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Beethoven's Creative Process of Composition
Reflections on Leonore (1806)
And Fidelio (1814)

by Anno Hellenbroich

Partial Text, excerpted From FIDELIO Magazine, Volume VII, No. 3 - FALL 1998

Please note: Footnotes and illustrations are not included online. They are available in the
Fall 1998 Fidelio.
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The musical changes from Leonore to Fidelio- the dimly
conscious metaphor of "liberation of creative power through
freedom"-can be recognized as the "loose cords" through
which the work of art is tightened and shaped.

In the springtime of my life
Fortune fled from me!
I dared to boldly tell the truth,
And chains are my reward.

Florestan’s Aria, Fidelio, Act II

Come, Hope! Let not the last star
Of the weary be dimmed!
Light my goal, be it ever so far,
Love will attain it. I follow my inner impulse;
I waver not;
The duty of true married love
Strengthens me!

Leonore’s Aria, Fidelio, Act I

At least three completely different productions of Beethoven’s Great Opera Fidelio (1814) were presented on German stages in 1997 alone. Can it be, that Beethoven’s musical personification of a great figure as wife, Leonore—who, in her singing celebrates not only “true married love,” but, by risking her life, achieves the rescue of Florestan in the dramatic development of the “Great Opera”—might have a completely unheard-of effect at the present historical turning point? For sure, it is certain that the number of Fidelio performances demonstrates, that, completely contrary to the spirit of the times, people today are more than ever seeking the impact of Beethovenesque “Great Opera.”

If one examines the performances in detail, it is completely apparent from them, that there are still directors living in the old era of ’68-generation “director’s theater” (Regietheater).* According to one review, one of the unfortunate directors must be a total “hard case” proponent of ’68-era “director’s theater,” and Adorno’s rage against the “affirmative character of Beethoven’s music” appears to have supplied a special arsenal for his Fidelio-spectacle. The critic loudly acclaims this performance in Bremen, produced by Johann Kresnick, as “political farce.” One reads: “Florestan ... is a beatnik, a ladies’ man, a drunk, and a hardline, ideological communist.” Kresnick has also, without hesitation, shifted the central prison scene, in which Beethoven’s Florestan sings the above-cited lines, to “the meadows of Munich, at Oktoberfest”!

The conflict, the clash, of two worldviews, could not be greater. There, in Beethoven’s composition, in idea and in expression, truth, married love, and courage are celebrated; here, be it in Bremen or elsewhere, lack of character, and the misery of today’s egotist associated with it.

The concert performance in Bonn during the 35th Beethoven Festival, of Leonore, the early version of Fidelio from 1806, marked an important exception. Because, for the first time in 191 years, a performance could be modelled on a score which had been reconstructed “authentically” from notes, libretto, and also stage directions, according to scientific criteria. Thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Helga Lühning of the Bonn Beethoven-Archiv, this reconstruction of the 1806 Leonore will soon be published in the new Beethoven Complete Works.

The publication of the libretto from 1806, and individual studies of “Leonore 1806” for the Beethoven Festival, are exciting to read even today. For they create the possibility of studying, in each particular, the intricate process of creating this work of art over a decade—from 1803/4 until 1814. The successful performance of the orchestra of the Bonn Beethovenhalle, gave the accompanying three-day distinguished scientific symposium on the topic “Leonore 1806,” artistic confirmation of the thesis, that the juxtaposition of the Leonore of 1806 and Fidelio of 1814 with the various famous artistic figures of Beethoven’s circles, is the best way to trace the dramatic, conceptual, and declamatory-musical sharpening of Beethoven’s artistic idea. (In order to distinguish the different versions, the term “Leonore”—which is how Beethoven also named his first three Overtures—signifies the early versions of 1805 and 1806; the 1814 opera presented in performance is customarily called Fidelio.)

This lays the foundation to understand this great work of art—(to term it “opera,” today, after the unspeakable theatrical spectacles of the most recent period, is difficult)—more precisely than before, as the continuation of Friedrich Schiller’s thoughts on “aesthetical education,” of his “Art of Tragedy.” Particularly, because Beethoven, in the process of the changes and development of Leonore, ever more intelligibly elaborated the profound ideas of the sacrifice of “personal life” for the establishment of right, justice, and freedom. However, not only this: How, in the aria of Leonore, and, above all, in the “keystone” aria of Florestan in 1814, Beethoven brought something to expression as metaphor, which far surpasses the transitory background plot of this dramatic work, of hope for rescue. Beethoven discovers a musical metaphor which reveals the inner domain of the individual, of his terror, not only in the face of his lonely death in a dungeon, but of his close presentiment-of-death fear of the dissolution of his creative “I,” which is overcome in the exultant duet, “O namenlose Freude” [“O Nameless Joy”] and in the final chorus. The musical changes which Beethoven carried out on the path from Leonore in 1805, up to the performance of Fidelio in 1814, the dimly conscious metaphor of “liberation of creative power through freedom,” can be recognized in Beethoven’s work as the “loose cords” through which the work of art is tightened and shaped.

