From Light to Darkness to Light

From light to darkness to light - Barry Cooper

The origins of Fidelio

Hope - 1886
George Frederick Watts

When looking for a suitable opera libretto to set to music, Beethoven was decidedly choosy, rejecting countless specimens during his life. Subjects such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Figaro were considered too immoral and frivolous, and anything involving magic was anathema to him. When he finally embarked on his first opera in 1803 – Vestas Feuer, a text written by Emanuel Schikaneder (author of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) – he quickly decided that the quality of the verse was unsuitable and abandoned it. He sought grand, heroic subjects, preferably from ancient times, such as Romulus and Remus, Brutus (this was Lucius Brutus, who had helped depose the last Roman king), or Macbeth. He considered writing operas on each of these subjects, although in the end nothing materialised. Heroic opposition to tyranny, as occurs in each of these subjects, was also evident in the plays for which he wrote incidental music – Goethe’s Egmont and the lesser-known Leonore Prohaska by Friedrich Duncker. Thus after abandoning Vestas Feuer near the end of 1803, he turned to a heroic French opera from 1798 – Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal (‘Leonore, or Conjugal Love’), by Pierre Gaveaux, with a libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.

The subject, based on events that had actually taken place in Tours around 1794, when Bouilly was there, presents the heroic Leonore, who disguises herself as the boy Fidelio to gain employment at a prison in order to save her husband Florestan, who is finally liberated when on the point of death. All the main elements had direct appeal for Beethoven. Heroic opposition to tyranny is embodied first in Florestan, who has been wrongfully imprisoned by Pizarro because he had ‘boldly spoken the truth’ (as he himself sings). His sense of isolation in the dungeon must have particularly resonated with Beethoven’s own sense of isolation that had resulted from his increasing deafness. Secondly, there is the even greater heroism of Leonore, who risks death to save her husband. The idea of a loving and devoted wife was another element of great appeal for Beethoven.

The subject is indeed a powerful one and was set by two other composers – Paër and Mayr – in addition to Gaveaux and Beethoven himself. Their operas are actually surprisingly good; but Beethoven’s is so much better and more profound, especially in its final version. Even with a composer as naturally gifted as Beethoven, however, it took a long time, and enormous effort, to create the masterpiece we know today. The libretto was the combined result of four different authors; there are four different versions of the music; and Beethoven composed a series of four overtures. Moreover, these changes were only the tip of the iceberg, for Beethoven devoted many pages of sketches and drafts to composing and refining each number in the opera.

Portrait of Beethoven - 1905
Franz Stuck

The first stage in the creation of Fidelio was the adaptation of the French libretto into German, a task undertaken in early 1804 by Joseph Sonnleithner, a lawyer and music publisher who was also much involved in the theatre. Some of it was simply translation and versification, but in places there are telling changes in outlook. This is particularly noticeable in Florestan’s soliloquy in the dungeon – ‘O hard trial! Yet God’s will is righteous … the measure of sufferings stands with Thee’ – introducing a trust in God’s providence that is absent at this point in the original French version. Echoes here of Beethoven’s writings about his own sufferings from his deafness suggest that he may have had a hand in these changes.

Beethoven hoped to complete the opera within a few months, but various delays meant that it was not ready for rehearsal until summer 1805 – over a year later than originally planned. Since it was subtitled ‘Conjugal Love’, it is perhaps appropriate that he himself fell deeply in love at this time, writing to Countess Josephine Deym: ‘Long – of long duration – may our love become.’ But unfortunately the relationship never progressed to marriage and Beethoven remained a bachelor throughout his life. Meanwhile, the opera was eventually scheduled for 15 October 1805, in the Theater an der Wien, Vienna. The censor intervened, however, banning its production due to its politically sensitive nature. Only after an appeal was it allowed, finally being performed on 20 November. By a supreme irony Napoleon, whom Beethoven had angrily condemned as a tyrant in 1804, ordered his troops into Vienna just a week before the premiere. There were therefore few in the audience apart from some French soldiers, and after three fairly disastrous performances the opera was withdrawn.

Two more performances occurred the following spring, after substantial revisions. Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning modified the libretto and Beethoven himself went through almost every number, making detailed cuts to tighten up the flow of the music. The overture was also substantially revised. Success was still elusive, however, partly because the performers found the music far more difficult than anything they were used to. A further performance planned for 1807 in Prague did not materialise, although Beethoven wrote a new overture in preparation. This overture is shorter and simpler than the previous two, and was therefore at one time assumed to be the earliest. Consequently it is known as Leonore Overture No. 1, whereas the versions performed in 1805 and 1806 are known respectively as Leonore No. 2 and No. 3.


The 1814 versions

Beethoven - 1818
Friedrich August von Kloeber

The year 1814 was politically as significant as 1914, but for the opposite reason. It marked the end, rather than the beginning, of a devastating and lengthy war, the Napoleonic War. Although Napoleon briefly escaped and threatened Europe again in 1815 before being defeated at Waterloo, no conflict comparable to the Napoleonic War occurred in Europe again until the outbreak of the First World War. Napoleon’s downfall in 1814 generated great rejoicing in Vienna and it was suggested that Fidelio be revived – its political overtones were surely obvious to all. Beethoven agreed, on condition that it was substantially revised again. This time Friedrich Treitschke was entrusted with the libretto and he did a masterly job, as did Beethoven with the music, although the main substance remained the same.

