Lutheranism and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

Yesterday, I went to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House (London). Tim Albery’s version is a great performance. The staging and scene were not over elaborate, but very effective. All the main soloists were very good, especially Adrianne Pieczonka ’s Senta, and the chorus and orchestra were first-rate. For me, it was “excellent” rather than “outstanding”; but, that may be mostly personal taste – I am not a diehard Wagner fan, and I find most romantic tragedy storylines rather too cliché and unrealistic.

While watching, I could not help noticing some interesting parallels between the ideological framework underlying The Flying Dutchman and Lutheran theology. I admit, I’m not sure to what denomination (if any) Wagner officially belonged, although it seems that he went to a Lutheran school. But, Lutheran theology had clearly impacted strongly on German thinking and culture by the nineteenth century; therefore, Lutheranism almost certainly would have influenced Wagner’s operas, whether or not Wagner was himself a Lutheran. This is particularly likely when we consider that most of Wagner’s operas were heavily based on German legends.

Let’s focus on 4 particularly interesting Lutheran elements in The Flying Dutchman:

  • The Dutchman’s fate, unless saved by a faithful woman, is to roam the seas without dying for as long as the world endures; then, on the day of judgement, to vanish into nothingness. It was Luther, in contrast to Roman Catholic theology, who understood damnation as meaning non-existence. Of course, while Luther dreaded this fate, the cursed Dutchman longs for this relief from his sufferings.
  • The Dutchman’s salvation almost fails because of his capitulation to doubt. In Lutheran theology, salvation depends entirely on faith (in Christ): sola fide. Doubt is a perilous (perhaps the most perilous) spiritual force, and Luther struggled all his life with bouts of doubt. The Dutchman doubts that Senta is really true to him, and so announces that he will leave without marrying her and despair forever of his salvation. Only Senta’s abiding fidelity (resulting in her death) saves the Dutchman.
  • A woman’s ‘holy duty’, states the opera, is fidelity in marriage. Those who marry the Dutchman and are unfaithful are damned. A distinctive element of Luther’s theology was its insistence that the highest duty for a woman was marriage. Luther argued that a woman’s role could be seen in her body, shaped for childbearing and rearing. He rejected the possibility of an alternative higher, or different, female spiritual calling to chastity in the monastic life (as proposed by Catholic and Orthodox traditions).
  • The opera features repeatedly the notion of a personal angel who leads the Dutchman to salvation. While Luther rejected the traditional cult of saints, he maintained belief in guardian angels.

Of course, fused with these particularly Lutheran ideologies, is a strong ‘pagan’ element. Salvation comes not through Christ, but through the abiding love of a mortal woman. In fact, Senta is like an altus Christus. Although the Dutchman’s torment is due to a vow to the devil, it is the perfect love, and sacrificial death, of Senta that saves him. The Faustian idea, of the charismatic hero who has sold his soul to the devil is here combined with the popular trope of faithful love leading to suicide.

I am not claiming that The Flying Dutchman is an overtly, even a self-consciously, Lutheran opera. On the surface, it is a nonsensical blend of strands of Christian belief, popular mythology, and romantic tropes. But I would argue that, inextricably absorbed into its ideological framework, are particularly Lutheran ideologies.