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

Revisiting Senta

(originally written as a program note for the production of "The Flying Dutchman" at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw)

According to Wagner's own words, "The Flying Dutchman" was born – in musical terms – with the composition of Senta's ballad: "I recall how, even before I set about writing the Flying Dutchman as a whole, I sketched Senta's Ballad in the second act, working out both the verses and the music of it. In this piece I unconsciously set down the thematic seeds of the whole opera." (Richard Wagner, A Communication to my Friends, 1851). It is therefore quite overwhelming that today – almost two centuries after the birth of the opera – this central aria from which the whole piece was later developed is usually performed in a different key than the original one and in tempi which do not correspond to Wagner's own indications.
The reason for the change of key lies in the fact that for his Dresden premiere Wagner had the great singer Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient for whom he had great admiration, and who - at that point of her career – could not sing the ballad in its original tonalities: A minor – C major. Wagner lowered the ballad a full step (whole tone) and ever since it has, with very rare exceptions, been performed in the lower key (G minor – B flat major). 

What significance has this change of key? Is it really important whether we perform the ballad in one key or another? The answer should be considered in the context of the piece in question. I would not like to expand the discussion to other operatic styles, and will therefore concentrate on Wagner, where I believe most if not all musicians will agree that tonalities do have a meaning and specific associations. For the non musicians among the readers of this article, let me just say that tonality is exactly like color – not only do tonalities sound different to many musicians, they also look different (on the musical page) and awaken a whole world of associations, in the same way that blue can evoke the sky or the sea, and red – the blood. These associations are of course personal , but what matters is that there is a significance to the key in which a piece is written. 

The original key of the Ballad was A minor – C major, relating to the fast and slow parts of it respectively. These are the tonalities of the "white keys" on the piano, and therefore have a certain classical flavor, to which we could also attribute in this case a "universal" or "cosmic" quality: they are pure, clean, and therefore spacious and vast. I feel it is extremely significant that a piece as modern and futuristic as "The Flying Dutchman" had in its origin the most classical of all tonalities. This creates a perfect balance between the stormy romantic-dramatic quality of the piece, and its – so to speak – "genetic code". Wagner was to repeat this model in a more perfect way much later, in the 1st act of "Tristan und Isolde": this most modern and innovating opera, full of chromaticism and changes of tonalities, has its first act start in A minor and end in C major. Purity and classicism give frame to intense romanticism. 

From acoustical point of view, the Ballad simply sounds different in the original key. Instead of being dark and gloomy, it comes out as brilliant and dramatic, and gives Senta the bright color of Wagner's early heroines. 

As I mentioned before, tonalities are like colors, and therefore pieces written in the same tonality often relate to each other. Wagner's great idol and predecessor who laid the foundation to the romantic German opera was Carl Maria von Weber. In his last three operas – "Der Freischuetz", "Euryanthe" and "Oberon" – he uses the C major tonality for the fast closing sections ("cabalettas") of the arias of his heroines (Agathe, Euryanthe and Rezia - in this last case it is actually the opening part of Finale I). Senta's ballad ends in a fast short passage which is obviously inspired by Weber's cabalettas. When performed in the original tonality – one can feel the strong connection between Wagner's first mature heroine and the last ones of his spiritual mentor. 

The other neglected aspect of the Ballad, totally twisted by tradition, is its tempo. Wagner indicates the metronome at the beginning of the ballad (63 to the dotted quarter, which is approximately one second for one beat), and except for some variation in the third strophe, maintains it throughout until the chorus takes over Senta's music. 

Tradition imposes a slow "six in a bar" tempo for the opening two lines of each strophe ("Traft ihr das Schiff" etc.), and then an abrupt change when the storm music starts ("Hui! Wie saust der Wind!"). In other words: too slow at the beginning and too fast later, with regard to the original metronome marking. This is absolutely unnecessary, and can be avoided if the opening lines are sung in the correct speed (faster than traditionally) – which gives the text much more prominence – and the storm music is kept at the same tempo (slower than the traditional speed) – which gives it a more dramatic quality. The most important outcome is one coherent tempo which governs the whole first section of each strophe. 

In order to vary the repeats in the ballad, Wagner indicated slight tempo changes in the 3rd strophe: first, ritardando of the 3rd and 4th lines (from: "Er freite alle sieben Jahr'"), and then – as compensation - accelerando towards the end of the storm music ("Hui! Falsche Lieb', falsche Treu"). The accelerando is possible and very effective if the original metronome is respected, but is usually not observed, since the traditional tempo at this point is so fast, that it is simply impossible to increase the speed. We thus loose both the special effect of rushing into the end of the ballad, and the balance which Wagner creates between slowing down and speeding up in this last strophe. 

A last note regarding the orchestration: during the various revisions, Wagner changed some details in the orchestration, which seem to me an improvement and I therefore decided to leave them as they are. This means we will be performing Senta's ballad in its original key, with Wagner's tempi, using the later orchestration rather than the earlier one. The reason for this is that we are not looking for a historical (or should one say "archeological"?) reproduction of the original version of the ballade, but rather to give it back its original tonality and tempi, without giving up the improvements which Wagner made in the orchestration. 

I would like to thank my musical assistant Ms. Marta Kluczinska as well as the vocal coach Matthias Manasi for their devoted work in writing out the transposition of the orchestral parts. Special thanks to Mr. Sven Friedrich, the director of the Bayreuth Museum, who gave us moral and professional support.
I am extremely grateful to Soprano Lise Lindstorm who from the very beginning expressed willingness and enthusiasm in following Wagner's original indications for the Ballad, with regard to both tonality and tempo. I believe the music pays her back with gratitude for her devotion, by allowing her beautiful voice to shine and express itself in the most brilliant way. 

(C) 2012 Rani Calderon

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