Performing Chopin

Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

How fast does the Dutchman fly?


Like in so many often performed operas, Wagner's first step towards music drama – as he himself saw it – raises serious questions regarding tempo. The differences between the indications in the score of "The Flying Dutchman" and the traditional tempi are at times overwhelming. While not supporting any kind of "authentic" or "historical" interpretation of this opera, I still find it difficult to share the indifference with which great conductors of the past and of the present show in face of the clear indications the composer left. Moreover, I sincerely believe that whoever is not conditioned by a long time habit of the traditional tempi, will find Wagner's tempi completely natural and logical. 

As David Breckbill points out in his important essay(*), probably the two most important points of the work where we find a great discrepancy between tradition and score in terms of tempo, are Senta's ballad and the overture. Breckbill's defence of the ballad as a popular song which suits perfectly Wagner's indication is quite exhaustive and I warmly recommend the reader to adhere to this interesting survey of the matter. I gave my personal view of the interpretation of the ballad in the short article "Revisiting Senta" which you can find on the same "My Articles" page here on the website. 

Quite different is the case of the overture, where Breckbill seems to support the traditional deviation from the original metronome indication (around 100 instead of 72 to the dotted half), calling it an oxymoron when combined with the tempo indication Allegro con brio(**). In my eyes Wagner's indication makes perfect sense from any point of view – structural, formal, expressive and musical, as I intend to show here.

The overture is first and foremost an independent musical piece and has an inner logic from which stems the opening tempo. In its present form, the overture is a combination of the traditional "pot-pourri" of motifs from the opera with elements of classical sonata form. Though this is done in a sophisticated and sometimes even discreet way, there still is a clear feeling of influence of the original sonata form throughout the whole overture. 

The overture opens with an introduction: the initial Allegro is quickly replaced by a broad Andante and we thus have the general effect of the traditional slow introduction in sonata-form movements, which will eventually be followed by the main Allegro section of the movement. However, unlike the introduction in the tradition of the classical style – here we already find the two motifs which form the thematic nucleus of the whole movement: the entire "storm" motif (actually a group of several motifs) in the Allegro and Senta's motif in the Andante. This in some way calls to mind Beethoven's habit to open many of his movements with a concentrated statement of the material which then serves to construct the whole movement - the 5th symphony being the most obvious example. In those cases the effect is indeed very often that of a short introduction (the piano sonatas nos. 3 and 10 serve as good examples). 

I am underlying the various elements which relate to sonata form and classical procedures, since their integration into the techniques of opera writing is so essential to Wagner's style. This feature will have an important weight in understanding the overall structure of the overture and Wagner's original tempo indications. 

The main Allegro starts with the Dutchman's motif (appearing notably in his first monologue "Wie oft in Meeres tiefstes Schlund") combining it with the opening fifths motif to what sounds like a first theme group in an exposition of a classical sonata form. The sailors motif (from the third act "Steuerman, lass' di Wacht!" ) appears after a transitional section and functions as a second theme both in character and in tonality (F major as opposed to the opening D minor). The following pages can be defined as the development, incorporating all the motifs hither presented in ever-roving harmonies. It is remarkable that in the middle of this section Wagner reaches A-flat major (with the Trombones and basses playing the fifths motif in fortissimo) – the most remote tonality from D-minor. A famous example of the same procedure in Beethoven is the first movement of the G-major Piano Concerto, where the climax of the development is in C-sharp minor.
The last section of the overture (after the general pause of the whole orchestra) is based on the two motifs from the introduction, presented – as common in a romantic movement in a minor key – in the tonal major (D major). The dramatization of the lyrical motif is also typical to the romantic style: Senta's motif loses its original character and tempo and becomes a highly energetic and rhythmic ,dominating the last pages with constantly modulating chromatic sequences. The final bars,marked un poco ritenuto, give Senta's motif back its original character and ending on that tone make sure that we are in the romantic style, where the lyrical element prevails (as is widely known, this is the later version of the overture).

It is interesting to notice how Wagner actually uses four different motifs as first and second themes: the fifths motif and Senta's motif serve for the construction of the recapitulation where their originally contrasting tonality and character are united to one. On the other hand, the Dutchman's motif and the Sailor's motif are used to create the exposition of a sonata-form movement. This of course allows Wagner to present four themes instead of two, which is what an opera overture requires when dwelling on themes from the opera itself. It is again a beautiful example of Wagner's way of thinking which combines the operatic and the symphonic tradition in a unique manner. 

