IT was the scalawag Schikaneder who had put together the singular dramatic phantasmagoria known as Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” and acted the part of the buffoon in it, who, having donned the garb of respectability, commissioned Beethoven to compose the only opera which that supreme master gave to the world. The opera is “Fidelio,” and it occupies a unique place in operatic history not only because it is the only work of its kind by the greatest tone-poet that ever lived, but also because of its subject. The lyric drama has dealt with the universal passion ever since the art-form was invented, but “Fidelio” is the only living opera which occurs to me now, except Gluck’s “Orfeo” and “Alceste,” which hymns the pure love of married lovers. The bond between the story of Alcestis, who goes down to death to save the life of Admetus, and that of Leonore, who ventures her life to save Florestan, is closer than that of the Orphie myth, for though the alloy only serves to heighten the sheen of Eurydice’s virtue, there is yet a grossness in the story of Aristaeus’s unlicensed passion which led to her death, that strongly differentiates it from the mod-ern tale of wifely love and devotion. Beethoven was no ascetic, but he was as sincere and severe a moralist in life as he was in art. In that most melancholy of human documents, written at Heiligenstadt in October, 1802, commonly known as his will, he says to his brothers: “Recommend to your children virtue; it alone can bring happiness, not money. I speak from experience. It was virtue which bore me up in time of trouble ; to her, next to my art, I owe thanks for my not having laid violent hands on myself.”
That Mozart had been able to compose music to such libretti as those of “Don Giovanni” and “Così fan tutte” filled him with pained wonder. Moreover, he had serious views of the dignity of music and of the uses to which it might be put in the drama, and more advanced notions than he has generally been credited with as to how music and the drama ought to be consorted. Like all composers, he longed to write an opera, and it is not at all unlikely that, like Mendelssohn after him, he was deterred by the general tendency of the opera books of his day. Certain it is that though he received a commission for an opera early in the year 1803, it was not until an opera on the story which is also that of “Fidelio” had been brought out at Dresden that he made a definitive choice of a subject. The production which may have influenced him was that of Ferdinando Paer’s” Leonora, ossia l’Amore conjugale,” which was brought forward at Dresden, where its composer was conductor of the opera, on October 3, 1804. This opera was the immediate predecessor of Beethoven’s, but it also had a predecessor in a French opera, “Léonore, ou l’Amour conjugal,” of which the music was composed by Pierre Gaveaux, a musician of small but graceful gifts, who had been a tenor singer before he became a composer. This opera had its first performance on February 19, 1798, and may also have been known to Beethoven, or have been brought to his notice while he was casting about for a subject. At any rate, though it was known as early as June, 1803, that Beethoven intended to compose an opera for the Theater an der Wien, and had taken lodgings with his brother Caspar in the theatre building more than two months before, it was not until the winter of 1804 that the libretto of ” Fidelio” was placed in his hands. It was a German version of the French book by Bouilly, which had been made by Joseph Sonnleithner, an intimate friend of Schubert, founder of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, who had recently been appointed secretary of the Austrian court theatres as successor of Kotzebue. Beethoven had gone to live in the theatre building for the purpose of working on the opera for Schikaneder, but early in 1804 the Theater an der Wien passed out of his hands into those of Baron von Braun. The intervening summer had been passed by the composer at Baden and Unter Dobling in work upon the “Eroica” symphony. The check upon the operatic project was but temporary. Baron von Braun took Schikaneder into his service and renewed the contract with Beethoven. This accomplished, the composer resumed his lodgings in the theatre and began energetically to work upon the opera. Let two facts be instanced here to show how energetically and how painstakingly he labored. When he went into the country in the early summer, as was his custom, he carried with him 346 pages of sketches for the opera, sixteen staves on a page; and among these sketches were sixteen openings of Florestan’s great air, which may be said to mark the beginning of the dramatic action in the opera.
For the rest of the history of the opera I shall draw upon the preface to “Fidelio,” which I wrote some years ago for the vocal score in the Schirmer collection. The score was finished, including the orchestration, in the summer of 1805, and on Beethoven’s return to Vienna, rehearsals were begun. It was the beginning of a series of trials which made the opera a child of sorrow to the composer. The style of the music was new to the singers, and they pronounced it unsingable. They begged him to make changes, but Beethoven was adamant. The rehearsals became a grievous labor to all concerned. The production was set down for November 20, but when the momentous day came, it found Vienna occupied by the French troops, Bonaparte at Schonbrunn and the capital deserted by the Emperor, the nobility, and most of the wealthy patrons of art. The performance was a failure. Besides the French occupation, two things were recognized as militating against the opera’s success : the music was not to the taste of the people, and the work was too long.
