The Kennedy Center

Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Beethoven composed this overture for the first revision of his opera Fidelio, which it introduced at the Theater an der Wien on March 29, 1806, under his own direction. This piece opened the second concert of the National Symphony Orchestra's first season, Hans Kindler conducting, on November 15, 1931; the orchestra performed it most recently in a National Conducting Institute concert on June 16, 2007, with Julian Kuerti on the podium.

While Beethoven admired the opera composer Luigi Cherubini perhaps above all his other contemporaries, he was not himself a man of the theater. That is not to say he did not have strong instincts for drama, but for him such instincts usually made themselves felt in instrumental works. Although he began more than one opera, he completed only one, and, in contradistinction to Gioachino Rossini, who characteristically composed as many as four operas in a single year, Beethoven spent more than ten years on this single work for the lyric stage, during which time he made two substantial revisions before he was satisfied with it. Of all his "children," he remarked, Fidelio was the one that cost him the most severe and extended birth pangs.

In further contrast with Rossini, who in his constant flurry of operatic production sometimes used a single overture for two or three unrelated works, Beethoven composed no fewer than four different overtures for his Fidelio. Three of these bear the name of the opera's heroine, Leonore, which was the title originally assigned to the work; it was actually produced, however, only under the title by which we know it today, a decision made simply in order to avoid confusion with Ferdinando Paer's opera on the same dramatic source, which preceded Beethoven's by only a year or so. That source was the French writer Jean Nicolas Bouilly's drama Léonore, ou L'Amour conjugal, which had been dealt with operatically by the playwright's compatriot Pierre Gaveaux before Paer got to it. Beethoven's title still points to the heroine, of course, since Fidelio is the name she takes for her disguise as a man in her search for, and eventual rescue of, her unjustly imprisoned husband, Florestan.

The original three-act version of Fidelio was produced at the Theater an der Wien on November 20, 1805, introduced by the grandly proportioned piece known now as the Leonore Overture No. 2. That piece was substantially revised, along with the opera itself, and the trimmed and tightened version known as Leonore No. 3 was performed with the new two-act version of the opera just four months after the original premiere. The Leonore Overture No. 1 was actually composed still later, in 1807, for a projected performance in Prague which never took place. For the final version of Fidelio, produced at the Karntnertor-Theater in Vienna on May 23, 1814, Beethoven was not ready with a new overture, and made do with either the brief one for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus or the similarly brief one for his more recent festival play The Ruins of Athens; three days later, however, the opera was given again with the new overture in E major known ever since as the Overture to Fidelio. The three Leonore overtures, all in C major, have taken their places in the concert repertory, though a tradition arose in or about the 1880s of performing No. 3 during the change of scene in the opera's second act. While there is no conclusive evidence as to who may have originated that custom, there is general agreement that the proper venue for this piece is not the theater but the concert hall.

For an opera overture, in fact, the very perfection of the Leonore No. 3 might be regarded as a flaw. It is so comprehensive and self-sufficient that it seems to constitute a complete drama in its own right, rather than prepare the listener for one to be enacted on the stage. As a symphonic poem--its true category--it does not attempt to encapsulate the various episodes of the drama, or even to represent all the key characters. The heroine whose name the piece bears does not make even the briefest appearance, the only material from the opera itself being the theme of Florestan's aria from the opening of Act II and the offstage fanfares that signal the arrival of the Minister of Justice. In terms of mood, atmosphere and spirit, though, this music sums up splendidly the dramatic sequence conveying oppression, resolve, hope, and joyous deliverance. It is the very essence, not only of the opera but of the heroic gesture in music we associate with Beethoven's name.