Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) Fidelio Op. 72 – Overture
of the Opera – Urtext edited by Christian Rudolf Riedel [orch] duration: 7'
184.108.40.206. – 220.127.116.11. – timp – str
For the new Fidelio Overture, which was written at lightning speed in 1814, there is a copy of the score in the Austrian National Library which offers a reliable basis for a new, text-critical edition.
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Urtext virgin territory: the Fidelio Overture
To this day, the two major Fidelio overtures are still performed from music texts that go back to the imprecise and corrupted first editions of the parts. In the meantime, however, the state of the sources for both works has significantly improved through many new findings.
For the new Fidelio Overture, which was written at lightning speed in 1814 for the reprise of the opera (and was performed with a slight delay), there is a copy of the score in the Austrian National Library which offers a reliable basis for a new, text-critical edition. This manuscript, in which one finds countless indications of corrections and completions in Beethoven's hand, is the only extant source that was examined by the composer himself.
The genesis and transmission of the Fidelio Overture are closely linked to the opera Leonore/Fidelio, Beethoven’s only work in this genre and a composition that remained both his favorite – and problem – child for the rest of his life. It is the last of altogether four overtures to his opera and represents the final act of a long development from Leonore of 1805 to Fidelio of 1814, which was compositionally extremely fruitful, yet at the same time arduous and accompanied by personal disappointments.
Leonore oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe, originally in three acts, was given its first performance at the Theater an der Wien on 20 November 1805. Playing to a practically empty house and given only three performances, it met with a less than moderate success. Even the overture, which Beethoven wrote at the last minute, “between the rehearsals” (BGA 234f.), was unable to make any inroads here. Composed in 1805 and later designated as the Leonore Overture No. 2, it initially mystified and confused the audience as much as the opera itself.
Through the work’s failure, and perhaps also under the pressure of external circumstances, Beethoven felt obliged to subject his opera to a thorough revision. The significantly reduced two-act version, only few sections of which were newly composed, was given its first performance on 29 March 1806, also at the Theater an der Wien. It was played, now with a new overture, under the title Fidelio oder die eheliche Liebe. The new overture, which was essentially based on existing material but strongly altered in form and dramaturgy, entered history as the Leonore Overture No. 3. Its fate remained inseparable from the 1806 version of the opera, which Beethoven withdrew after the second performance. It later made its breakthrough as “the most effective and artistically consummate” of the overtures to Leonore/Fidelio, albeit, significantly, almost exclusively in the concert hall.
The mediocre reception of the three-act Leonore of 1805 and the two-act Fidelio of 1806 had been due above all to unfavorable circumstances and to the disagreement with Baron Braun. One can only assume that the bitterly disappointed Beethoven also held the overtures responsible in some way for the failure. To help his opera make its breakthrough outside of Vienna at least, he wrote a “new, less difficult,” and “characteristic” overture probably for a performance planned for Prague in 1807, but which did not materialize. This overture, which was not given its first performance until one year after the composer’s death, was published in 1832 by Haslinger as op. 138. It has since been designated as Overture No. 1, since at this point in time, it was erroneously held to be the first of the overtures written for Leonore/Fidelio.
Beethoven’s opera finally made its definitive breakthrough in 1814. The composer had declared himself ready to revise the work again for a benefit concert at the Imperial-Royal Court Theater. The theater secretary and stage director Georg Friedrich Treitschke (1776–1842) wrote a new libretto especially for this performance. The task of “rebuilding” his opera “from the crumbling ruins of an old castle” (BGA 705) or, as he put it in one of his next letters to Treitschke, to save “a few good pieces of a stranded ship” (BGA 707) proved to be an extremely demanding task, and not only because of the pressure. “[…] It would be quicker for me to write something new than to add new to the old. […] In my instrumental music as well, I always have the whole in my mind’s eye, but here the whole is everywhere, divided up, as it were, and I have to re-think myself into it again. It is practically impossible to give the opera in two weeks’ time. […] The score of the opera has the most horrible writing that I have ever seen, and I must examine it note by note (it was probably stolen). In short, I can assure you, dear T[reitschke], that the opera will gain me a martyr’s crown.” (BGA 707)
If Beethoven had only been interested in adding a new overture to his revised Fidelio, he could easily have borrowed the Overture No. 1 of 1807 which was still unperformed in Vienna. But he had to write something new for the reprise of the opera. At first, the “easiest” solution seemed to be to revise one of the existing overtures, “since I can make it completely new” (BGA 707). Always keeping “the whole in [his] mind’s eye,” he tried to re-enter the dramaturgical complexities of his opera of liberation and solve the problem of the overture on the basis of his initial compositional ideas. His sketchbooks show that he began by borrowing from the overtures of 1805 (No. 2) and 1806 (No. 3), but without achieving any satisfying results. This was also no doubt due to the fact that he considered the Overture No. 3 (the first edition of the parts had been published in 1810) as a work that was autonomous and complete in every respect, and in which there was nothing left to “improve.” In another sketch in E major, a key that already clearly refers to the first scene of the new Fidelio, which begins in A major, we find an allusion to the Overture No. 1 of 1807. To take a finished form and make it more stringent and dramaturgically concise – as he had done with the Overture No. 3 in 1806 – must have seemed to him like an attempt to enter the exact same river for the second time.