Repetitions followed on November 21 and 22, but the first verdict was upheld.
Beethoven’s distress over the failure was scarcely greater than that of his friends, though he was, perhaps, less willing than they to recognize the causes that lay in the work itself. A meeting was promptly held in the house of Prince Lichnowsky and the opera taken in hand for revision. Number by number it was played on the pianoforte, sung, discussed. Beethoven opposed vehemently nearly every suggestion made by his well-meaning friends to remedy the defects of the book and score, but yielded at last And consented to the sacrifice of some of the music and a remodelling of the book for the sake of condensation, this part of the task being intrusted to Stephan von Breuning, who under-took to reduce the original three acts to two.’ When once Beethoven had been brought to give his con-sent to the proposed changes, he accepted the result with the greatest good humor; it should be noted, however, that when the opera was put upon the stage again, on March 29, 1806, he was so dilatory with his musical corrections that there was time for only one rehearsal with orchestra. In the curtailed form “Fidelio” (as the opera was called, though Beethoven had fought strenuously from the beginning for the retention of the original title, “Leonore”) made a distinctly better impression than it had four months before, and this grew deeper with the subsequent repetitions ; but Beethoven quarrelled with Baron von Braun, and the opera was with-drawn. An attempt was made to secure a production in Berlin, but it failed, and the fate of “Fidelio” seemed to be sealed. It was left to slumber for more than seven years ; then, in the spring of 1814, it was taken up again. Naturally, another revision was the first thing thought of, but this time the work was intrusted to a more practised writer than Beethoven’s childhood friend. Georg Friedrich Treitsehke was manager and librettist for Baron von Braun, and he became Beethoven’s collaborator. The revision of the book was completed by March, 1814, and Beethoven wrote to Treitschke : “I have read your revision of the opera with great satisfaction. It has decided me to re-build the desolate ruins of an ancient fortress.” Treitschke rewrote much of the libretto, and Beethoven made considerable changes in the music, restoring some of the pages that had been elided at the first overhauling. In its new form “Fidelio” was produced at the Theater am Kärnthnerthor on May 23, 1814. It was a successful reawakening. On July 18 the opera had a performance for Beethoven’s benefit; Moscheles made a pianoforte score under the direction of the composer, who dedicated it to his august pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, and it was published in August by Artaria.
The history of “Fidelio,” interesting as it is, need not be pursued here further than to chronicle its first performances in the English and American metropoles. London heard it first from Chelard’s German company at the King’s Theatre on May 18, 1832. It was first given in English at Covent Garden on June 12, 1835, with Malibran as Leonore, and in Italian at Her Majesty’s on May 20, 1851, when the dialogue was sung in recitative written by Balfe. There has scarcely ever been a German opera company in New York whose repertory did not include “Fidelio,” but the only performances for many years after it came were in English. A company of singers brought from England by Miss Inverarity to the Park Theatre produced it first on September 19, 1839. The parts were distributed as follows : Leonore, Mrs. Martyn (Miss Inverarity) ; Marcellina, Miss Poole ; Florestan, Mr. Manvers ; Pizarro, Mr. Giubilei ; and Rocco, Mr. Martyn. The opera was performed every night for a fortnight. Such a thing would be impossible now, but lest some one be tempted to rail against the decadent taste of to-day, let it quickly be recorded that somewhere in the opera I hope not in the dungeon scene Mme. Giubilei danced a pas de deux with Paul Taglioni.
Beethoven composed four overtures for “Fidelio,” but a description of them will best follow comment on the drama and its music. Some two years be-fore the incident which marks the beginning of the action, Don Pizarro, governor of a state prison in Spain, not far from Seville, has secretly seized Florestan, a political opponent, whose fearless honesty threatened to frustrate his wicked designs, and immured him in a subterranean cell in the prison. His- presence there is known only to Pizarro and the jailer Rocco, who, however, knows neither the name nor the rank of the man whom, under strict command, he keeps in fetters and chained to a stone in the dimly lighted dungeon, which he alone is permitted to visit. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, suspecting the truth, has disguised herself in man’s attire and, under the name of Fidelio, secured employment in the prison. To win the confidence of Rocco, she has displayed so much zeal and industry in his interests that the old man, whose one weakness is a too great love of money, gives the supposed youth a full measure of admiration and affection. Fidelio’s beauty and gentleness have worked havoc with the heart of Marcellina, the jailer’s pretty daughter, who is disposed to cast off Jaquino, the turnkey, upon whose suit she had smiled till her love for Fidelio came between. Rocco looks with auspicious eye upon the prospect of having so industrious and thrifty a son-in-law as Fidelio promises to be to comfort his old age. The action now begins in the courtyard of the prison, where, before the jailer’s lodge, Marcellina is performing her household duties ironing the linen, to be specific. Jaquino, who has been watching for an opportunity to speak to her alone (no doubt alarmed at the new posture which his love affair is assuming), resolves to ask her to marry him. The duet, quite in the Mozartian vein, breathes simplicity through-out ; plain people, with plain manners, these, who express simple thoughts in simple language.
