Leonore Overture No. 3

Composed by

Ludwig van Beethoven



2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

notes by Chris Myers

Composed 1806. First performance: March 29, 1806, Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Ignaz von Seyfriend, conductor.

Few composers, no matter how brilliant, have achieved both symphonic and operatic greatness. Ludwig van Beethoven was no exception. Despite being perhaps the most revered composer of all time and having revolutionized concert music with his symphonies, Beethoven’s sole contribution to the opera house had a difficult birth and, though it remains in the repertoire, is commonly thought of in the opera world as a flawed masterpiece.

Beethoven composed his opera in German with spoken dialogue rather than recitative. The plot is a thrilling escapade embodying the themes of love and liberty so dear to Beethoven: Leonore disguises herself as a male prison guard named Fidelio in order to rescue her husband Florestan from his death in a political prison. The libretto was translated from a French text which had already been used in 1798 by Pierre Gaveaux for his opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal. Beethoven’s Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love) was retitled for the premiere at the insistence of the theater management, which was concerned that audiences might confuse it with Gaveaux’s piece.

Attendance at the initial 1805 production of the renamed Fidelio was limited due to the French military occupation of Vienna. Beethoven revised the piece, shortening it to two acts for an 1806 revival. This run was cancelled after the first performance when Beethoven got into an argument with the producers. Eight years later, Viennese audiences (including 17-year-old Franz Schubert, who sold his textbooks to buy a ticket) finally experienced the final version of Fidelio. Beethoven found the creative experience to be unsettling, commenting to a friend that “this opera will win me a martyr’s crown”, and he never returned to the genre again.

Fidelio/Leonore received a new overture each time it was revived during Beethoven’s lifetime. The 1805 premiere opened with what has come to be known as Leonore Overture No. 2. For the 1806 production, he revised this piece into Leonore Overture No. 3. This version is a grand symphonic work reflecting the dramatic arc of the opera. While generally considered to be the most musically satisfying of the four overtures, it doesn’t work dramatically in the opera house; the piece’s strong dramatic structure simultaneously gives away too much of the plot and overwhelms the rather light opening of the first scene.

Beethoven revisited the overture for an aborted 1808 production in Prague. This version, discovered after his death and initially mistaken for his first attempt, is known as Leonore Overture No. 1. Finally Beethoven recognized the dramaturgical challenges his overtures presented and wrote a completely new work for the 1814 revival. Though musically less impressive than the previous Leonore overtures, this piece, known as the Fidelio Overture, is more effective at setting the tone for the first scene of the show.

The compelling drama of Leonore Overture No. 3 has earned it a life of its own in the concert hall, and opera conductors have frequently been unable to resist its charms and tried to squeeze it into productions. A performance tradition attributed to Gustav Mahler (though likely dating even earlier) opens the opera with the Fidelio Overture and then inserts Leonore No. 3 before the finale. While this allows opera audiences to enjoy the work’s brilliance, it has the unfortunate effect of interrupting the dramatic flow of the opera just as it comes to a climax. As with so many other great discarded songs, ballets, and overtures from the history of theatrical music, it seems that Leonore Overture No. 3 is tantamount to a strong actor miscast for his role. Opera’s loss is the concert hall’s gain.

Copyright © 2016 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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