Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside.
-Ludwig van Beethoven
The Italian opera composer Gioachino Rossini was, as the story goes, the ultimate procrastinator. He would often dash off the overture for a new opera the night before the opening. In the case of The Thieving Magpie, he waited until the day of the opening. Sometimes he reused a previously written overture, substituting one frothy musical joyride for another. Rossini’s compositional process seems to have been characterized by a sunny, Mediterranean ease. He once bragged, “Give me the laundress’ bill and I will even set that to music.” In a letter, Rossini gave this advice:
Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair.
Contrast Rossini’s carefree overture writing all-nighters with Beethoven’s long and tortured excursion into the world of opera. While Rossini produced thirty-nine operas during his career, Beethoven, his contemporary to the north, wrote only one- Fidelio. Beethoven struggled with Fidelio for almost ten years, following the opera’s unsuccessful initial performance in Vienna in November, 1805. His revisions produced three versions and replaced parts of a libretto he found uninspiring. By the time Beethoven reached the final version, he had written four different overtures. Beethoven’s sketchbooks suggest that revision and struggle were central to his compositional process. Consider that it took over 30 revisions to mold a seemingly unpromising sketch into the great funeral march which forms the second movement of the Eroica Symphony.
Fidelio‘s first performance came just days after Napoleon’s army occupied Vienna. The opera’s themes of liberty and political struggle mirror the revolutionary turbulence of the time. The plot centers around a heroic struggle for liberty: Leonore, disguised as a male prison guard named Fidelio, rescues her husband Florestan from political imprisonment and death by gradual starvation. A spirited military March breaks out in the first act. Later, a Prisoners’ Chorus depicts, musically, a gradual emergence from the dungeon into sunlight and freedom. In the opening of the second act, as he awaits rescue, Florestan considers his plight in this soliloquy:
Leonard Bernstein called Fidelio
one of (Beethoven’s) greatest works, containing some of the most glorious music ever conceived by a mortal, one of the most cherished and revered of all operas, a timeless monument to love, life, and liberty, a celebration of human rights, of freedom to speak out, to dissent. It’s a political manifesto against tyranny and oppression, a hymn to the beauty and sanctity of marriage, an exalted affirmation of faith in God as the ultimate human resource.
Let’s return to those four overtures Beethoven wrote for Fidelio. The three rejected overtures are know as Leonore (the opera’s original title) 1-3. It’s now believed that Leonore Overture No. 2 was Beethoven’s first attempt, written for the 1805 Vienna premiere. It opens with a titanic unison G which gives way to a searching, descending, modal scale- a musical descent into the darkness of Florestan’s prison cell. After a halting start, the scale steps all the way down to G again, and then descends one step further to a spine tingling F-sharp. A few moments later, the theme from Florestan’s soliloquy offers a glimmer of light amid mystery and lonely solitude. This music is filled with a sense of heroic struggle, an intense longing for freedom, and Florestan’s thoughts of Leonore. In this passage, listen to the way the first, quiet stirrings of hope grow into a soaringly spirited heroism. Just as Leonore Overture No. 2 reaches a climax of ferocity, a sudden, distant trumpet call is heard, signaling Florestan’s impending freedom. At first, there is numb shock and disbelieve. Then, the Overture’s final bars erupt into a joyful, unabashed celebration of freedom.
It’s some of the most powerful, dramatic music ever written- practically an orchestral tone poem which outlines the entire plot of Fidelio, and a world away from the fun, crowd-silencing overtures Rossini was writing. And therein lay the problem. Beethoven’s music was so intensely powerful that it completely upstaged the opera which followed. There was no reason for the curtain to go up because the drama of the story was all perfectly encapsulated in the Overture. Even Fidelio‘s harmonic journey to triumphant C major was firmly resolved before the opera began. Listen to the first and last pitches of the Overture (G and C) and you’ll hear a perfect V to I cadence- the most complete and final resolution possible in tonal music.
A year later in 1806, Beethoven’s first revision of Fidelio produced Leonore Overture No. 3. Of the four overtures, this is the one that is most often heard in concert. Nineteenth and early twentieth century conductors, including Gustav Mahler, inserted this overture between the two scenes of Fidelio‘s second act. Leonore Overture No. 3 dramatically overpowered Fidelio in a way similar to the first Overture. But it opened the door to the Romantic tone poem, influencing later composers such as Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler. With the original overture still in your ears, listen to the way Beethoven used the same musical blueprint to create something slightly different:
Leonore Overture No. 1 was written for a planned 1808 Fidelio performance in Prague, which was cancelled. This Overture scales back the dramatic weight of Leonore 2 and 3 and moves in a much different direction. The sweepingly virtuosic violin lines seem to anticipate later overtures of Carl Maria von Weber:
With the Fidelio Overture, written in 1814 for the successful final version of the opera, Beethoven found a brilliant curtain-raiser which serves, rather than overpowers, the stage. The Overture doesn’t use any of the opera’s themes and resolves in E major, far away from Fidelio‘s ultimate triumphant goal of C major. Beethoven’s slow, painstaking struggle with Fidelio was evident to the end: Fidelio Overture missed its opening night deadline and was first heard on May 25 for the second performance of the run. Near the end of his life, Beethoven wrote to his friend, Anton Schindler,
“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.”