But Marcellina affects to be annoyed and urges him to come to the point at once. Quite delicious is the manner in which Beethoven delineates Jaquino’s timid hesitation.
Jaquino’s wooing is interrupted by a knocking at the door (realistically reproduced in the music) and when he goes to open the wicket, Marcellina expresses no sympathy for his sufferings, but ecstatically proclaims her love for Fidelio as the reason why she must needs say nay. And this she does, not amiably or sympathetically, but pettishly and with an impatient reiteration of “No, no, no, no !” in which the bassoon drolly supports her. A second knocking at the door, then a third, and finally she is relieved of her tormentor by Rocco, who calls him out into the garden. Left alone, Marcellina sings her longing for Fidelio and pictures the domestic bliss which shall follow her union with him. Rocco and Jaquino enter, and close after them Leonore, wearied by the weight of some chains which she had carried to the smith for repairs. She renders an account for purchases of supplies, and her thrift rejoices the heart of Rocco, who praises her zeal in his behalf and promises her a reward. Her reply, that she does not do her duty merely for the sake of wage, he interprets as an allusion to love for his daughter. The four now give expression to their thoughts and emotions. Marcellina indulges her day-dream of love; Leonore reflects upon the dangerous position in which her disguise has placed her; Jaquino observes with trepidation the disposition of Rocco to bring about a marriage between his daughter and Fidelio. Varied and contrasting emotions, these, yet Beethoven has cast their expression in the mould of a canon built on the following melody, which is sung in turn by each of the four personages.
From a strictly musical point of view the fundamental mood of the four personages has thus the same expression, and this Beethoven justifies by making the original utterance profoundly contemplative, not only by the beautiful subject of the canon, but by the exalted instrumental introduction – one of those uplifting, spiritualized slow movements which are typical of the composer. This feeling he enhances by his orchestration violas and violoncellos divided, and bassesin a way copying the solemn color with more simple means which Mozart uses in his invocation of the Egyptian deities in “The Magic Flute.” Having thus established this fundamental mood, he gives liberty of individual utterance in the counterpoint melodies with which each personage embroiders the original theme when sung by the others. Neither Rocco nor Marcellina seems to think it necessary to consult Leonore in the matter, taking her acquiescence for granted. Between themselves they arrange that the wedding shall take place when next Pizarro makes his monthly visit to Seville to give an account of his stewardship, and the jailer admonishes the youthful pair to put money in their purses in a song of little distinction, but containing some delineative music in the orchestra suggesting the rolling and jingling of coins. Having been made seemingly to agree to the way of the maid and her father, Leonore seeks now to turn it to the advantage of her mission. She asks and obtains the jailer’s permission to visit with him the cells in which political prisoners are kept all but one, in which is confined one who is either a great criminal or a man with powerful enemies (“much the same thing,” comments Rocco). Of him even the jailer knows nothing, having resolutely declined to hear his story. However, his sufferings cannot last much longer, for by Pizarro’s orders his rations are being reduced daily ; he has been all but deprived of light, and even the straw which had served as a couch has been taken from him. And how long has he been imprisoned? Over two years. “Two years !” Leonore almost loses control of her feelings. Now she urges that she must help the jailer wait upon him. “I have strength and courage.” The old man is won over. He will ask the governor for permission to take Fidelio with him to the secret cells, for he is growing old, and death will soon claim him. The dramatic nerve has been touched with the first allusion to the mysterious prisoner who is being slowly tortured to death, and it is thrilling to note how Beethoven’s genius (so often said to be purely epical) responds. In the trio which follows, the dialogue which has been outlined first intones a motif which speaks merely of complacency. No sooner does it reach the lips of Leo-more, however, than it becomes the utterance of proud resolve : and out of it grows a hymn of heroic daring. Marcellina’s utterances are all concerned with herself, with an admixture of solicitude for her father, whose lugubrious reflections on his own impending dissolution are gloomily echoed in the music.
