Fidelio, the only opera written by Beethoven, was not born under the best stars; it premiered in Vienna in November 1805 during a time in which Napoleon’s troops had already invaded the city and many of Beethoven’s patrons had left.
The premiere of the opera happened in front of an audience made largely of French officers who did not enjoy it.
Music aside, it’s easy to understand why: Fidelio is, in fact, the pseudonym with which Leonore disguises herself as a guard in order to free her husband Florestan imprisoned for political reasons.
Quite a clear message from Beethoven to the invading French troops.
Joseph Karl Stieler, portrait of L.v.Beethoven, 1820
Beethoven wrote and rewrote the overture to his opera 4 times: the first 3 are the Leonore overtures, while the final one takes the name of Fidelio. Beethoven himself always wanted to call the opera after her heroine rather than her pseudonym but, at the time, there were already another couple of operas going by the name Leonore. It was the theater that changed the name to avoid confusion.
The overture for the premiere is, in fact, the Leonore 2, which was replaced in 1806 by the Leonore 3, written to overcome some issues the wind players had with the Leonore 2.
The Leonore 1 was written, it seems, in 1805 but apparently only used in a performance in Prague of 1807. Finally, Beethoven wrote a 4th overture in 1814, which the one now officially used as the overture to Fidelio.
Mahler used to play the Leonore 3 between the two scenes of the second act, giving the piece a boost of popularity. It is, in fact, a sort of symphonic fresco that sums up the opera itself. The opening depicts Florestan’s dungeon, followed by a quotation from his second-act aria, and cut off by a trumpet call to signify his liberation. There is the realization that Leonore had a play in his newly found freedom. And finally the celebration of love and freedom itself.
L.v.Beethoven – Leonore overture n.3
Should you need a score you can find one here.
Traditionally, this overture begins with a slow introduction. A full orchestra chord in fortissimo catches the attention of the audience and we descend down into the dungeon via a downward scale.
The entrance of the clarinets and bassoons line sheds a bit of light and hope, moving to Ab major.
The same idea is retaken by the strings but shifts the atmosphere again. Notice the line of the violas containing the scale we heard at the beginning.
The ominous entrance of the flute is turned into a game of triplets, moving to E minor.
The same triplets are transferred to the cellos and basses a few bars later, broadening the game to a question/answer between sections
We approach the end of the introduction, suspended on the last note of the C major scale…
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