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About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Peter Laki

How often have we heard that Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera, is a "problematic" piece; that Beethoven, primarily an instrumental composer, was not comfortable writing for voices; that Fidelio is an uneasy mixture of light and serious styles, almost impossible to present convincingly on stage. Beethoven himself, of course, had his share of difficulties with the opera, which occupied him for an entire decade; the existence of three different versions and four different overtures is a good indication of the hardships that had to be endured before the opera assumed its definitive form.

In reality, whatever objections critics may have raised are academic if not wholly irrelevant. True, some of the opera's vocal parts are murderously difficult, but that is more a special challenge to the singers rather than an inability to write idiomatically for the voice. And while there may be a contrast between, say, Rocco's jovial songs about the blessings of money and Leonore's heroic aria about marital fidelity, the point is that both find their place in this opera where, as in real life, people of vastly different characters live side by side.

It was in 1803 that Beethoven was first approached by the manager of the Theater an der Wien, who was none other than Emanuel Schikaneder, the man who had created The Magic Flute with Mozart a dozen years before. Beethoven first considered, and even started working on, a libretto by Schikaneder, but was much more interested in the suggestion of Joseph von Sonnleithner, Secretary to the Court Theatres, who had translated and adapted Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's Léonore ou l'Amour conjugal. Bouilly's work, an opera libretto first set to music by Pierre Gaveaux, had by this time served as the basis of two Italian operas, by Ferdinando Paër and Simone Mayr, so that Beethoven's opera was actually the fourth written on Leonore's story. Moreover, the plot bears a close resemblance to another work by Bouilly, Les deux journées (The Two Days); with the music of Luigi Cherubini, the latter became one of the most famous operas of its time.

Both Leonore and Les deux journées are "rescue operas," a genre popular in France during the revolutionary period. In rescue operas, as we read in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, "the hero or heroine is delivered at the last moment either from the cruelty of a tyrant of from some great natural catastrophe (or both), not by a deus ex machina but by heroic human endeavour."

Leonore, as performed at the Theater an der Wien on November 20, 1805, was not the same opera as the Fidelio we know. It contained much beautiful music that was subsequently discarded, and the succession of the scenes was also different from the final form. This version was ill-starred from the beginning: there was insufficient rehearsal time, the singers left much to be desired, and Vienna in general was in a state of chaos after Napoleon's army had occupied the city just a week before the premiere. The opera closed after only three performances.

It did not fare much better at the revival the following year. Beethoven's friend Stephan von Breuning helped with the revision of the libretto; Beethoven replaced the original overture (now known as the Leonore Overture No. 2) with a new one, now known as Leonore No. 3. (Leonore No. 1 was composed in 1807 for a performance that never materialized.) The structure of the work was tightened, the original three acts were condensed to two, and a number of cuts were made. Although the opera was again under-rehearsed, it pleased more than it had the first time. Yet this time there were only two performances. If we can believe the account of tenor Joseph August Röckel, who sang Florestan in the revival, the reason for the second withdrawal was a rather senseless dispute between Beethoven and theater director Baron Peter von Braun. The opera was put aside for eight years.

During those years, Beethoven's popularity rose steadily and reached its peak in 1813, after the premieres of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and, even more importantly, the now-disparaged Wellington's Victory. Universally acknowledged as the greatest living composer, Beethoven was at the height of his fame. It was decided that Fidelio should be revived, this time at the Imperial Opera at the Kärtnertor. Beethoven consented, but insisted on further revisions, particularly in the text. He enlisted the help of Georg Friedrich Treitschke, a poet with a great deal of theatrical experience, who made a number of major changes. The most important of these was at the end of the opera. In the original version the piece ended in Florestan's dungeon. Treitschke suggested a scene change from the gloomy prison to the full daylight in front of the palace, with the multitude celebrating justice, freedom, and Leonore's heroism.

The premiere of the third and final version (for which Beethoven wrote a brand-new overture) took place on May 23, 1814. Finally, the opera had an unqualified success, and was given 19 more times before the end of the season. During its run, the Congress of Vienna, an international conference of European monarchs, had opened to determine the fate of the continent after Napoleon's defeat. Fidelio both benefited from and contributed to the magnificence of this political power show, which went on for more than a year.

In the words of Beethoven biographer George Marek, there assembled in Vienna:

two emperors, two empresses, four kings, one queen, two hereditary princes, three grand duchesses, and three princes of royal blood, all with their staffs and entourages. In addition, there were present 247 members of reigning houses. These were accompanied by military leaders, diplomats, experts in various fields, bankers, industrial leaders, cartographers, journalists, authors-plus wives, mistresses, expensive prostitutes, and various dubious characters. Not to mention the cooks, the valets, the equerries, the private barbers, the ladies' maids, the coachmen, the interpreters. All in all, over 10,000 persons streamed into Vienna.

Among the cultural events offered by the city, among the dances, banquets, and other festivities, Fidelio stood out as the most refined form of entertainment and acquired an international audience right away. It has never ceased to be part of the core repertoire ever since.


In the final version, the music of Fidelio consists of an overture and 16 musical numbers.