Schiller formulates this in a general way in a letter to Caroline von Wolzogen:

There is something mysterious in the effect of music, that it moves our inner self, so that it becomes a means of connection between two worlds. We feel ourselves enlarged, uplifted, rapt—what is that called other than in the domain of Nature, drawn to God? Music is a higher, finer language than words. In the moments, where every utterance of the uplifted soul seems too weak, where it despairs of conceiving more elegant words, there the musical art begins. From the outset, all song has this basis.

Beethoven’s intense preoccupation with Schiller’s view of aesthetical education, of the art of tragedy, of the sublime, can also be recognized in the shaping of the Leonore material, not only in the original form in 1805, the year of Friedrich Schiller’s death, but also in the treatment of the Leonore version of 1806. Beethoven’s intellectual agreement with Schiller’s artistic aims is particularly clear in the final Fidelio version of 1814. Clearly confronted with the eight-year experience of social developments in Europe, in Austria—“the land of the Phaiacians,”* as Beethoven was later wont to rail—he sharpened the principal psychological truths of Leonore, of a truly womanly character, and, of the unjustly imprisoned Florestan: a challenge to the approaching obliteration of intellectual life, and censorship of political life—an intellectual current which was at that time, after the oligarchical Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, embodied in the Carlsbad Decrees of 1818.

Not only Beethoven’s references to Schiller’s The Virgin of Orleans support this, but also his contact with Friedrich Rochlitz, a composer in Leipzig, with whom Schiller wished to establish a Journal for German Women [Journal für deutsche Frauen] just a few weeks prior to his death.

Leonore 1805/6

On June 22, 1806, Stephan von Breuning, a friend of Beethoven’s from his days in Bonn, wrote to his sister, Eleonore, and her husband, Dr. Wegeler:

As far as I remember, I promised to write you, in my last letter, about Beethoven’s opera. Since I am sure it does interest you, I want to keep this promise. The music is of the most beautiful and most perfect that one can hear; the subject is interesting, since it presents the freeing of a prisoner through the faithfulness and the courage of his wife; however, despite all that, nothing has caused Beethoven so much vexation as this work, whose value people will only fully appreciate for the first time in the future. First, it was staged seven days after the invasion of the French troops; therefore, at a completely unfavorable point in time. Naturally, the theaters were empty, and Beethoven, who at the same time noticed several defects in the treatment of the text, withdrew the opera after the third performance. After the return of order, he and I put it on again. I revised the entire script for him, by which the action became faster and more lively; he shortened many pieces, and it would be performed three times after this to the greatest applause. Now, however, his enemies at the theater have revolted, and several there, a few especially insulted at the second performance, have arranged that it has not been performed since then. [cited in Stephan Ley, p. 70ff]

If you read a review of the first performance, you could come to the conclusion that (as we say today) the opera “flopped.” For example, you can read in a commentary by Kotzebues in Der Freimütige:

A new Beethoven opera, Fidelio, or Married Love, doesn’t appeal. It was only performed a few times, and remained empty after the first performance. Both the melodies, as well as the characterization, lack (as much therein is far-fetched) that felicitous, excellent, overpowering expression of passion which grips us so irresistibly in Mozart’s and Cherubini’s works.... The text, translated by Sonnleithner, comes from a story of liberation, of the kind come into fashion since Cherubini’s Deux Journées.

Whereas, we saw in Stephan von Breuning’s judgment of the work, especially in light of the improvements, a confirmed, sensitive judgment of the story. This is not accidental. Breuning enclosed in his letter copies of two poems which he composed “as publicity” for the performances of 1805/6; the second ends with the verse, “In your music, may the power of true Beauty always appear!”

This thought had been discussed in many ways by Schiller, so that Breuning’s wish for Beethoven is completely coherent with the discussions of art, concerning Truth and Beauty, among Beethoven’s circle of friends. Schiller often plays with this fundamental idea, whether it be the poem “The Power of Song” [“Die Macht des Gesanges”] (“Who can undo the magic of the singer; who may resist his music?”), as motivic thorough-composed metaphor in his “Ode to Joy,” or as resonating motif in “The Encounter” [“Die Begegnung”]:

On what I felt in that moment
And what I sang, I muse in vain;
I discovered a new organ in myself,
That spoke of my heart’s sacred stirring;
It was the soul, which for long years bound,
Broke at once now through all chains,
And found notes in its deepest depths,
That slept in it—divine and undreamt of.

Schiller devoted the following lines to music in the “Homage to the Arts” [“Huldigung der Künste”]:

The power of tones, which from the strings is welling,
Thou playest mightily, it well thou ken’st,
What is the bosom with foreboding swelling,
Is in my tones alone in full expressed;
Upon thy senses plays a lovely magic,
As forth my stream of harmonies doth flow,
The heart would break apart in sweetness tragic,
And from the lips the soul desires to go,
And if I start my scale of tones,
I bear theeUpon it upward to the highest beauty.

Thus, in his letter, Breuning presented a concise sketch of the story of Leonore 1805/6 from his own experience.

The Fate of the Republican Lafayette

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