Early in the act, we have a plaintive moment. A sailor sings a tune, clearly longing for home and the company he misses there. The quietness of the big orchestra now playing so gently after its earlier savagery seems to echo the tranquility of the still waters although there are moments when the orchestra shows us the wilder side of the ocean. We are taken inside the loneliness of that moment for the singer, setting up the large-scale action that will follow. The solo resembles an aria is some respects, but doesn’t have the usual closure of an aria, as the sailor falls asleep before finishing. The piece is in the key of B-flat showing off the tenor voice. The light voice of the soloist makes a pleasant contrast to the heavier singing required for the other tenor in the opera, whose part is larger.
You probably recognize this as a description of the beginning of Act I of Der Fliegende Holländer, premiered in 1843. And although you’re right—that I described the quiet opening of Dutchman—it was phrased carefully so that the same words would also serve as an accurate description of the opening to the last act of Les Troyens, composed in the mid-1850s, and premiered in 1863:
- Sailor sings a tune longing for home and the people he misses
- Wagner’s Steuermann wants to see his sweetheart
- Berlioz’s Hylas recalls his mother and his homeland
- The big orchestra is playing quietly after earlier “savagery”
- Moments earlier in the orchestral prelude to Dutchman as well as the brisk opening to the first act with the chorus, preceding the quieter recitative-like exchange between Daland & the Steuermann
- Act V of Troyens opens with the sweet introduction to this solo, after many loud climaxes particularly in the first two acts before the departure from Troy.
- During the song, the orchestra swells to remind us of stormier weather
- Briefly in the second verse of the Steuermann’s song
- Briefly in the third verse of Hylas’s song.
- The singer falls asleep during his song
- After a first verse that includes a high B-flat, Wagner’s Steuermann only manages a few lines of the next verse before sinking into sleep. His sleep serves a dramaturgical purpose, in setting up the arrival of the Dutchman’s ghost-ship onstage, but without anyone on watch throughout “Die Frist ist Um” and its sombre introductory words that are in such a stark contrast to the jauntiness of the Steuermann’s singing
- Hylas completes three verses, the third fading away into sleep, observed humorously by two other members of the Trojan crew. The thematic link to what follows is direct, given that Aeneas and his crew need to tear themselves away from Carthage and to resume their voyage.
- The piece in B-flat shows off the tenor voice
- Wagner’s Steuermann goes directly to the high B-flat in the first verse.
- Berlioz’s sailor does not even go very high, but calls for a sweet sound, to take full advantage of the nostalgic tone of the writing
- This role contrasts another tenor with a more dramatic voice
- Erik’s singing is more elaborate with heavier orchestral accompaniments, therefore it’s normally assigned to a more dramatic tenor than the Steuermann, which is a smaller part in comparison
- The sailor has this one light solo, whereas Aeneas has the largest part in the opera, requiring a more dramatic sound
Is this a mere coincidence? Perhaps. They’re not at all the same, except in broad outline.
I think I prefer Berlioz’s tune (a melody that has a tendency to stay in my head for days every time i hear it)even though i love the way Wagner’s song fits into the scene, actually a key part of the action (because the Steuermann falls asleep on the job).
This is but one very specific instance when it seems likely that Berlioz must have observed what Wagner had written so much earlier in the same key, in the same situation. Berlioz makes no acknowledgement that we know of, but then again why would a composer call attention to an influential colleague who was in many respects a rival?
Yet in contrast we know that Wagner very generously called attention to his debt to Berlioz. Nobody denies that Wagner could at times be difficult, yet for all his faults, in this instance at least, he was gracious and generous in paying tribute to his French colleague.
Wagner wrote the following note to Berlioz:
I am delighted to be able to offer you the first copy of my Tristan. Please accept it and keep it out of friendship for me.
And this is the inscription inside the score itself:
To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet the grateful author of Tristan und Isolde
Whether Wagner perceived Berlioz as a rival or perhaps as a master, I believe it’s worth incorporating these rather small incidental observations into the larger picture. Wagner is sometimes portrayed as a near-paranoid individual, nasty in his writings and in some of his relationships. But where there are genuine behaviours that can be understood as hostile or at least unappreciative, perhaps it’s not paranoia at all. And viewed in the larger context of Wagner’s two forays into Paris –each representing a disastrous failure—Berlioz’s response to his German colleague is perhaps not so trivial.
We know that Liszt wanted Wagner & Berlioz to be allies in their joint efforts to promote new music. Oh well.
But I can’t help wondering about the B-flat tenor solos that resemble one another.