A march accompanies the entrance of Pizarro. Pizarro receives his despatches from Rocco, and from one of the letters learns that the Minister of Justice, having been informed that several victims of arbitrary power are confined in the prisons of which he is governor, is about to set out upon a tour of inspection. Such a visit might disclose the wrong done to Flores-tan, who is the Minister’s friend and believed by him to be dead, and Pizarro resolves to shield him-self against the consequences of such a discovery by compassing his death. He publishes his resolution in a furious air, “Ha ! welch’ ein Augenblick !” in which he gloats over the culmination of his revenge upon his ancient enemy. It is a terrible outpouring of bloodthirsty rage, and I have yet to hear the singer who can cope with its awful accents. Here, surely, Beethoven asks more of the human voice than it is capable of giving. Quick action is necessary. The officer of the guard is ordered to post a trumpeter in the watch-tower, with instructions to give a signal the moment a carriage with outriders is seen approaching from Seville. Rocco is summoned, and Pizarro, praising his courage and fidelity to duty, gives him a purse as earnest of riches which are to follow obedience. The old man is ready enough until he learns that what is expected of him is whereupon he revolts, nor is he moved by Pizarro’s argument that the deed is demanded by the welfare of the state. Foiled in his plan of hiring an assassin, Pizarro announces that he will deal the blow himself, and commands that a disused cistern be opened to receive the corpse of his victim. The duet which is concerned with these transactions is full of striking effects. The orchestra accompanies Rocco’s description of the victim as “one who scarcely lives, but seems to float like a shadow” with chords which spread a cold, cadaverous sheen over the words, while the declamation of “A blow !and he is dumb,” makes illustrative pantomime unnecessary.
Leonore has overheard all, and rushes forward on the departure of the men to express her horror at the wicked plot, and proclaim her trust in the guidance and help of love as well as her courageous resolve to follow its impulses and achieve the rescue of the doomed man. The scene and air in which she does this (” Abscheulicher ! wo eilst du hin ? “) is now a favorite concert-piece of all dramatic singers; but when it was written its difficulties seemed appalling to Fraulein Milder (afterward the famous Frau Milder-Hauptmann), who, was the original Leonore. A few years before Haydn had said to her, “My dear child, you have a voice as big as a house,” and a few years later she made some of her finest successes with the part; but in the rehearsals she quarrelled violently with Beethoven because of the unsingableness of passages in the Adagio, of which, no doubt, this was one and when called upon, in 1814, to re-create the part which had been written expressly for her, she re-fused until Beethoven had consented to modify it. Everything is marvellous in the scena the mild glow of orchestral color delineating the bow of promise in the recitative, the heart-searching, transfigurating, prayerful loveliness of the slow melody, the obbligato horn parts, the sweep of the final Allegro, all stand apart in operatic literature.
At Leonore’s request, and presuming upon the request which Pizarro had made of him, Rocco permits the prisoners whose cells are above ground to enjoy the light and air of the garden, defending his action later, when taken to task by Pizarro, on the plea that he was obeying established custom in allowing the prisoners a bit of liberty on the name-day of the king. In an undertone he begs his master to save his anger for the man who is doomed to die. Meanwhile Leonore convinces herself that her husband is not among the prisoners who are enjoying the brief respite, and is overjoyed to learn that she is to accompany Rocco that very day to the mysterious subterranean dungeon. With the return of the prisoners to their cells, the first act ends.
An instrumental introduction ushers in the second act. It is a musical delineation of Florestan’s surroundings, sufferings, and mental anguish. The darkness is rent by shrieks of pain ; harsh, hollow, and threatening sound the throbs of the kettle-drums. The parting of the curtain discloses the prisoner chained to his rocky couch. He declaims against the gloom, the silence, the deathly void surrounding him, but comforts himself with the thought that his sufferings are but the undeserved punishment inflicted by an enemy for righteous duty done. The melody of the slow part of his air; which begins thus, will find mention again when the overtures come under discussion. His sufferings have overheated his fancy, and, borne upon cool and roseate breezes, he sees a vision of his wife, Leonore, come to comfort and rescue him. His exaltation reaches a frenzy which leaves him sunk in exhaustion on his couch. Rocco and Leonore come to dig his grave. Melodramatic music accompanies their preparation, and their conversation while at work forms a duet. Sustained trombone tones spread a portentous atmosphere, and a contra-bassoon adds weight and solemnity to the motif which describes the labor of digging.
They have stopped to rest and refresh themselves, when Florestan becomes conscious and addresses Rocco. Leonore recognizes his voice as that of her husband, and when he pleads for a drink of water, she gives him, with Rocco’s permission, the wine left in her pitcher, then a bit of bread. A world of pathos informs his song of gratitude.
