Opera was not Beethoven’s forte. He devoted a decade (1804-14) to tinkering with his only opera – Fidelio. Even its name changed. It was initially called Leonore; she’s the opera’s heroine and its focal point. The composer was an idealist who fervently believed in the triumph of justice over tyranny and and love over oppression. It’s a good thing he didn’t live to see the 20th century and beyond. He reworked the opera until he was satisfied or exhausted. The result is a flawed masterpiece that at its best is triumphant, but when not at an exalted level can be dull.
He also wrote four overtures for the opera – a world record for one opera. The provenance of Leonora #1 is uncertain. Anton Schindler reported that Beethoven discarded it after hearing it performed at a private gathering at the end of 1804 or the beginning of 1805. A more recent theory, supported by recent detailed examination of the paper on which the sketches for the piece were made, holds that this work was written in 1806-1807 for a projected performance of the opera in Prague which never took place, thus making Leonore No. 1 the third of the Fidelio overtures. Regardless it was found after the composer’s death and is never performed.
Leonore #2 was used at the first performance of the opera, on November 20, 1805. The opera did not succeed possibly because Vienna and thus the audience was full of Frenchmen, Napoleon having occupied the city a week earlier. Beethoven reworked the opera and it was performed on March 29, 1806 again with little success. For this performance Beethoven wrote Leonore #3, a work of such magnificence and grandeur that there was no need to stay for the opera as it said everything that was in the opera in about 15 minutes.
In 1814 Beethoven again revised the opera and wrote a new overture with the same title as the opera – the Fidelio Overture. Number 3 was too good to ignore so about 30 years later Otto Nicolai inserted it between the opera’s final two scenes. This practice was reinforced by Gustav Mahler and is still done today.
Below are links to both Leonore #2 and #3. Listening to #2 you’ll note that the skeleton for #3 is there. Number two is quite good and is worthy of performance. The only problem is that once #3 is in your head you may be dissatisfied with the excellent, but lesser #2.
Leonore #3 presents the same musical view as do symphonies #5 and 9. “The structure of the overture follows the basic sonata-allegro design, but adapted by Beethoven to fit the dramatic requirements of his subject. It begins with a broad, slow introduction, by turns lugubrious and threatening, during which the clarinets and bassoons intone the opening phrases of the aria Florestan sings in his dungeon prison. In a faster tempo, the violins present the arch-shaped main theme, which grows to a riveting climax before the entry of the complementary theme, a lyrical strain introduced quietly by flute and violins. The development section is filled with sudden dynamic changes and expressive harmonic excursions that mirror the perilous struggles of the play. Then, in an unforgettable coup de théâtre, a distant trumpet call signals deliverance for Florestan and his faithful Leonore. The recapitulation of the themes glows in triumph. A jubilant coda, begun with whirling scales in the strings, brings this superb work to a stirring close.” Quotation from David Kilbrides notes on Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b.
Leonore Overture #2, as mentioned above, has much of the material woven into the masterpiece that is #3. The Third Leonore Overture is conducted by the greatest conductor of German music since the start of the recording era Wilhelm Furtwängler. Though made almost 80 years ago, Furtwängler realizes all the content and power that Beethoven put into this greatest of overtures. After hearing it you can easily understand why putting it at the start of a performance would smother anything that followed.