This opera, based on an episode from Heinrich Heine's "Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski," relates the legend of the Flying Dutchman, who, attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope in a furious storm, swore he would succeed if it meant sailing for eternity. Hearing the oath, the devil condemned him to sail the seas forever. Only one chance for salvation was left for the Dutchman; the devil allowed him to come ashore once every seven years to seek a woman who would redeem him through love and remain faithful to him unto death.
This opera represents a decisive development in Wagner's operas; namely, the use of leitmotifs that represent characters, emotions, objects, etc. Wagner used leitmotifs to give a sense of unity within a large musical framework while breaking free from the set pieces and conventions of earlier Romantic opera. The two principle leitmotifs are presented in the overture: the Dutchman's motif in the opening theme, and a slower, lyrical motif representing the sacrificial love of the eternal woman. The motifs are given in many variations of texture, orchestration, dynamics, and altered rhythms, all adding to the subtle changes in context, mood, feeling, and drama of the moment. The other music in the overture depicts the stormy seas, howling winds, and calls and songs of the sailors.
This is music that could only be composed by someone who had experienced a violent storm at sea. A few years before composing this opera, while traveling to London, Wagner was caught in a raging storm off the coast of Norway. This experience is said to have left a powerful impression on him.