| || |
Much is made of Wagner's leitmotif system, a musical device he used in later operas to bring unity to these sprawling works, but there is some historical controversy over the perceived use of leitmotifs in Dutchman. (The German word Leitmotiv, incidentally, was coined after Wagner’s time). Musicologists of the first half of the twentieth century tried to attach a name to musical themes to show how Wagner represented characters, objects, emotional or psychological states. But the development of these themes, alongside the psychological development of the characters in these operas, is the true hallmark of Wagner’s genius. Der Ring des Nibelungen, for example, is fascinating because there is a vast amount of character development across its span of four separate operas. The development of the leitmotifs provides a musical thread that delineates characters’ internal and external actions as the narrative progresses.
The Flying Dutchman doesn’t yet show this level of motivic development; Wagner’s system had not yet coalesced, so any attempt to establish the identity of these themes with any certainty is ultimately doomed to failure. Some of the themes, however, tend to be associated with certain characters or objects in the opera. For instance, the broad horn theme from the beginning of the overture is generally associated with the character of the Dutchman, as it appears most often when he is either on stage or when he is referred to in the text. After the initial bluster in the overture subsides, a lovely new theme appears in the winds, associated with Senta. But whether it is actually a 'signature' tune, or evocative of her love and devotion for the Dutchman, is open to debate. The theme could also be broader than either solution and more a general expression of Senta's desire to be the Dutchman's salvation, or the Dutchman's desire to be saved by her.
What we can know is that unlike the leitmotifs in the Ring, Wagner does not musically develop these thematic ideas. The Dutchman's theme, and that of Senta, remains unchanged. This attachment of themes and groups of themes to certain characters, then, is still in its infant stage in The Flying Dutchman, a simple precursor to a much more elaborate scheme that unfolds in later works such as Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.
Wagner's use of themes in Dutchman is not terribly different from Verdi's use of the maledizione or 'curse' theme in Rigoletto. Verdi simply brings the theme back, either in the vocal part or in the orchestra, whenever Rigoletto refers to the curse of Monterone slung at him by the hapless father at the beginning of the opera. It is a case of 'thematic reminiscence', not a true leitmotif, because like the Dutchman themes, the 'curse' theme never changes.
Wagner’s style differs from Verdi in that there are more themes, and they are utilized on a more regular basis and on a more structural level. Indeed one can say that Wagner devised an entire music drama using only ten or twelve themes. An entire unified fabric of thematic material tells the story in a relatively simple and elegant way. Though the process intensifies with later operas, it is a groundbreaking achievement even at this early point in the composer’s career.
Courtesy of San Diego Opera’s Operapaedia