Facsimile of Beethoven’s Ms. Beginning of the Trio in the Dungeon Scene of ” Fidelio.” Pizarro comes to commit the murder, but first he commands that the boy be sent away, and confesses his purpose to make way with both Fidelio and Rocco when once the deed is done. He cannot resist the temptation to disclose his identity to Florestan, who, though released from the stone, is still fettered. The latter confronts death calmly, but as Pizarro is about to plunge the dagger into his breast, Leonore (who had concealed herself in the darkness) throws herself as a protecting shield before him. Pizarro, taken aback for a moment, now attempts to thrust Leonore aside, but is again made to pause by her cry, “First kill his wife !” Consternation and amazement seize all and speak out of their ejaculations. Determined to kill both husband and wife, Pizarro rushes forward again, only to see a pistol thrust into his face, hear a shriek, “Another word, and you are dead !” and immediately after the trumpet signal which, by his own command, announces the coming of the Minister of Justice.
Pizarro is escorted out of the dungeon by Rocco and attendants with torches, and the reunited lovers are left to themselves and their frenetic rejoicings. Surrounded by his guard, the populace attracted by his coming, and the prisoners into whose condition he had come to inquire, Don Fernando metes out punishment to the wicked Pizarro, welcomes his old friend back to liberty and honor, and bids Leonore remove his fetters as the only person worthy of such a task. The populace hymn wifely love and fidelity.
Mention has been made of the fact that Beethoven wrote four overtures for his opera. Three of these are known as Overtures “Leonore No. 1,” “Leonore No. 2,” and “Leonore No. 3” “Leonore” being the title by which the opera was known at the unfortunate first performance. The composer was never contented with the change to ” Fidelio ” which was made, because of the identity of the story with the “Leonore” operas, of Gaveaux and Paer. Much confusion has existed in the books (and still exists, for that matter) touching the order in which the four overtures were composed. The early biographers were mistaken on that point, and the blunder was perpetuated by the numbering when the scores were published. The true “Leonore No. 1” is the overture known in the concert-room, where it is occasionally heard, as “Leonore No. 2.” This was the original overture to the opera, and was performed at the three representations in 1805. The overture called “Leonore No. 3” was the result of the revision undertaken by Beethoven and his friends after the failure. In May, 1807, the German opera at Prague was established and “Fidelio” selected as one of the works to be given. Evidently Beethoven was dissatisfied both with the original overture and its revision, for he wrote a new one, in which he retained the theme from Florestan’s air, but none of the other themes used in Nos. 2 and 3. The performances at Prague did not take place, and nobody knows what became of the autograph score of the overture. When Beethoven’s effects were sold at auction after his death, Tobias Haslinger bought a parcel of dances and other things in manuscript. Among them were a score and parts of an overture in C, not in Beethoven’s handwriting, but containing corrections made by him. It bore no date, and on a violin part Beethoven had written first “Overtura, Violino Imo.” Later he had added words in red crayon to make it read, ” Overtura in C, charakteristische Overture, Violino Imo.” On February 7, 1828, the composition was played at a concert in Vienna, but notwithstanding the reminiscence of Florestan’s air, it does not seem to have been associated with the opera, either by Haslinger or the critics. Before 1832, when Haslinger published the overture as Op. 138, how-ever, it had been identified, and, not unnaturally, the conclusion was jumped at that it was the original overture. That known as “Leonore No. 2” having been withdrawn for revision by Beethoven himself, was not heard of till 1840, when it was performed at a Gewandhaus concert in Leipsic. For the revival of the opera in 1814 Beethoven composed the overture in E major, now called the “Fidelio”
overture, and generally played as an introduction to the opera, the much greater “Leonore No. 3” being played either between the acts, or, as by Mahler in New York and Vienna, between the two scenes of the second act, where it may be said it distinctly has the effect of an anticlimax. The thematic material of the “Leonore” overtures Nos. 2 and 3 being practically the same, careless listeners may easily confound one with the other. Nevertheless, the differences between the two works are many and great, and a deep insight into the workings of Beethoven’s mind would be vouchsafed students if they were brought into juxtaposition in the concert-room. The reason commonly given for the revision of No. 2 (the real No. 1) is that at the performance it was found that some of the passages for wind instruments troubled the players; but among the changes made by Beethoven, all of which tend to heighten the intensity of the overture which presents the drama in nuce, may be mentioned the elision of a recurrence to material drawn from his principal theme between the two trumpet-calls, and the abridgment of the development or free fantasia portion. Finally, it may be stated that though the “Fidelio” overture was written for the revival of 1814, it was not heard at the first performance in that year. It was not ready, and the overture to “The Ruins of Athens” was played in its stead.