Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

What Did Fidelio Mean to Beethoven?

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

What Did Fidelio Mean to Beethoven?

Article excerpt

Leonore as a Mirror of Beethoven's Feelings in a Difficult Hour

"Die wirklich Schaffenden wissen, wie Vieles und Wesentliches ohne unser Wissen und Wollen einfach 'wird. '" ("The truly creative [persons] are aware of how many and essential [aspects of creation] simply 'become, ' without our knowledge or intention. ")

- Willy Hess,

Dos Fidelio Buch 2

"But noveh are never about what they are about; that is there is always deeper, or more general significance. The author may not be aware of this till she is pretty far along with it. A novel's whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme. If the writer is the last to identify the theme, probably we as readers don't consciously articuUte the theme we read either. When we are asked what a book is about, we tend to focus on some element of the plot, to say, 'It's about a woman who was or wasn't molested in a cave in India,' or 'an orphan who has to work as a governess in a wild, remote house. "

- Diane Johnson,

"Pesky Themes Will Emerge When You're Not Looking,"

The New York Times3

I. Introduction

Fidelio has generally been regarded as dealing with the themes of justice, hope, and marital devotion. It is often put into the same category with the Ninth Symphony as asserting the brotherhood of man. Idealized by the Western world as soon as he died, Beethoven was given a hero's funeral, including a famous oration by Franz Grillparzer, that was on an unprecedented scale for a musician in Vienna. In Germany he has been used as a symbol by groups covering the entire political spectrum from ultra-conservatives to Communists and very much including the National Socialists.5

Perhaps the nadir of this misuse of Beethoven as a political symbol occurred on March 27, 1938, when the Vienna Opera presented a special performance ?? Fidelio in honor of their guest, Hermann Goring, in his role as President of the German Republic, recently enlarged by the annexation of Austria. The Viennese edition of the Völkische Beobachter, the organ of the Nazi Party, reported that "Fidelio was a 'prophecy of the escape' of this southern portion of the German nation from incarceration by international powers; following the libretto one could 'relive the individual phases and the final victory of the National Socialist revolution' in Austria . . . the Vienna production was 'an uplifting festival of liberation, a religious service thanking the Creator for bestowing the Führers genius on this poor, small, tormented people.'"6 I have quoted this eminently forgettable piece of opportunistic journalism at length because its very exaggeration represents an instructive cartoon of what we have so often done in our attempts to idealize Beethoven and to use him as a justification for our political ideals.7

But what did Fidelio and its predecessor, ^nore, mean to Beethoven? Why did Beethoven, who reportedly had spent two weeks revising the text of Christ on the Mount of Olivet - generally considered one of Beethoven's weaker works9 - accept the libretto for Leonore without making any changes personally and, furthermore, abandon his work on the opera for which he had already written several numbers, Vestas Feuert10 Instead, he used some of the already composed music in Leonore. To the best of my knowledge, little is known about his reasons. This decision was made in 1804, long before Beethoven had to resort to communicating through conversation books. He seems not to have discussed this matter with any of the many people who left detailed personal accounts of their contacts with him, nor is it mentioned in his voluminous correspondence where other references to his opera projects, including Fidelio, are not uncommon.

It seems remarkable to me that it took Beethoven scholars 140 years before they really asked, much less answered, the question of what teonore I Fidelio meant to Beethoven beyond the superficial rationale that he wanted to try his hand at a musical genre that he had not yet mastered and that might supply him with great financial rewards from the opera-hungry Viennese public of the time. …

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