The Overture is based on a horn call that is always recognizable as such even when it is not played by the horns. It may be seen as a subtle anticipation of the famous trumpet signal announcing Don Fernando's arrival. In any case, the choice of a fanfare theme as the overture's main thematic material serves both as a curtain-raiser in a general sense and a more specific reference to the idea of liberation so central to the opera

ACT I. No. 1. Duet: Jaquino and Marzelline. The exchange between the enamored turnkey and the jailer's unresponsive daughter starts in a playful tone. The first phrases could be sung by any young couple in any German Singspiel. Gradually, however, the individual features of these two particular young people come to the fore. When Jaquino is called away, Marzelline is left alone for a moment and mentions Fidelio for the first time. When Jaquino returns, their duet assumes a greater urgency: in the space of a few minutes, we have gone from a static operatic stereotype to a captivating dramatic situation.

No. 2. Aria: Marzelline. With Jaquino gone for a second time, Marzelline gives free rein to her feelings in this two-part aria. In the minor section she sings about her hopes of marrying Fidelio, in the major part, where the tempo becomes faster, she expresses her joy at this very thought. Marzelline, whose role in the rest of the opera will be quite marginal, here briefly emerges as a major character.

No. 3. Quartet: Marzelline, Leonore, Jaquino, Rocco. One of the opera's greatest gems, this calm and introspective piece is a canon in which the four characters express their very different feelings while singing the same melody.Marzelline's happiness, Leonore's anguish, Jaquino's despair and Rocco's quiet confidence are, for a moment, seen from above, as it were, as manifestations of four struggling, and fundamentally good, human beings.

No. 4. Aria: Rocco. Rocco's "gold" aria, cut in the 1806 version and reinstated in 1814, is a perfect characterization of this good-hearted and down-to-earth man who sings about trivial reality in an opera otherwise devoted to loftier ideals. Each of the two stanzas subdivides into three sections: the first describes, in an ironic and jovial tone, the sadness of poverty, the second evokes the blessings of money, and the third, a refrain, sums it all up by praising gold as ein mächtig Ding ("a mighty thing").

No. 5. Trio: Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco. After some of the main characters have been introduced in the first four numbers, the dramatic action now begins. Fidelio and Rocco are planning to descend to the lowest dungeon in the prison. In contrast to the earlier Quartet, the characters' diverging emotions are expressed by distinctive melodic materials this time. Feelings of confidence, hope, concerns about the dangers of the mission and the resolve to go ahead, all find their own musical voices in this trio.

No. 6. March. The entrance of Pizarro and the prison guard. The refinement of the orchestration and the delicacy of the harmonic progressions make this brief movement very different from your usual military march.

No. 7. Aria with Chorus: Pizarro and his men. The governor of the prison loses no time in revealing his wicked and bloodthirsty character. Over an accompaniment of agitated string tremolos, he vents his undying hatred for his enemy whose imminent destruction he anticipates with the greatest joy. As a dramatic counterpoint, Pizarro's men express their horror at their master's evil plans. The final section of the aria, substantially rewritten in 1814, contrasts Pizarro's triumphant D-major melody with incursions into darker keys for the chorus.

No. 8. Duet: Pizarro and Rocco. A confrontation between the powerful head of the prison and his lowly employee. Pizarro orders Rocco to kill Florestan, but the jailer flatly refuses. Pizarro's crookedness is expressed by constant modulations in his part; the honest Rocco, on the other hand, sings in a simple and straightforward A major. Pizarro pronounces the word "Morden!" ("Murder!") on a harsh major seventh interval; in his response, Rocco speaks his "Nein, Herr" ("No, sir") on a single repeated note. (It is significant that Rocco, who only a few moments ago sang his jolly songs about money, now resolutely rejects Pizarro's bribe offer.) At the mention of the prisoner, "der kaum mehr lebt" ("who is barely alive"), all melody disappears and we can hear only a murmur in the violins and a pedal chord in basses, horns, and bassoons. The recapitulation of the opening material, necessary for musical reasons, acquires dramatic significance as it allows each character to reiterate and to confirm his position.

No. 9. Recitative and Aria: Leonore. So far, we have seen Leonore only in her disguise as Fidelio. Alone at last, she now allows herself to reveal her true identity and her true feelings. If many of the earlier numbers derived their style from comic opera, Leonore's recitative undoubtedly comes from the serious operatic tradition. The abrupt changes in tempo and tonality represent the heroine's mood swings between anger, tenderness, fear, and hope. The aria is in two sections (slow and fast); the three horns play prominent parts throughout, recalling the fanfare-like motifs from the overture (in the same key of E major). Leonore's vocal line in the fast section is itself a kind of fanfare in celebration of Gattenliebe ("conjugal love").

No. 10. Finale. A Singspiel finale is an unbroken succession of scenes, varying in key, tempo, and cast, without any interruptions by spoken dialogue. The Act I finale of Fidelio opens and closes with the chorus, with a number of solo scenes in between. In the famous prisoners' chorus, the captives enjoy a brief moment to breathe some fresh air and see the daylight. Two of them have brief solos: one prisoner expresses confidence that with God's help, their freedom will be restored one day; at the mention of the dangerous word "freedom," the other prisoner warns the group to be quiet because they are being watched.

