2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings
Composed 1814. First performance: May 23, 1814, Vienna, Kärntnertortheater, cond. Michael Umlauf.
note by Katherine Baber
The Fidelio Overture heralds the third and final version of Beethoven’s first and only opera. Sometimes even the best of us need a second (or third) chance. Based on the drama Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal (Leonore, or Marital Love), already the subject of existing operas in French and Italian, the German version was translated and expanded by Joseph von Sonnleithner for the Theater an der Wien as Fidelio. At its premiere on November 20, 1805, the opera’s heroic themes—suffering and resistance, free will and fidelity—must have resonated strongly for an audience subject to occupation by French troops in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. A shortened version was premiered in 1806 and the score published under Beethoven’s preferred title, Leonore. The overtures for these first two performances are now known, counterintuitively, as the Leonore Overtures nos. 2 and 3. We now know that the Leonore Overture no. 1 was initially intended for an 1807 performance planned in Prague. The Fidelio Overture ended the matter at the premiere of Beethoven’s final revision of the opera on May 23, 1814 at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna. Perhaps a complicated genesis was fated for a work that follows the tortuous struggle for one man’s freedom.
At the center of Fidelio is the love of Leonora for her imprisoned husband, Florestan. In order to free him, she submits herself as an assistant to the jailer, Rocco. Disguised as a young man (Fidelio), she first appears bearing the chains used to bind her husband and other prisoners. We learn that because of his political trespass (the precise nature of which is left to our imagination), Florestan will be killed. Through Leonora’s persistence, Florestan is eventually recognized by his friend Don Fernando and freed. Leonora herself unlocks his chains. It is fitting, then, that the overture begins and ends in E major, the key assigned to Leonora in the opera. The martial fanfares heard throughout—alternately proclaimed with tutti force and by seemingly distant horns or woodwinds—sound out Leonora’s steadfast determination to win her husband’s freedom. The main theme of the overture, heard first on French horn, joins the dotted-rhythms of the fanfare to a smooth, sweeping line that belies the more intimate and tender source of Leonora’s resolve. As with much of Beethoven’s work, it is possible to hear Fidelio as a personal testament. Composed during the same period as the Third Symphony, when he was coming to terms with his increasing deafness, Beethoven’s only opera allowed him to explore human frailty and suffering, but also heroic resistance to these struggles. He wrote at the time, “I am resolved to overcome all this, but how will it be possible?” In the fourth overture for Fidelio, and in the Symphony no. 7, Beethoven seems to have done away with the question mark.