The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Fidelio

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FIDELIO, grand opera in two (originally three) acts by Ludwig von Beethoven (libretto adapted by Sonnleithner and Breuning from Bouillys' ‘Leonore ou l'Amore conjugale’), first produced at Vienna 20 Nov. 1805. The story of the fortunes and misfortunes of Beethoven's only work for the stage would fill a volume. After three poorly attended performances, it was withdrawn and in a revised and condensed form again brought forward the next year. A quarrel between composer and theatre manager cut short this production. It was then shelved for eight years when, again further revised, it was tried out a third time before the Viennese public and gradually made its way through the musical world. A prominent writer wrote that it was “quite devoid of music; one cannot understand why people take the trouble to weary themselves with it.” Beethoven's infinite capacity for taking pains is evidenced by the four overtures which he composed for ‘Fidelio.’ A still stronger confirmation appears in the sketch book which contains the material for the opera — a volume of 346 pages with 16 staves to the page — which shows no fewer than 18 distinct beginnings for Florestan's air “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” and 10 for one of the choruses. The plot, unlike most operatic texts of the day, dealt with one of the noblest of human emotions, conjugal devotion, which, impels Leonore at the risk of her life to seek service in disguise with Rocco, the jailor of her husband, Florestan, to defeat the attempt to kill him made by Pizzaro, the governor of the prison. At the critical moment a trumpet call announces the arrival of the minister who is Florestan's friend and the rescue is completed. Undeniably the book is loose-jointed and as a whole lacking in dramatic value. The music is without essential theatrical qualities, but it is deeply felt and epical in its conception, and ranks with the first masterpieces of composition. Yet it stands alone in the literature of stage music. It has had but little influence on theatrical works of succeeding generations and there is nothing else with which to compare it. As one writer has well expressed it, ‘Fidelio’ is a drama conceived and executed on symphonic lines. Dramatic moments there are — notably the dungeon scene with its stirring climax of the trumpet call — but speaking generally, it is not operatic music. The text and voice are not of first importance. The orchestra is the real protagonist, with its deeply expressive, emotional qualities developed as they never had been before. Every one of the separate musical numbers is important; but, if selection must be made there are the reposeful quartet in canon form, “Mir ist so Wunderbar,” Leonore's “Abscheulicher” aria, and the spiritually moving prisoners' chorus in the first act, and the duet, so expressive of ecstatic joy, “Oh, Namenlose Freude” of Leonore and Florestan in the second and the monumental overture usually played between the two acts. This overture called “Leonore No. 3,” is a favorite of orchestras and concertgoers the world over.

Lewis M. Isaacs.