the dangerous man’s features by heart. So when the real Flying Dutchman enters the room in the flesh, the young woman is startled—but not afraid.
Even the Dutchman is affected when he looks at the portrait. Someone explains to him whom the painting portrays, and—knowing how to avoid arousing suspicion—he laughs over this superstition. He scoffs at the Flying Dutchman, consigned to wander the ocean forever. Yet his voice takes on an unintentionally pained tone as he begins to describe the unimaginable sorrows this sailor must experience on the vast, empty expanses of the sea: how his body is nothing more than a coffin for his bored soul; how life pushes him away while death rejects him. Like an empty barrel tossed back and forth by the jeering waves, the poor Dutchman is caught between life and death, wanted by neither, rejected by both. His pain is as deep as the sea on which he sails. His ship is without anchor, and his heart is without hope.
I believe these were more or less the words that the “bridegroom” spoke. The bride watches him seriously and occasionally glances at his portrait. It is as though she has guessed his secret, and when he asks “Katharina, will you be true to me?” she answers decisively: “Yes—through death and beyond.”
[At this point, the narrator leaves the theater for a romantic dalliance.]
When I once again returned to the theater, I arrived during the last scene of the play. The wife of the Flying Dutchman—Mrs. Flying Dutchman, if you will—stands on a cliff high above the sea and wrings her hands in torment, while out at sea, her unfortunate spouse can be seen on the deck of his ghostly ship. He loves her and wants to leave her (to avoid dragging her into his damnation), and he admits to her the tragic fate and terrifying curse that are his lot. But she cries out: “I was true to you until this hour, and I know how to ensure I’ll be true to you forever!”
With these words, the faithful young woman throws herself into the water far below. The curse of the Flying Dutchman is lifted; he is saved. And we see the ghostly ship sink into the abyss of the sea.
The moral of this story is that women should be careful to avoid marrying a Flying Dutchman. And we men should learn from it how women will (in the best of cases) ruin us all.
—Translated by Kamala Schelling
German source: Heinrich Heine, “Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski,“ in Gesammelte Werke, ed. Gustav Karpeles (Berlin: G. Grote’sche, 1887), 4:291–95.
A Man, A Plan, An Operatic Extravaganza: Wagner’s “Total Art Work”
Creating an opera is typically thought of as a collaborative art. A poet or playwright crafts a libretto from an original or pre-existing story, and then a composer sets these words to music. A director oversees the stage action, and costume and set designers figure out what the production will look like.
Richard Wagner, however, had a different idea. Early in his career, he began to imagine a new style of opera, one in which a single creator would provide the story, the libretto, and the music. He called the resulting opera a Gesamtkunstwerk (“geh-ZAHMT-koonst-vehrk”), or “total art work,” because one individual was responsible for the “totality” of the final product. Wagner’s earliest operas (including Der Fliegende Holländer) featured original librettos as well as music, but by the end of the 1840s he had expanded his conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk to incorporate far more than just words and music. In his seminal essays “The Artwork of the Future” (1849) and “Opera and Drama” (1850–51), Wagner suggested that not only music and poetry but also dance (or more generally, gesture and movement) and architecture, painting, and sculpture (i.e., stage design) should be conceptualized together. This way, he believed, no single element would stand out from the others, and the audience would be able to focus entirely on the story without getting distracted by the opera’s component parts.
The most famous example of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk is his four-part opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. Envisioning the Ring as the ultimate embodiment of his operatic ideals, Wagner designed a new opera house near the German town of Bayreuth (“BYE-royt”) for the work’s premiere. This theater, Wagner hoped, would enable the special effects he imagined for his opera, such as steam rising from the stage floor; it would also force the audience to watch the opera in a specific way. Every seat in the Bayreuth Festival Theater faced forward and offered an unobstructed view of the stage. When the opera began, the audience lights were darkened to help viewers focus on the performance. Wagner even helped direct and design the stage sets. To put Wagner’s achievement into perspective, imagine that Peter Jackson not only produced and directed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings movies but also came up with the stories, wrote the screenplays, helped design costumes and scout locations, developed the special effects, and designed a movie theater specifically for the films’ premieres.
Yet even in Wagner’s other works, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk looms large. In an excerpt from Wagner’s own writings produced elsewhere in this guide, “Remarks on the Performance of Der Fliegende Holländer,” he carefully demonstrates how the many elements of Der Fliegende Holländer—story, poetry, music, movement, and stage design—should work together, each piece contributing to a unified, “total” whole.
Wagner's “Remarks on the Performance of Der Fliegende Holländer”
Wagner’s essays on the Gesamtkunstwerk (the “total” union of music, poetry, stage design, and movement) were published nearly a decade after the premiere of Der Fliegende Holländer, but that didn’t mean that the Gesamtkunstwerk principle couldn’t be retroactively applied to his earlier works. In late 1852, Wagner wrote a series of “remarks on the performance of Der Fliegende Holländer ” for his friend Franz Liszt (who was then planning a new production of the work), articulating how both the stage design and the singer’s gestures should be aligned with the music and poetry of the score. Although Wagner briefly describes the stage design—for instance, he explicitly states that the sea must be “as wild as possible,” boldly declares that the ships “can never be realistic enough,” and explains how to effect the “nuances” in the first act’s changing weather patterns through painted drops—he saves most of the essay for an in-depth look into how the lead singer should portray the character of the Dutchman, “upon which the entire success of the opera particularly depends.” Here is a short excerpt from this essay.
[The Flying Dutchman’s] first entrance must be exceptionally solemn and serious: As he steps onto the solid land, the hesitation and slowness of his movements should form a marked contrast with the uncanny speed of his ship in the water. He steps onto the rocky shore—crossing from his ship on a plank prepared by his crew—during the deep trumpet chords (in B minor) at the very end of the introduction. The first notes of the recitative (the low E# in the basses) are accompanied by the Dutchman’s first steps on land. The rocking quality of his movements, so typical of sailors who step ashore after a long while at sea, is accompanied musically by the wave-like figures in the cellos and violas. He takes his second step on the first quarter-note of the third measure; his arms remain crossed and his head bowed. His third and fourth steps fall on the eighth and tenth measures. […]
The first phrases [of the recitative] should be sung without the slightest excitement, as though sung by someone utterly exhausted (although the rhythm should be very precise, both here and in the rest of the recitative). Even when he gets to the bitter words “Oh, you proud ocean ...,” he will exhibit no special ardor: Rather, he will simply turn his head back toward the sea with terrible disdain. After “but my torment is endless,” he lets his head drop again, as though he is both tired and sad; by contrast, he sings the words “you, the flood–waters of the sea …” while staring straight ahead. As for his gestures during the allegro (“How often, in the deepest depths of the sea …”), I don’t want to constrain the singer too much; nevertheless, he should keep in mind my main point that, no matter how passionate he [i.e., the singer] may feel, no matter how much pain may wish to express in his performance, he should for now maintain the greatest possible calm in his outward appearance: A few arm and hand movements (which should not be too large) will suffice to express the weighty tone of this scene.
—Translated by Kamala Schelling
German source: Richard Wagner, “Bemerkungen zur Aufführung der Oper Der Fliegende Holländer,“ in Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, 2nd edition (Leipzig: E. W. Fritzsch, 1888) 5:160–62.