Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then a sovereign electorate. His baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770, and he died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The Leonore Overture No. 3 is part of Beethoven’s first revision of his opera Fidelio and was first heard at the Theater an der Wien on March 29, 1806. The first known North American performance of this overture took place at the Tremont Temple, Boston, on December 7, 1850, with George J. Webb conducting the Musical Fund Society. Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance in March 1912. The most recent performances, given in September 2011, were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about fourteen minutes.

Beethoven’s love for opera was lifelong and not fairly requited. Scheme after scheme on subjects as diverse as Macbeth and the medieval French tale of the fairy Mélusine failed to come to fruition, and the success of the one opera he actually wrote, the work that began as Leonore and came finally to be called Fidelio, arrived slowly and late—and at the cost of immense pain. That Beethoven wrote four overtures for it over the course of a decade tells its own story. These four pieces embody three distinct concepts. Leonore No. 2 (1805) and Leonore No. 3 (1806) are variant executions of the same design, while the Fidelio Overture (1814) is the most different of the bunch. Leonore No. 3 is the most popular as a concert piece.

This is the story of Fidelio: A man called Florestan has been spirited away to prison by a right-wing politician named Don Pizarro. Florestan’s whereabouts are not known, and his wife, Leonore, sets out to find him. To make her quest possible, she assumes male disguise and takes the name of Fidelio. She finds her husband and gets a job as assistant to the jailer. Meanwhile, Pizarro gets word of an impending inspection of the prison by a minister from the capital. The presence of the unjustly held Florestan is compromising to Pizarro, who therefore decides to kill him. At the moment of crisis, Leonore reveals her identity and a trumpeter on the prison tower signals the sighting of the minister’s carriage.

Leonore No. 3 tells this story. It traces the path from darkly troubled beginnings to an anticipation of the aria in which Florestan—chained, starved, deprived of light—recalls the happy springtime of his life; from there to music of fiery energy and action, interrupted by the trumpet signal (heard, as in the opera, from offstage); and finally to a symphony of victory. Leonore No. 3 is the distillation of the Fidelio idea. It is too strong a piece and too big, even too dramatic, to be an effective introduction for a stage action, something that Beethoven realized almost at once. It does, however, stand as one of the great emblems of the heroic Beethoven, a potent and controlled musical embodiment of a noble humanistic passion.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings:  Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  

Reading:  The New Grove Beethoven, by Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson (Norton)  |  Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer)  |  Life of Beethoven, by Alexander Wheelock Thayer, revised and updated by Elliot Forbes (Princeton)