The name Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) brings to mind an image of the composer as Genius. However, as illustrated by the numerous sketches left of his symphonies composing for him was marked by methodical and often times difficult work, especially in forms and genres to which he was not acquainted. It took ten years and three revisions for “Fidelio”, his only opera, to become a success. With each revision came an entirely new overture, those that were discarded became independent concert works under Beethoven’s preferred name for the opera, “Leonore”.
The Viennese premiere of the original “Fidelio” in November of 1805 was infamously disastrous. Beethoven had ignored the uneven dramatic pacing in the libretto by Joseph von Sonnleithner and the opera’s inherent problems were exacerbated by Napoleon’s army advancing on the city. By the time of the premiere, many of Beethoven’s followers had already fled Vienna and their seats in the theater were taken by French officers. The opera’s themes of unjust imprisonment and unwavering love in the face of danger failed to resonate with the occupiers, and it resulted in only two more performances.
Five months later the first revision of “Fidelio” returned to Vienna with a new overture, tonight’s “Leonore Overture No. 3”. Despite complaints that the original opera was too long, the new overture expanded the previous overture into a traditional sonata-allegro form. The slow introduction moves from C major to B minor drawing from the theme of Florestan, our wrongfully imprisoned hero. The famous trumpet call also draws from themes within the opera, representing Florestan’s wife Leonore who endeavors to rescue him under the male guise of Fidelio.
This overture treats the events of the opera quite literally, and was perhaps discarded because its sweeping dramatics overshadowed the opera it was meant to introduce. However, modern productions of the opera have difficulty ignoring such a masterwork. Despite a jarring shift in tonality and orchestration from a larger work revised ten years later, the “Leonore” overture is inserted as an entr’acte within the final act. To do so seems to negate the independence of the work and Beethoven’s astounding ability to tell a story of great drama in purely instrumental terms.