This legend of a Dutch sea captain cursed to sail the earth unendingly, only coming ashore once every seven years to seek the selfless love of a woman, featured themes that would be of enduring interest to Wagner: the theme of a wanderer in search of redemption reappears several times in his later Ring des Nibelungen; that of redemption through a woman's act of self-sacrifice appears both in Tannhäuser and the Ring; and that of a pre-destined and unbreakable love is central to both the Ring and Tristan and Isolde. In this and several other ways the composition of Der Fliegende Holländer foreshadowed the events of the composer's development as a mature composer.
Wagner's principal source for his opera about the Flying Dutchman was Heinrich Heine's version of the legend in his Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski, published in 1834; but while Heine's retelling of the legend is ironic, Wagner stripped it of these elements and instead focused on the elements of love and redemption. The composer claimed that the work's inspiration was a stormy crossing from Riga to London in August 1839; however, Wagner's original prose sketch was set not in Norway, but Scotland, and Senta was originally "Anna." Wagner changed the setting to Norway just a few weeks before the opera's premiere (in Dresden, January 2, 1843) in order to distance it from a production of Pierre-Louis Dietsch's Le vaisseau fantôme, which was also a setting of Wagner's libretto (he had sold it to the Paris Opéra in 1841, hoping to gain the commission for himself).
It is likewise not true, as Wagner claimed, that the entire work grew from the "thematic seed" of Senta's Act Two ballad, although elements of the song do appear in the Dutchman's monologue and in Erik's dream. This claim was most likely Wagner's attempt to align this relatively early work with the thematic construction of his later music dramas. However, Der Fliegende Holländer does show Wagner's early moves toward large-scale form, and the blurring of divisions between musical sections.
In many ways, Dutchman resembles its predecessors in German Romantic opera, especially those with supernatural plots. Senta's portentous ballad in Act Two, for example, resembles the prophetic song sung by the heroine of Marschner's Der Vampyr, which Wagner helped prepare for performance in Wurzburg in 1833. Wagner also uses dramatic devices such as the seemingly hypnotic state in which the Dutchman and Senta first encounter each other, to emphasize the unearthly nature and fatedness of the bond between them.
The Dresden premiere of Dutchman was not the success that Wagner had hoped. Having bathed in the exaggerated splendor and grandeur of his Meyerbeerian Rienzi, those in the audience expected a similar spectacle and were somewhat disappointed. However, Der Fliegende Holländer quickly gained in popularity and has remained a favorite. Perhaps the most familiar excerpts from the score are the "Sailor's chorus" from Act Three and the "Spinning chorus" from Act Two, which precedes Senta's ballad (which foretells of the Dutchman's presence), but the Dutchman's joyful aria "Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang'ner Zeiten" and Daland's "Mögst du mein Kind" are also memorable.