In March 1827, as the great Ludwig van Beethoven lay on his deathbed, he presented a manuscript of his only opera to his friend and biographer, Anton Schindler, with these words: "Of all my children, this is the one that cost me the worst birth-pangs and brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason it is the one most dear to me."
Beethoven's Fidelio depicted, with considerable artistic license, an incident that occurred during the French Revolution's infamous Reign of Terror. Terror, of another sort, reigned during its tumultuous creation.
Behind the scenes, in 1805, rehearsals for this revolutionary new opera had descended into chaos. According to one of the singers, "Waving his baton to and fro with violent movements, a puzzled expression on his face, and celestial inspiration in his eyes, (Beethoven) did not hear a note! When he wanted 'forte' he would leap upwards with the most curious gestures and utter the strangest sounds. It was inevitable that the deaf composer caused the most complete confusion among the singers and orchestra and everyone got quite out of time. But Beethoven observed nothing of all that, and when we somehow managed to finish rehearsal, he laid aside the baton with a cheerful smile. It fell to Kapellmeister Umlauf to take the heart-breaking task of telling him; the opera could not be performed with him conducting."
The humiliated composer, by all accounts, was thrown into a state of deep depression.
Fidelio's premiere at the Theater an der Wien (once under the management of Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist and director of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and the original Papageno) sparked one of the great theatrical flops of the 19th century.
The mostly foreign audience, sparse as it was, had come looking for lighthearted operetta, not a complex moral singspiel, a form forced upon Vienna's opera houses by Imperial decree and one that seemed singularly at odds with Beethoven's musical instincts. Furthermore, the underlying message of freedom triumphing over oppression wasn't lost on the French invaders, who ordered a boycott of the work just as the composer voluntarily withdrew it from the stage.
The deck was stacked from several angles. The day of the premiere, the editor of an influential newspaper, Wiener Zeitung, was summarily dismissed and replaced with a Bonaparte sympathizer. No review of Fidelio (or Leonore, as it was then known) would be forthcoming. In retrospect, this may have been an unforeseen stroke of luck.
"Way below the expectations of amateurs and professionals alike," bemoaned a reviewer for the journal, Freymuthige. The verdict from Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung was much the same: "Beethoven has sacrificed beauty so many times for the new and the strange. The choruses are ineffectual and one, which indicates the joy of prisoners over the sensation of fresh air, miscarries completely."
Beethoven, alternating between fits of fury and despair, immediately began slicing-and-dicing, reducing three acts to two while eliminating and replacing sections of the music and dialogue perceived as "unsatisfactory."
Tenor Josef Röckel, who portrayed Florestan in the 1806 revival, recalled a tense and extraordinary evening during which Beethoven's supporters gathered to hear his revisions and give their well-meaning advice. The composer fought all suggestions to cut, even attempting to grab his score, at one point, and literally run away. As the painful critique continued into the early hours of the morning, Beethoven remained unyielding, insisting that "Not a single note must be missing." He could only be prevailed upon to make the necessary cuts by a dramatic appeal to the memory of his mother. Ultimately, it made no difference. The revised opera failed to find a receptive audience.
Now, about those overtures: Just remember, Number One was probably composed for a later production in Prague; Number Two was performed at the original premiere, then replaced by Number Three in the 1806 revival (later used as a concert piece), but dropped in 1814. And, yes, you will be tested at intermission.
The final version of Beethoven's only opera opened on May 23, 1814, with the Fidelio Overture we know today. Its glorious music and uncompromising characters were understood, loved, and applauded at last‹and the tortured composer lived to see it.
In the midst of widespread social upheaval and political chaos, Beethoven had fashioned a work that administered a powerful jolt, with its unflinching worship of liberty and hatred of all tyranny, and within its timeless themes of empowered feminism, prison reform, the dignity of man, and belief in the incomparable value of a single human life.
Its influence remains as incalculable as it is inescapable. Wrote young Richard Wagner: "I had to go, never mind the state of my finances. They were giving the new, revised version of the opera which, under the title of Leonore, had already been played in Vienna and accorded the honor of being damned by its discriminating public. I, too, had never heard the revised version; you can imagine my delight at the fresh marvels it contained! It was as though the heavens had opened. I prostrated myself before the genius who had led me, like Florestan, out of the darkness of tyranny into the light of freedom."
Leonard Bernstein, discussing Beethoven a century later, commented on the composer's "inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be."
But when the last note of Fidelio has ceased to reverberate, a significant question lingers: Why did so great a composer devote so much of his creative fire at the peak of his career to a work others would have sensibly abandoned? That Beethoven was notoriously stubborn is well-known, but somehow, that is insufficient. It prompts one to ponder the curious possibility that Beethoven identified in a deep and meaningful way with his noble and courageous prisoner; trapped, as he was, in a world of silence and darkness; a world of enforced solitude; a world in which our hero has only the dimming memory of a woman's love to sustain him.
The year Fidelio originally premiered, Beethoven's proposal of marriage had been rejected by the Countess Josephine von Deym, an attractive young widow. They continued to see each other, despite opposition from Josephine's family, until the composer fell in love with a married woman, Marie Bigot (a composer and pianist in her own right, who later taught the Mendelssohns and Franz Schubert). Beethoven followed these doomed relationships with yet another passionate affair, this time with one of his students. She, too, refused to marry him.
Beethoven would never be more prolific, respected, or financially secure than he was during the long gestation period of Fidelio. Yet the dream of a soul mate continued to elude him as the composer became progressively more disheartened, angry, and withdrawn.
Was Leonore his salvation? Could a composer so sensitive, so lonely, struggling with such myriad demons, have resisted the dream of a tender angel swooping to his rescue? Or would Beethoven have given himself completely to this cherished fantasy of feminine devotion and unquenchable love?
We cannot know what we cannot know, anymore than we can prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the identity of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved." But, like Leonore herself, we can always hope.