April 10, 2016

The Flying Dutchman's debt to Chopin

The big soprano solo in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman is Senta's lengthy ballad in Act 2. Having expressed her disdain for the tuneful but vapid "Spinning Chorus" sung by the village maidens, Senta chooses a musical selection that will be a polar opposite in tone, launching into a fairly austere telling of the legend of the Dutchman.

F. Chopin (portrait by E. Delacroix)
Read anything about this opera, and all commentators will point out one obvious source for this ballad, namely: Emma's ballad in Der Vampyr, a largely neglected opera by Heinrich Marschner that was popular enough in its day (1828) for Wagner to have conducted performances of it early in his career as a Maestro. There is little doubt that the phrase "the pale man" used in Emma's solo to describe the vampire so appealed to Wagner that he did a cut-and-paste job, neatly transferring it to Senta's number as she describes the Dutchman.

Other than that phrase, and the concept of a ballad, however, the two ballads have little else in common. In contrast to the austerity of Senta's tale, Emma's is "dramatic" in a more conventionally operatic sense, using chains of diminished seventh chords to create tension in expressing horror at the threat of the monster. The structure is different as well.

I have another candidate as a source for Senta's ballad; one that seems to have provided concrete musical inspiration for the young Wagner both in tone and form.

I'm thinking of the Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 by Frederic Chopin.

The date of composition supports my theory; Chopin's Ballade was written between 1836-1839. The Flying Dutchman was completed in 1843, meaning Wagner could have had ample time to become acquainted with the latest virtuoso work by one of Europe's foremost pianists.

It's interesting to compare and contrast the structure and musical materials of the Wagner and Chopin pieces. Following a few introductory "yo-ho-hoe's", Senta launches into a turbulent depiction of the Dutchman's curse. In the passage below, it incorporates some of the "storm-at-sea" material from the overture, later heard in the Dutchman's Act 1 soliloquy. The meter is 6/8.

A brief transition leads to a contrasting theme representing Senta and the redemption she is destined to offer the Dutchman. After the violence of the preceding section, this new theme is the polar opposite: calm in tone and utterly simple in texture. The meter remains 6/8.

After a second and third iteration of these two sections, (the women's chorus taking up the redemption theme in the third stanza), Senta sings a highly animated coda of frenzied energy, expressing ecstatic anticipation of ending the Dutchman's suffering.

All of these elements are found in the Chopin Ballade. Here we find the theme of artless calm and simplicity; here we find a contrasting theme of stormy virtuosity; and here we have a coda bringing the work to an animated conclusion. The difference: the order of the contrasting elements is reversed. Chopin opens with his dream-like theme, marked sotto voce. Note that the meter is identical to Senta's redemption theme:

When that section dies away on delicate repeated notes, the introduction of a stormy, turbulent theme offers the same sort of contrast as in Senta's solo; this too could be describing a hurricane at sea:

The coda, which could also be described as "frenzied" (though I grant you it's Romantic Doom and not ecstasy being expressed), offers a strong rhythmic figure in stern octaves:

Did these octaves serve as some kind of model for the famous motive of the Dutchman that first appears in the overture? It shares with the Chopin motive the same effect of ominous strength and power.

Regardless, it would appear that Richard Wagner, often cited as having written the "Music of the Future", and who definitely cast a shadow extending well into the 20th century, looked to the immediate past in creating one of his landmark works for soprano.

But wait! (As they say on late-night infomercials) There's more! I think the central section of the Dutchman's Act 1 monologue "Die Frist is um", the passage marked "Maestoso" and beginning with the words "Dich frage ich", owes a LOT to a passage in the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21. Composed in 1830, it pre-dates Dutchman by more than a decade. A nocturne-like main theme in the opening section of the Larghetto slow movement is interrupted by a section of recitative-like utterances in jagged dotted rhythms for the piano over tense tremolos in the strings. The pertinent passage begins around 4:20 in this video performance.

In "Dich frage ich", Wagner adopts the same dotted rhythms and tremulous accompaniment; the key of A flat Minor is even the same. Both composers have the same objective in mind: the depiction in music of a Tormented Romantic Anti-hero, adapting the character of the Young Werther, Lord Byron and Manfred (among other literary creations) to musical expression. This section begins at 5:25 in this performance by George London.

Chopin and Wagner: in many respects, they might appear to be musical oil and water, each the very artistic antithesis of the other. Bear in mind, however, that Wagner greatly admired the melodies of Vincenzo Bellini, to whom Chopin is often compared. Perhaps it shouldn't really surprise us that echoes of the Polish poet of the piano reverberate in Wagner's early masterpiece.

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