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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

One Opera, Four Overtures

The word "overture" is used to describe a piece of music which is played at the start of something, usually an opera. The word itself comes from the French ouvert, meaning to open. There are also "concert overtures" which are stand-alone pieces, not connected with larger theatre works, often used to start a concert program.

But in the theatre, the overture plays an important role. In the early days of opera it had a practical role: before the practice of darkening the theatre began, the overture was played to - hopefully - shut the audience up and let them know the show was about to start. But from the later 18th century, and particularly in the 19th century, overtures performed important dramatic functions as well. They were seen as integral to the larger work, and often (but not always) included themes encountered later in the piece.

Early in 1803 Ludwig van Beethoven moved into an apartment in Vienna's major public theatre, the Theater an der Wien, in order to undertake a commission to compose a new opera. The theatre's director was Emanuel Schikaneder, who in 1791 (at another, smaller theatre) had written the text for, starred in, and produced Mozart's The Magic Flute. Schikaneder had written the text Beethoven was working on - called Vesta's Fire - but after about a year's work the composer abandoned it.

Theater an der Wien (1815)

Still keen to write an opera, Beethoven started work on a new piece. The text was a German reworking of a French libretto called Léonore, ou l'amour conjugal (Leonore, or Married Love). This had already been set to music by Pierre Gaveaux in 1798, and Italian versions were composed by Ferdinando Paer in 1804 and Simon Mayr in 1805. Beethoven likewise wanted to call his German version Leonore but the theatre management insisted it be called Fidelio to differentiate it from the other versions, which were well-known in Vienna. Beethoven's preferred title, though, appeared when the text and vocal score were published, and today it's customary to call the first two versions of Beethoven's opera Leonore. (Leonore is the name of the opera's heroine. "Fidelio" - meaning "faithful one" - is the name she takes in the opera when she is disguised.)

The first version of Leonore was premiered on 20 November 1805. It was very long - in three acts - and it was performed under trying circumstances. Vienna was under French occupation, most of Beethoven's wealthy supporters had left the city, and the half-full house consisted largely of French troops who spoke no German. There were only three performances.

Mähler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1815)

For this first version, the overture Beethoven provided was a substantial piece on a symphonic scale. It encapsulates the drama and contains two important musical quotations from the opera. There's a slow introduction which contains a reference to Florestan's aria in prison, and in the main fast section there's an offstage trumpet call which prefigures the trumpet call near the end of the opera which "saves the day".

Today this overture is known as the Leonore No 2 overture, for reasons I'll explain below. It's important to note, though, that this overture is in C major. This is because act one of the first version of the opera began with Marzeline's aria, which starts in C minor. [listen]

Beethoven knew that the failure of the first version of Leonore in 1805 was not only due to the French occupation, but that the piece itself needed adjusting. Four months later, in March 1806, a revised version of the opera was staged. A great deal of the music was altered, and the whole piece restructured into two acts rather than three. Most significantly, Beethoven wrote a completely new overture for the new version. It's a revision of the earlier overture, still on a large, symphonic scale, and it still makes reference to Florestan's aria and the trumpet call.

This overture is now known as Leonore No 3 and it's often heard in the concert hall. If anything, it's more symphonic that the first overture, and as such it works well in the concert environment. It's also in C major as the Marzeline aria still opened the first act of the new version. [listen]

Schimon: Ludwig van Beethoven (1819)

After Beethoven's death in 1827 yet another C major Leonore overture was discovered among the his papers. At the time it was assumed that this was his first attempt at an overture for the opera - it too is in C major - so it was published and called Leonore No 1. This explains why the other two overtures were called Nos 2 and 3.

You can still read in many program notes and commentaries that the Leonore No 1 was the first-written of the Leonore overtures but recent scholarship has revealed that this overture was written after the other two, for a season of the opera in Prague in 1807 which didn't eventuate. So the so-called Leonore No 1 overture was in fact the third-written.

This is a very different piece to the earlier two. It has a slow introduction but this makes no reference to the Florestan aria. Both the introduction and the main fast section are based on completely new musical ideas. The Florestan melody does appear later, in a slow interlude in the middle of the fast section, but the off-stage trumpet call is not included this time. It's also substantially shorter than the first two overtures, showing that even in 1807 Beethoven was starting to realise he was placing too much musical and dramatic weight at the start of the evening before the curtain went up.

This overture didn't receive its first performance until February 1828, some months after Beethoven's death. [listen]

Waldmüller: Ludwig van Beethoven (1823)

In 1814, eight years after the last performance of Leonore in Vienna, Beethoven was approached about reviving the piece. He'd recently had some major successes with performances of his orchestral music (including the seventh symphony and Wellington's Victory), and Vienna had been liberated from the French with the defeat of Napoleon. The times seemed more propitious.

Beethoven himself insisted on a wholesale revision of the work yet again before it was performed. By general consensus it was now called Fidelio, and for this final version - the version in which we know the opera today - Beethoven wrote yet another overture.

There was a practical reason for this. In the first two versions, act one had opened with Marzeline's aria (in C minor and C major) followed (after some dialogue) by her duet with Jaquino (in A major). Now in the final version these two numbers were reversed, meaning act one now opened in A major. The transition from a C major overture would not have flowed well, so the new overture, today called the Fidelio overture, is in E major, a key which flows much more naturally into that of the duet.

Furthermore there is no specific reference to the music of the opera at all in the Fidelio overture. It's the shortest of the four overtures and it sets up the first act perfectly. The music is dramatic and intense but doesn't give too much away or engage the audience in the drama of the piece too soon.

Unfortunately Beethoven was late with completing the new overture for the premiere of the final version on 23 May, 1814; the new E major Fidelio overture was used from the second performance onwards. [listen]

Playbill of the third and final version of Fidelio at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, 23 May 1814

In the audience for the premiere of the final version of Fidelio was a brilliant young Viennese composer, the 17-year old Franz Schubert. Schubert had sold some of his schoolbooks in order to buy a ticket. Certainly the final version of the opera, which even today has its critics, was regarded by Beethoven as definitive and it was published in 1826. In German-speaking countries it's never been out of circulation, and today it's regarded world-wide as one of the core operas of the repertoire. (I've conducted it many times in two different productions and adore it.)

Later in the 19th century the practice became widespread of inserting the Leonore No 3 overture before the final scene of Fidelio to facilitate the scene change. Some say this originated with Gustav Mahler, others that it started earlier, but there can be no doubt this ruins Beethoven's ending and is little more than an ego trip for the conductor. It adds nearly a quarter of an hour's orchestral music - solid, dramatic orchestral music - before the final 12 or 13 minutes of the opera, thus ruining the balance of the ending. It also includes the offstage trumpet - which we have already heard in the opera shortly before - and, most importantly of all, was something never done by Beethoven. (I'm very fortunate that neither production I've conducted included this.)

Fidelio was certainly an important piece to Beethoven. At the time he was working on the first version he was still coming to terms with his deteriorating hearing loss, and there can be little doubt that he identified himself with the unjustly imprisoned Florestan. The hero's eventual release from solitary prison by his brave and devoted wife was an ideal to which Beethoven also aspired but sadly, his own relationships with women were fraught and unstable. Regardless of this, the hymn of freedom at the end of the opera clearly echoed sentiments (both political and personal) close to the composer's own heart, and they were sentiments which the Viennese felt keenly as well in the aftermath of the French occupation. I'll conclude here with the triumphant final moments of the opera. [listen]

Klöber: Ludwig van Beethoven (1818)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2014.

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