Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Overture to Fidelio, Opus 72b (1814)

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Ludwig van Beethoven (December 15, 1770–March 26, 1827)

The Fidelio Overture is but one of four overtures to Beethovenís only opera, Fidelio. The plethora of overtures resulted because Beethoven composed a new one each time he revised the opera. Of Fidelio, he said to Schindler, his amanuensis, “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 most dear to me.”

The opera, which Beethoven had intended to be called Leonore, was billed as Fidelio at the first performance in deference to París opera Leonore (Dresden 1804) on the same story. Fidelio is the name the heroine Leonore assumes when she dresses as a man to rescue her husband, Florestan, from the evil Don Pizarroís prison.

Scorned by some as being symphonic rather than operatic, Fidelio is an opera in the spirit of the Eroica symphony; it enshrines the female heroic spirit (Leonore). In modern productions of the opera, the Fidelio overture opens the opera, and Leonore III is presented between the first and second scenes of act II, due to the sentiment that the Leonore III is too good not to perform.

Beethoven began to consider composing an opera by the request of Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist for Mozartís Magic Flute. After Schikaneder abandoned the project, Baron Von Braun rescued it, suggesting Josef Von Sonnleithnerís German adaptation of Bouillyís play Leonore, ou líamour conjugal as a text. Fidelio was premiered on November 20, 1805, with the overture now known as Leonore II. As Napoleonís troops had invaded Vienna a week prior to the premiere, Beethovenís most ardent supporters had fled. As a result, the opera was withdrawn after 3 performances.

The Sonnleithner translation that Beethoven used unadulterated for the libretto expanded the playís original two acts into three, diluting the plot. As a result, the opera was weighty and lengthy, and the drama was unable to flow, much less gather momentum. When Prince Lichnowsky and Beethovenís noble friends returned to Vienna, they went over the score and suggested cuts to the theatrically inexperienced Beethoven. After six hours of argument, they were successful. A new text by Stephen von Breuning was created, and the drama was returned to its original two acts. It was performed to an enthusiastic audience on March 29, 1806 with a new overture, Leonore III, but played only 5 times as Beethoven withdrew the score, suspecting that he was being cheated of the box office proceeds.

The most accepted theory for Leonore I is that Beethoven composed it in anticipation of an 1807 Prague performance that never materialized, so it was left unpublished until after his death. In Leonore I, Beethoven aimed for a lighter tone than both Leonore II and Leonore III, so that the prelude would better mesh with the naive and charming first scene.

In 1814, Beethoven was famous throughout Europe, and three singers at the Court Opera decided to revive Fidelio, to capitalize on his reputation. At Beethovenís behest, a new librettist, Treitschke, was hired to increase the dramatic efficacy of the libretto. Beethoven overhauled virtually every single piece in the opera, creating a more compact and taut dramatic work. To top it off, he composed yet another overture. In 1814, Beethoven finally acquiesced to the title Fidelio, in place of Leonore, and it is the 1814 overture, now known as Fidelio, which is used today.

The Fidelio Overture, unlike the three Leonore overtures, uses no thematic material from the opera. Itís in E major, the key of hope and heroism in Leonoreís Aria. The other three overtures are in C major, the key of final liberation in the opera. This is significant, as it is evidence of a shift in Beethovenís thinking; he chose to stress the struggle, the test of the virtuous wife and married love, rather than the final victory. Released on May 23, 1814, in Vienna, the opera was a tremendous success, and has remained in the repertoire ever since.