Program Notes

Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a

BORN: Beethoven’s baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770. Bonn, then a sovereign electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: March 29, 1806. Theater an der Wien

US PREMIERE: December 7, 1850. George J. Webb and the Musical Fund Society, at the Tremont Temple, Boston

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—November 2016. MTT conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 14 mins

THE BACKSTORY  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.

THE MUSIC  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.

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

Online: Keeping Score: Beethoven’s Eroica, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingThe 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)

(January 2018)

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