Next we see Leonore and Rocco as they prepare for the gruesome task of grave-digging that stands before them. In a dramatic tone, Marzelline and Jaquino announce the return of Pizarro, furious because Rocco has allowed the prisoners to come out of their cells into the courtyard. By sudden inspiration, Rocco comes up with an excuse ("it is the King's name-day") that Pizarro must grudgingly accept. At this moment, the action stops, and everyone joins in to sing the chorus that concludes the Finale. Once more, the conflicting moods, thoughts, and feelings are fused in a single and harmonious whole. (This ending is completely different from the 1805 version, where Rocco did not stand up to Pizarro but simply left the stage, frightened and humiliated; the governor then finished the act alone with the chorus of his men.)

ACT II. No. 11. Introduction and Aria: Florestan. We are in the lowest depths of the prison, in the dungeon of the man singled out for the harshest treatment: Florestan, Leonore's husband and Pizarro's nemesis. The orchestral introduction depicts the atmosphere of the gloomy cell with great dramatic power. Florestan's first exclamation: "Gott, welch Dunkel hier!" ("God! How dark it is here!") introduces a recitative in which the hero tells about his suffering. The first, slow section of the aria (its theme is familiar from the Leonore Overtures) evokes the happy days of the past, and expresses the comfort Florestan finds in a clear conscience. The second, faster section, newly composed in 1814, is based on a felicitous idea of Treitschke's: Florestan has a vision of his wife appearing as an angel of salvation. This vision drives him into a state of ecstasy; he then collapses in exhaustion.

No. 12. Melodrama and Duet: Leonore and Rocco. The term "melodrama" stands for spoken words accompanied by music. Short and disjointed phrases of music supply the background as Leonore and Rocco get ready to dig Florestan's grave. The even motion in the orchestra stops only once when the two workers pause to catch their breath. At one point, while Rocco turns his back, Leonore briefly stops to look at the prisoner in an attempt to ascertain his identity. Her long coloratura, expressing her compassion for the as-yet-unknown prisoner, earns her a stern reprimand from Rocco, who reminds her of her duty. They resume their work as the duet's main melody returns.

No. 13. Trio: Leonore, Florestan, and Rocco. Rocco has given Florestan some wine to drink, for which the prisoner thanks him profusely, and Leonore offers him some bread. Florestan is moved by Rocco's and Leonore's compassion, as the latter are by Florestan's suffering.

No. 14. Quartet: Leonore, Florestan, Pizarro, and Rocco. Pizarro enters, with dagger drawn, shouting: "Er sterbe!" ("Let him die!"). At the last moment, Leonore interposes her body between the two men, revealing her identity: "Töt erst sein Weib!" ("Kill his wife first!"). Everyone is stunned; only Pizarro finds his voice again as he dares Leonore to stop him from going through with his murderous plan. But Leonore suddenly points a pistol at him. At this very moment, the trumpet sounds, signaling the minister's arrival. Leonore and Florestan know they are saved, Pizarro knows he has been defeated, and Rocco knows that he must sever his ties with the tyrant.

No. 15. Duet: Leonore and Florestan. In the original version, the scene where the two spouses fall into each other's arms was much longer. It benefited from the cuts; instead of a long dialogue, all that remains is a single, elemental outburst of joy. (During the scene change that now follows in the 1814 version, the Leonore Overture No. 3 is frequently performed at opera houses. It is difficult to establish the origins of this custom, which certainly doesn't go back to Beethoven's time.)

No. 16. Finale. We are in front of the prison, in a large open space where soldiers, prisoners, and the entire town population gather together to greet Don Fernando, the minister of state. The minister gives a short address in praise of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and then proceeds to hear Florestan's case as presented by Rocco. Don Fernando is stunned to see his long-lost friend whom he thought dead; after hearing the story of Leonore's heroism, he declares that it is her due to remove her husband's chains. It is only now that poor Marzelline realizes who the object of her love really is! As the furious but powerless Pizarro is led away, all celebrate the restoration of justice.

This finale, which was completely rewritten in 1814, has interesting connections with other works by Beethoven spanning his entire career. The penultimate section is based on the early Cantata on the Death of Joseph II, written in 1790, the first of Beethoven's grand ceremonial works. Even more importantly, the final section opens with an almost literal quote from Schiller's Ode to Joy, which Beethoven was to set to music in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony:

Wer ein holdes Weib errungen, stimm' in unsern Jubel ein!

(Let him who has won a loving wife join in our exultation!)

These lines must have struck a deep nerve in Beethoven, who never found a loving wife himself.

The music to the Ode to Joy is clearly anticipated in the way the soloists and the chorus interact in developing a simple, march-like melody. The curtain falls as everyone acclaims the Retterin, the worthy woman who has saved her husband.

"My Fidelio was not understood by the public, but I know that it will yet be valued..."  Beethoven