The premiere of the new version took place on 23 May 1814, in the Kärnthnerthor Theater, but the overture, Beethoven’s fourth, was not ready until three days later. This third version was repeated several times in the ensuing weeks. But the work finally reached the form we know today on 18 July, with the reintroduction of Rocco’s aria (not performed since the 1805 version) and also the first part of Leonore’s aria, which had been omitted in May 1814. This aria was preceded by a newly composed recitative (‘Abscheulicher!’), which was Beethoven’s final contribution to the music. This version is always known as Fidelio, whereas the versions from earlier years are generally known as Leonore – although they were known at the time by both names in different contexts.


The power of Fidelio

Glad Day - c.1794
William Blake

The intensity of Beethoven’s music in enhancing the political message of the subject has resulted in a work of incredible power, and the opera has even been known to spark a riot. Much credit must of course go to the librettists, particularly Bouilly and Treitschke, but it is Beethoven’s music that expresses the subject so effectively. This is evident throughout the opera but in certain passages in particular. The sheer nastiness of Pizarro is vividly illustrated by harsh discords and incredibly angular melodic lines in his aria ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick’. The purity and elevated ideals of Leonore, in contrast, shine through in the first part of her aria (‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’), where she is supported by the unusual scoring of three prominent horns and bassoon. The second part, ‘Ich folg den innern Triebe’, portrays the enormous strength of her inner resolve; its music formed the starting point for Beethoven’s final Fidelio overture. The previous three overtures had all been based more on Florestan’s music. The chorus of prisoners is equally moving, as they appeal to freedom in gradually ascending lines. Beethoven ensures that the word Freiheit (freedom) is given due prominence, until the prisoners realise that they are being watched and urge each other to speak softly for fear of being overheard. They never mention Freiheit again, and their final farewell to sunshine and light, which was one of Treitschke’s most significant innovations, is particularly poignant.

The start of Florestan’s dungeon scene contains some of the most dramatic music in the whole opera. It is set in F minor – a sombre key with four flats, creating a neat symmetry with the four sharps of Leonore’s aria in the uplifting key of E major (often used by Beethoven when stars are mentioned in the text). Beethoven manages to operate on several levels at once, portraying darkness, shivering (both physical and emotional), the depth of the dungeon, angry outbursts, and the nervous anxiety of Florestan, suggested by heartbeats on the timpani. Timpani were normally tuned a perfect fourth or fifth apart, but are here tuned a diminished fifth apart – E flat and A – giving a sense of melodic discord and unstable harmony throughout the orchestral introduction. Florestan’s entry follows, with the single word Gott! left entirely unaccompanied, highlighting his loneliness and isolation, and it gives way to a large downward leap for Dunkel (darkness). The first part of his ensuing aria, lamenting his fate but consoling himself that he has done his duty, is profoundly moving; but it is the second part that contributes so much dramatically. At this point in the earlier versions of the opera he merely recalled happier times, but Treitschke substituted a kind of delirium (‘Und spür ich’), in which Florestan sees a vision of his beloved Leonore as an angel leading him to freedom in Heaven. Beethoven was thrilled with the new text, and wrote an inspired section with the word Freiheit emphasised repeatedly on extremely high notes, producing a phenomenal climax to the aria. His sketches for this section appear very hurried and are in a different ink from the surrounding ones. This corroborates Treitschke’s vivid report that Beethoven received the text when he called at Treitschke’s and promptly set it to music, using Treitschke’s piano as an aid (Beethoven was still not completely deaf) and refusing supper so that he could continue to work on the aria.

Male Nude - 1856
Edgar Degas

In the grave-digging scene that follows, Beethoven gives the main accompanying melody to double basses and contrabassoon, creating an effect that is unnervingly eerie while also plumbing the depths emotionally and physically. The dramatic and emotional climax arrives a little later, when Pizarro descends to murder Florestan, and Leonore interposes herself, singing ‘Töd erst sein Weib!’ (‘First kill his wife!’), at last revealing her true identity. Again Beethoven intensifies the effect with a superb sense of timing, combined with a sudden change of key and a thrilling high note for Weib. The ecstatic duet for Leonore and Florestan that follows shortly afterwards is actually based on some of the rejected music for Vestas Feuer, but it is even more effective in its new context.

Another ingenious change by Treitschke was to move the final scene, where Florestan is released from his chains, from the dungeon to the courtyard. This enables the emotional narrative of the opera as a whole to move not only from the everyday (Jaquino and Marzelline) to the sublime, as tyranny is overcome, but also from light to darkness to light, giving the work a universal mythic power. There are clear resonances with the Christian narrative of life – death – resurrection – ascension, so that the work has religious as well as political symbolism. (The bread and wine that Leonore gives Florestan in the dungeon also have strong Christian overtones.) It is features such as these, plus the emotional depth of Beethoven’s music, that have enabled Fidelio to exert such a powerful effect on so many people, unerringly reaching their hearts and minds.