If we now go back to our original concern – the allegedly too slow tempo indication - we can try to understand it in view of the form: the only real change of speed in the whole movement should be where Wagner writes accelerando, after the original Allegro starts again and a big part of what is actually the Dutchman's monologue is played. This leads us to the "real" Allegro tempo which remains for the rest of the overture (with some enhancement of speed towards the end). 

What we usually hear is this tempo at the very beginning of the overture, where – as I already mentioned – Wagner indicates 72 to the dotted half. Wagner's tempo indication creates one inner pulse for the whole first part of the overture including the introduction with Senta's motif and the beginning of the second Allegro. This is due to the fact that there is an inner relation between the "storm" motifs & Senta's music (here again I must disagree with Breckbill who claims there is no such ratio, and that conductors create the relation 1:3 using the faster Allegro. Since the ratio exists and it is 1:2 one can only see the faultiness of the traditional tempo(***)). One bar of the fast group equals half bar of the lyrical one. Actually, if the slower part were written in quarter notes triplet, and the meter were 4/4, one could simply continue conducting exactly the same beat. This is the typical Mozart device of changing Tempo (i.e.: feeling and expression) while keeping the speed. 

Wagner's indications in Senta's ballad support this since 63 for the opening dotted quarter note results in approximately 32 for a whole bar, and 100 for the slow eigth notes give 33 for half a bar. In the overture the basic tempo is slightly faster, but this doesn't change the overall structure. 

In order to go back from the double-as-slow tempo to the original one, Wagner uses two steps: he first enhances the speed with the "un poco piu mosso" section recalling the music at the end of the Steuerman scene, right before the Dutchman's entrance (horns & trombones). Then with a slight accelerando, which is actually not percieved by the public, Wagner is back to the opening tempo. I underline again that this "accelerating" part only brings us from double slow to the original tempo, but the beat in both cases remains the same.
The result of the above said is that from the opening bars of the overture until the accelerando we have one and only pulse. This pulse governs about a quarter of the overture, and we thus get in terms of tempo something which is rooted in the classical Allegro movement with slow introduction, even though it is masked by many apparent tempo changes in its first "slow" part. 

This inner combination of classical forms and way of thinking with operatic tradition seems to me fundamental to the understanding and realization of Wagner's style and I firmly believe it should be observed by his interpreters. 

The relation between tempo and form in the overture is illustrated in the following diagram: 

Form        Introduction             1st Theme     Bridge & 2nd Theme - Development - Reprise - Coda 

Tempo     Allegro – Andante   -   Allegro         accelerando leading to a faster Allegro

Beat         72           (102)             72              -------------- (100)
bar    36           (34)               36 

On a broader scale – the Overture should be considered in relation to the first act which succeeds it. This act is carefully constructed around the beat 72 which appears both at the beginning of its introduction and at the closing scene ("Südwind!"). Generally speaking the tempo fluctuates relatively only little faster or slower than this basic pulse. Puccini did a similar thing in "Il Tabarro" which has practically almost one tempo during its 55 minutes. In both cases this basic flow has to do with the water – the sea in Wagner and the Seine in Puccini. The "Flying Dutchman" Overture – though written last, as usual – fits perfectly into the scheme of the first act, if its opening tempo is respected.

A last word regarding the tempo marking itself at the beginning of the overture: I find it difficult to agree with the statement that "Allegro con brio" and Wagner's metronome form an oxymoron. Con brio does not refer in any way to a fast tempo. Rossini for instance avoids altogether the indication presto in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia", "La Cenerentola", "L'Italiana in Algeri" and "Il Viaggio a Rheims". Personally I believe he was looking for vivacity and not for speed – which is much more difficult to obtain and again quite on the contrary to the way his music is often performed. Mozart on the other hand chooses the indication presto for the overtures of "Le Nozze di Figaro", "Der Schauspieldirektor" and "Cosi Fan Tutte", where I really think the music should be played fast. Speed becomes part of the expression itself, representing - in the examples given - the spirit of comedy.

It seems to me that Wagner knew very well what he was looking for when he left us the metronome indication for the opening bars of the overture to "The Flying Dutchman". Played in this tempo, they create an overwhelmingly powerful and – I would dare say – cosmic effect. 


(*) David Breckbill: "Der Fliegende Hollaender in performance", in "Der Fliegende Hollaender", Cambridge Opera Handbooks, edited by Thomas Grey, pp.129-150

(**) ibid, p.143

(***) ibid, p.144

(c) 2012 Rani Calderon

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