Taking The Flying Dutchman's Dare

By John Schauer

I would like someday to give a lecture or write an article making a case for disliking classical music—at least some of it. I fear that people new to classical music may hear something they really detest and, not knowing the infinite variety of classical music, incorrectly conclude that they don’t like any classical music at all. But just about everyone, no matter how knowledgeable or devoted to music, must admit that there are portions of the repertoire they don’t enjoy.

In my case, there are numerous swaths of the classical repertoire that simply don’t appeal to me. Most pertinent at present, I don’t like Wagner.

Actually, a lot of people didn’t like Wagner during his lifetime, and even more wouldn’t like him if he were alive today. He was notoriously anti-Semitic and egomaniacal to an appalling degree, and he had an insufferable sense of entitlement. He flaunted his affair with Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima while she was still married to Hans von Bülow, having three children out of wedlock, and then brazenly naming them after characters in his operas. He was not a nice man.

But that was the man. I’m talking about not liking his music. In my defense, it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve sat through virtually all of his operas (he wrote very little other than operas), many of them multiple times. I find them endlessly fascinating to read about; unfortunately, I find listening to them to be considerably less satisfying.

I think what ultimately does me in is the glacial pace at which Wagner’s operas progress. In this opinion I’m in pretty good company. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, after attending the world premiere of The Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth, wrote to his brother, “Eventually it all came to an end, and with the final chords of The Twilight of the Gods I felt as if I had been liberated from captivity. Perhaps the Nibelungen is a very great work, but what I do know for sure is that never before has there been anything as boring and tedious as this spun-out yarn. … Composers in the past sought to delight people with their music; now what they do instead is to torment and exhaust them.”

But although these sentiments have been echoed by many other writers, Wagner’s operas have held their place as the ultimate summit of German Romantic opera; how unfortunate that, for me, such monumental music remains inscrutable and unapproachable—which, make no mistake about it, is a comment on my limitations, not Wagner’s.

However, I do like The Flying Dutchman, which will be performed by a brilliant cast and the incomparable Chicago Symphony Orchestra on August 15 as the latest installment in the unbroken string of triumphs conductor James Conlon has treated us to with his stunning concert opera performances.

I’m not entirely sure what accounts for that anomaly. Maybe because it’s one of his earliest operas—certainly the earliest one that has remained in the standard repertoire—the piece seems less bound by his later philosophical doctrines as to what a proper “music drama” should be. The story, for starters, is a great psychosexual thriller and delves about the darker corners of the human psyche. That was an area that was first explored by artists of the early Romantic era, the era that gave us both Frankenstein and Dracula. The brooding story moves along at what is, for Wagner, a faster clip. And the music seems more “tuneful” by conventional standards. Certainly Senta‘s great ballad is a monumental aria, and it was the first portion of the opera that Wagner conceived. There are tuneful sailors’ songs and dances to keep things buoyant. And Wagner’s extraordinary evocation of demonic power never fails to evoke chills.

This is apparent from the very first bars of the overture, which alone is practically worth the price of admission. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, “The emotions of terror and the dread of ghosts formed quite an important factor in the development of my mind. … This received fresh impetus from the afternoon concerts in the Grosser Garten at Dresden. … The mere tuning up of the instruments put me in a state of mystic excitement; even the striking of fifths on the violin seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world. … When I was still almost a baby, the sound of these fifths, which always excited me, was closely associated in my mind with ghosts and spirits.”

That’s how Wagner opens The Flying Dutchman, with blazing open fifths in the violins that practically dare listeners to venture into the ghostly world he is about to create. It is a dare I’ve never regretted taking.