Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died 1827, Vienna, Austria
Overture to Fidelio, op. 72c (1814)
It is hard to imagine the compositional genius of Beethoven struggling to create his numerous masterpieces, but struggle he did. It appears he was genuinely flummoxed by the genre of opera. The Overture to Fidelio, op. 72c was his fourth attempt at a suitable overture for his first and only foray into the operatic tradition. His frustration is made clear in this quote to his librettist, “…this whole opera business is the most tiresome affair in the world.” Tiresome or not, Beethoven continued to try to turn Fidelio into an unequivocal success.
The first performance of his opera, still carrying the name Leonore, was at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on November 20, 1805. This was just bad timing – Napoleon’s forces had invaded Vienna a mere week before the premiere. The Austrian nobility who greatly supported Beethoven was not there, nor were the many aristocrats that would go to such an event just to be seen by the Austrian court. Aside from a few friends, the audience was filled mainly with French soldiers who were sure to read inflammatory connotations into the “freedom from tyranny” subject matter. It closed after three performances. Beethoven shortened and revised Leonore and in the spring of 1806 it premiered again. This time it was slightly more successful, but Beethoven withdrew it once more, mainly due to conflicts with theater management. In 1814 Napoleon’s reign of terror was ending and the story of Fidelio seemed particularly topical, garnering new interest from Beethoven. The newly revamped Fidelio premiered in 1814 at the Kärntnertor-Theater in Vienna and was highly successful.
Beethoven wrote a new overture for each premiere of his opera. The numbering of each incarnation is inaccurate and confusing. The Leonore Overture No. 1 was actually never performed and only discovered after the composer’s death. It was mistakenly attributed to Beethoven’s earliest attempt at an overture (thus the erroneous and incorrect No. 1 attribution), but it was most likely written for an 1807 premiere in Prague that never materialized. The Leonore Overture No. 2 was used at the 1805 premiere, and No. 3 at the 1806 production. Beethoven’s fourth attempt is the Fidelio Overture, which was used starting with the second performance in the successful 1814 run (Beethoven didn’t finish it in time for the premiere).
Why did Beethoven continue to revamp his overture? In the cases of the Leonore overtures, they were too overpowering for the opening scene, which is lighthearted and playful. There were also concerns that they contained too many “spoilers” to both the opera’s thematic material and subject matter. Both Leonore overtures were in C Major (the opera’s ending key), which didn’t flow facilely into the opening scene’s key of A Major. The Fidelio overture, by contrast, is in E Major (a much easier transition to A Major), contains none of the opera’s thematic material, and is less than half as long in scope as the Leonore overtures (approximately six minutes versus fourteen minutes). In modern productions Leonore No. 3 is often performed between the first two scenes in Act II, a tradition that began with Gustav Mahler’s production of the opera.
Fidelio embodies Beethoven’s ideals of heroism and freedom from political oppression. The opera is centered around the character Leonore, whose husband Florestan has been unfairly imprisoned by the nobleman Pizzaro. She dresses as a young man named Fidelio and plots a daring rescue of her beloved, who is systematically being starved to death by the evil Pizzaro. It is based on the libretto Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by the French playwright and librettist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.
Due to its resounding subject matter of liberty and freedom, Fidelio found resurgence during and after World War II. It was performed in Salzburg just before the Nazis invaded, a production was held in 1945 at the Theater an der Wien (the site of its premiere) because the Vienna State Opera House had been bombed during the war, and it was the first opera performed in the newly rebuilt Vienna State Opera House.
On Beethoven’s deathbed he said of Fidelio, “Of all my children, this is the one that cost me the worst birth-pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason it is the one most dear to me.”