Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Note from the Conductor of "The Flying Dutchman"

David Angus at the Wagner Society of NY
We are very privileged to be the first American company to have access to the critical edition of Wagner's very first version of The Flying Dutchman, which he then modified many times throughout his life.  The more often played standard version is based on a score from 1896 which was collated by conductor Felix Weingartner from many sources, and included everything that Wagner (and perhaps others) had ever added or changed—which was often only relevant to particular productions or venues.  The problem for us is that many of these changes were made because Wagner himself wanted to alter perceptions of his own development, and to pretend that he was already writing in a much more mature style than was actually true.  The surprising effect of this is that the resulting piece, in its familiar form, is neither what it originally was— a strong, light and energetic early Romantic score— nor one of Wagner's true Music Dramas, his later weightier and more symphonic works.  By removing all these accretions and performing the work in its original version, we actually get a cleaner and more energetic sound that is much more direct in its impact.
This original score set the story in Scotland, and Wagner included very clear references to Scottish music, particularly in the chorus music-- the drones and repeated grace notes that characterize bagpipe music, as well as reference to actual Scottish folksongs.  At the last moment, he moved the location of the opera in order to be able to claim an autobiographical link with his own sea journey during which he sheltered in Norway, but nothing dramatic is gained by that move, and it denies the evidence in the music.  
Over the years he also made many changes to the instrumentation, particularly to the brass writing, but his original instruments would have been very much lighter than modern instruments and so there would not have been the balance problems that we find nowadays.  In our performances we are imitating the original sound as far as possible, using natural instruments (without valves) and narrow-bore trombones, for example. 

David Angus at the Wagner Society of NY
It would take a whole book to list all the changes, but I will point out two particular examples.  At the end of the opera, and in the parallel music at the end of the overture, Wagner later added a much slower sentimental ending (with a big harp solo and reference to Senta's redemption motif) which interrupts the high energy race to the end and destroys all the momentum.  This is the only music that the harp plays in the whole opera, and it weakens the dramatic intensity at a critical moment.  We will not be performing this addition, of course!

My other example is Wagner's later addition of many directions of expression and tempo, some of which again rob the music of its momentum.  The most significant of these is at the climax of the development of the overture, where Senta's theme interrupts 4 times in a row.  In the original, there is not a single tempo indication at these points, and the music was clearly intended to continue at exactly the same speed, but a tradition has evolved of slamming the brakes on and performing these few bars at half or even a third of the main tempo, returning to tempo for a few bars, slamming on the brakes again, etc. This destroys the long build-up of excitement, at precisely the moment when it should reach its climax!  Wagner himself later added the marking un poco ritenuto, which surely could hardly suggest under half-tempo?  If you are used to hearing the traditional version, our performance without change of tempo will sound very strange to you, but I am convinced that it is much stronger without this stopping and starting. The only possible defense for the much slower tempo - that the nature of the theme itself necessarily demands the tempo reduction- is proved invalid by the theme's later appearance in the coda at a very quick tempo that no one contests.  If it can be played quickly here, why not earlier?

My approach throughout has been to consider all the traditions that have evolved in the performance of this opera, and to question whether or not they really improve the music.  We haven't thrown everything out, but those who know this piece well will notice many changes, and, I hope, a real heightening of energy and drama throughout. This is a very strong and original early Romantic opera, not a pale shadow of what was to come!

David Angus
BLO Music Director

1 comment:

  1. I can hardly wait to see this performance. How fortunate to be present when you conduct this masterpiece. To think that I will listen to the original version is beyond my good luck. It is an honor to be in the same company of Wagner devotees. Truth, beauty with delicacy of feeling that ensorcelled our souls with Richard Wagner conducted by a master.