Beethoven Overtures to Leonore-Fidelio

Leonore No. 2 in C major, Op. 72a (1805)
Leonore No. 3 in C major, Op. 72b (1806)
Leonore No. 1 in C major, Op. 138 (1807)
Fidelio Overture in E major, Op. 72 (1814)

The Fidelio Orchestra played Leonore No. 3 (1806) and the Fidelio Overture (1814) at their 21 February concert.

A house full of meticulously dressed people. A mostly dark auditorium with only the stage lit. If you whisper into someone’s ear, you get 10 pairs of angry eyes on you.

The opera tradition as we know it only started with Richard Wagner, one of the all-time greatest attention-hog in the history of music. Before the mid-nineteenth century, however, opera’s social function was (even) more pronounced than today. In a world where awareness of social rank is paramount, people want to emphasise their status whenever they have the chance. In those days, the entire house was lit so you could see that this prince or that ambassador is present, and the general etiquette was much more informal.

In that kind of setting, to start an opera with the sort of quietness in Wagner’s Lohengrin, for example, would have been unthinkable. An overture, literally meaning ‘opening’ in Old French, must immediately capture the attention of the house and silence the babbling in the audience. It can’t be too serious, can’t reveal too much just yet; all it does is prepare the audience before the curtain rises.

That may explain, to a large extent, Beethoven’s struggles in producing a satisfying overture to his only opera, Fidelio - originally titled ‘Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love’. True, Beethoven’s talent for producing dramatic music was unparalleled, even retrospectively – no one would deny this upon hearing his Symphony No. 5 in C minor, written around the same time as the first version of Leonore. But we must differentiate between music that is dramatic and music that is effective in the theatre, or, theatrical. This is what drives the long and complicated history of the Master’s searching for an ideal overture to the opera.

Composition and publication history of the  Leonore-Fidelio  overtures

Composition and publication history of the Leonore-Fidelio overtures

The four different versions of the overtures are associated with different versions or productions of the opera itself (see table above), whose own complicated composition history we’ll have to deal with another time. Leonore the opera premiered in November 1805 with a very muted reception from both the audience and the critics. That was partly the result of a bit of bad luck, as Napoleon's troops had just occupied Vienna, and among the audience sat many French officers – not an ideal situation for the premiere of any artwork but especially this opera, where one of the lead roles Florestan is imprisoned for his political beliefs. The opera tells the story of a brave wife, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man, named Fidelio, in an attempt to rescue her wrongly imprisoned husband, Florestan.

The overture that accompanied the premiere is now known as ‘Leonore No. 2‘ (I’ll explain the reason for this bizarre labelling later). The next year, when the opera was revived in 1806, Beethoven made significant modifications to the opera and also wrote a new overture, now known as ‘Leonore No. 3’. These two overtures are very similar structurally or thematically, the only notable difference being the modulations between different musical themes.

Leonore No. 3 borrows many themes from the main body of the opera, including Florestan’s great aria, Gott!”, in Act II. Following the grief and struggle of that aria comes the beautiful dialogue between the violins and, more importantly, the flute, which represents the character Leonore in this overture. You can also listen out for the trumpet fanfare, which signals the arrival of the King’s minister, Don Fernando, in the opera. Trumpet fanfare was often associated with a triumphant, military character in the 19th century (compare, for example, the grand march in Verdi’s Aida). After the fanfare, we hear this alluring flute theme that’s taken note by note from “Ach, du bist gerettet!” (Ah, thou shall be saved!), a duet sung by Leonore and Florestan.

After the second trumpet-flute passage, Beethoven returns to the principal Allegro theme, finishing off with a new and sublime flute subject (do you like Mr Bernstein’s beard?). Did Beethoven have the immortal Magic Flute theme in mind when writing down these tranquil notes? The connection between these two themes is more than stylistic, for both take place right before finales, and both symbolise a rescue – we will explore this connection further when we look at the opera itself later this year.

This is all brilliant. The only problem is that, when the final majestic C-major chord of the overture hits the air, you don’t want the curtain to rise and the opera to start - you want to stand up and shout “Bravo” and go home, because you’ve already experienced the whole plot of the opera, the struggle of Florestan, the bravery of Leonore, the battle of the protagonists, and the final triumph. The last thing you’d expect to see after that is a scene where a young man flirts with a young lady in a domestic setting, which is exactly what happens at the start of the opera itself.

Theatrically unsatisfying as they are, Leonore No. 2 and No. 3 are nevertheless coherent masterpieces in their own right. (In a way, their self-contained, programmatic nature foreshadows the development of a type of piece called the tone poem, which was invented by Liszt and brought to perfection by Richard Strauss.) The overtures have proven popular among generations of audiences, and for this reason, the music directors of opera houses have found ways to keep including them in productions of the opera.

At first, Leonore No. 3 was played as an interlude between the two acts of the opera, which is almost more detrimental to the drama than if played at the start, as Act II begins with this gloomy prison-scene (the “Gott!” aria you heard earlier) that contrasts sharply with the triumphant ending of the overture. Later, the famous pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow arranged Leonore No. 3 to be played at the end, an approach that reflected Wagner’s assessment of this overture as an ideal summary of the opera. Finally, beginning in the 1850s and later endorsed by the almighty Gustav Mahler, the Leonore overture began to be played between the dungeon and castle scenes in Act II. This solution is ideal, as musically it prepares the audience for the final triumph, and mechanically it gives time for the scene change to take place (you can see this process in the 2015 Salzburg production).

The Fidelio Overture (1814 version) in E major is an entirely different animal. It does not borrow any themes directly from the opera, and is much more light-hearted than its two predecessors, the primary character shifting from lofty tragedy to modest gaiety. This would become the overture of the definitive 1814 version of the opera and the one most often performed in today’s opera houses.

But what about ‘Leonore No. 1’? From the outset, you might wonder why the overtures are labelled in such a strange sequence - running 2, 3, 1 - as their names don’t fit the chronological order of composition. That is due to an unforgivable mistake by one of the biggest publishers around Beethoven’s time, Tobias Haslinger.

Tobias Haslinger (1787 - 1842) is responsible for most of the confusion around the labelling and opus numbers of Beethoven’s overtures to  Leonore-Fidelio

Tobias Haslinger (1787 - 1842) is responsible for most of the confusion around the labelling and opus numbers of Beethoven’s overtures to Leonore-Fidelio

After Beethoven’s death, Haslinger acquired some of the Master’s unpublished compositions, among which he discovered an “overture of great character” (his own words). When he published the work in 1838, the two Leonore overtures had not seen the light of the day, and without much detailed knowledge of the 1805/1806 fiasco, Herr Haslinger happily acclaimed this to be the first overture ever composed for the opera, and assigned it the opus number ‘138’, listing it after the Beethoven compositions that had already been published. It took the musicologists three decades to figure out what actually happened: the unpublished score was for a prospective 1807 production in Prague, which never took place, for unknown reasons.