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Beethoven (1770-1827) – Overture “Leonore” No. 3
It’s comforting to know that even great geniuses sometimes struggle to succeed. Regarding the overtures to Beethoven’s only opera, historians also struggle – to get the facts of the great genius’s struggle straight.
For instance, did Leonore No. 2 replace an “unsatisfactory” No. 1 before the 1805 premičre, or was No. 1 a toned-down version prepared for a proposed 1808 performance? In 1806 (or maybe 1807?) No. 2 was reworked into No. 3 – so which, if either, was “toned down” to produce No. 1?
Of course, the real question is: just what was Beethoven’s problem? Take further comfort! It was something we all do – that is, get so close to a pet project that we “can’t see the wood for the trees”. Beethoven’s subject was very dear to his heart – principally, belief in the power of moral individuals, as exemplified by Leonore, who saves her incarcerated husband from the corrupt Pizarro’s murderous clutches. Happy with his materials yet unable to match overture to opera, Beethoven blamed the presentation.
In 1814, whilst drastically revising his beloved opera, he realised his mistake – he’d disregarded the essential purpose of an overture, which is simply to set the scene [footnote 1] – and at last did what he should have done straight off. He wrote a brand new, predominantly bright and breezy Fidelio overture to introduce the opera’s lightweight opening mood – and the rest, as they say, is history.
They may not “work” in the opera house, but the Leonore overtures nevertheless make stunning concert works. No. 3, which to my mind is the best of the bunch, distils the opera’s dramatic essence within a taut, sonata-style movement – Beethoven, not surprisingly, had rejected the popular, facile “patchwork” style in favour of independently developing his operatic materials.
The introduction’s gloom and uncertainty gradually yield to hope and resolve, reflecting, via a reference to Florestan’s “dungeon” aria, both his faith and Leonore’s courage.
Beethoven’s barnstorming allegro is a veritable whirlwind of invention. The offstage trumpet call [footnote 2], which in the opera signals Pizarro’s defeat, becomes a “cadenza” that triggers a surprise reprise – commencing not tutti, but on agile solo flute and bassoon. Preceded by a reminiscence of the introduction, the rampant coda runs headlong into – and sunders – an alarmingly dissonant, and highly symbolic “wall”.
Such utterly unbridled élan completely upstages the opera’s stealthy rescue mission and relatively religioso final festivities – giving us another reason why these overtures failed operatically. To think, it’s probably only sheer luck that Beethoven didn’t put the redundant manuscripts to some other use – such as kindling the fire in his hearth.
© Paul Serotsky, 2010
[1] Wagner also was to become well aware of this basic and necessary purpose. The prelude to Das Rheingold (and hence to the entire cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen) does no more than draw us into the swirling depths of the eponymous river, and deposit us smoothly into the flow of the plot. Granted, it unfolds with immense subtlety, conceiving the entire cycle’s germinal motif and breeding the first few of many vital “leitmotifs”, but the immediately evident purpose is exactly as defined.
[2] There are many apocryphal tales regarding problems with performance of this episode. My favourite tells of a performance reputedly given in Leeds Town Hall, for which the trumpeter was stationed in the corridor, outside a side door to the stalls. A few minutes into the overture, an official collared him, hissing, “Oi – you can’t play that thing ‘ere, there’s a concert on.” The player tried to protest. Unfortunately, as he was not required on the platform he was “out of uniform”. The official would brook no argument from this apparent saboteur, and firmly escorted him off the premises.


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