Ten years had elapsed since the start of his work on Leonore; among his major accomplishments, he no longer listed just the Eroica and the Piano Concerto No. 3, as in 1805, but the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies as well, along with the Coriolan Overture, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and other masterpieces. In his striving to obtain a compelling overture, what he initially thought would be “easiest” ultimately proved to be the “most troublesome thing in the world” (BGA 709) and ultimately led to a race against time. His last, almost desperate, attempt to present the new Fidelio with a revised overture was most likely a compromise that he himself sensed was bad and which he ultimately rejected. There was no going back now.
The overture arrived too late for the premiere of Fidelio at the Kärntnertortheater on 23 May 1814. “The dress rehearsal took place on 22 May,” reported Treitschke, “but the promised new overture was still being penned by its creator.” What Beethoven had wanted to prevent is exactly what came to be: the new overture had to be omitted at the premiere “by force of circumstances.” There are varying reports about which overture was played in its stead. Treitschke claimed it was the Prometheus Overture, Seyfried the Ruins of Athens, and Schindler “one of the Leonore Overtures.” In 1823 Beethoven himself said: “the people applauded, but I stood there shamefacedly; it [the overture] did not belong to the whole.”
Treitschke reported about the premiere as follows: “The opera was outstandingly well rehearsed. Beethoven conducted, and his passion often tore him out of the beat, but Kapellmeister Umlauf had everything in control with his eyes and hands behind Beethoven’s back.” This time the performance was a full success, and “most of the numbers were enthusiastically, even tumultuously, applauded, and the composer called to the fore after the first and second acts.” The “new overture (E major)” was heard for the first time at the second performance, on 26 May. It was also greeted “with frenetic applause,” as the reviewer stated. With the Fidelio Overture, created in two days at the most and possibly even in only one night, Beethoven had found an ultimately convincing and “theatrically effective” (BGA 719–721) solution to the problem of the overture.
In the summer of 1814, Beethoven and Treitschke had begun to handle the distribution of the opera at their own risk. Beethoven commissioned his main copyist Wenzel Schlemmer, who ran a copyist’s shop in Vienna, to prepare copies of the score so that Beethoven and Treitschke, in letters signed jointly by the two men, could try to sell them to various theaters “as the sole, accurate, legally authorized transcription.” At the same time, he announced in a newspaper notice that he was depositing a score of Fidelio at the Kunsthandlung Artaria & Co. “for the purpose of publishing the same under his direction in a complete pianoforte edition, as quartets, or arranged for wind band.” This publisher issued a piano reduction by Ignaz Moscheles as early as August 1814. After unsuccessfully contacting various other publishers, including Breitkopf & Härtel, Beethoven handed over a score of Fidelio to the Viennese publisher Sigmund Anton Steiner in May 1815 and granted him unlimited publishing rights with the exception of England. Beethoven continued to send scores to several theaters as well as to old friends and acquaintances abroad in an effort to stimulate further performances, find a publisher in England and, ultimately, to secure his income. The first edition of the parts of the Fidelio Overture was finally published in 1822 by Breitkopf & Härtel, most likely without the direct involvement of Beethoven. In 1828, one year after Beethoven’s death, the same publisher released the first separate edition of the score of the overture based on the first edition of the parts. The first edition of the score of the opera had been published two years earlier, strangely enough by a French publisher and in a version that had not been authorized by Beethoven.
We wish to thank all libraries and institutions mentioned in the “Kritischer Bericht” for putting copies of the sources at our disposal and for allowing us to consult the sources on the premises.
We offer a PDF of the complete text with all notes for download.