The Overture to the opera Fidelio (Fidelio Overture) is the latest of the four overtures LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN wrote to his only completed opera.
The beginning of the nineteenth century introduced a new plot line in the genre of the opera. Luigi Cherubini, accepted as a French composer, achieved universal renown with his operas on heroic themes. For the course of two years – 1802 and 1803 – Vienna loudly applauded his works. Beethoven was among the audiences and even among the admirers of Cherubini.
In 1803, Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and head of the Theater an der Wien, offered Beethoven a contract for an opera on one of his librettos. Just a few months later – at the beginning of 1804 – Baron Braun became the new proprietor of the theatre, rescinding by default all previously concluded contracts. But in the autumn of the same year Beethoven received another offer of an opera libretto – this time the plot was based on a true event from the life of the French novelist and playwright Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. The German text was authored by Joseph Ferdinand Sonnleithner under the title Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (“Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love”). There were other operas written on the Bouilly libretto before Beethoven – by Pierre Gaveaux and Ferdinando Paer.
Following the “heroic” pieces of Beethoven’s instrumental music – the Third Eroica Symphony, the piano sonatas Aurora and the Kreutzer Violin Sonata – in 1805 also his opera was mounted. And because it was not a success, the composer introduced some revisions wrote a completely new overture – Leonore No. 2. However, it did very little to enhance the success of the opera. In the years when Cherubini’s operas were a “hit” and audiences were fascinated with a few composers, writing fashionable music, it was unlikely that Beethoven could be understood. In 1806, acclaim was garnered by such operas as Cherubini’s Faniska and Paer’s Sardanapalo, but yielding to the pressure of his friends from the Lichnowsky circle, Beethoven revised his opera and wrote a third overture to it – Leonore Mo. 3. This version was in conformity with the contemporary tastes, with its larger span and heroic pathos, but the music was still all too innovative for contemporary audiences. The comments in the press were discouraging: “Never before there was music written in a fashion so incoherent, jarring, chaotic and outrageous to the ear. The most pungent, clashing modulations alternate in a truly repulsive progression. Some petty ideas, far removed from the slightest hint of sublimity, create an unpleasantly deafening impression.”
Cherubini also took a stand on Beethoven’s music. In his opinion, Beethoven was not proficient in vocal composition and so sent him a copy of School on Vocal Art from Paris. In reference to the Leonore No. 3 Overture, Cherubini said he could not determine the main key of the piece due to the many modulations. Salieri also tried to rectify Beethoven’s musical taste.