About the Composer


Beethoven is one of the essentials. He looms over the world of classical music like Zeus atop Olympus. The great deaf composer not only embodied for the first time the modern concept of the "artist," he blessed mankind with a new musical language. Beethoven took music to new emotional extremes; he championed the artist as individual, writing music that dared to express the personal experience of its creator. His music spoke directly to his contemporaries and continues to speak directly to us today. If classical music is a religion, Beethoven's symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and quartets are its most sacred scriptures.

His life began in Bonn (modern-day Germany) in 1770, but his life as a musician really began when he moved to Vienna, in his early twenties. Vienna was the capital of the vast Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, and the most important city in central Europe. It was also the City of Musicians and was home to virtually all the great composers in the German tradition for over a hundred years. Beethoven had visited Vienna as a teenager and taken some lessons with Mozart; when he returned as a young man, Mozart was dead and Beethoven studied with other composers, including Antonio Salieri and Josef Haydn.

Beethoven's career is traditionally divided into three periods. His early period was mostly about learning the rules and forms of classical music, and getting established as a composer. In both endeavors, Haydn was of immense help. One of the great eighteenth-century composers, Haydn had been a servant in livery most of his life, writing vast amounts of music for his patrons and employers. He introduced Beethoven to the music-loving nobility of Vienna and taught him to compose in all the popular forms and to meet the Viennese public's insatiable demand for new music.

But Beethoven would never be anybody's servant in livery. Compare the outputs of mentor and apprentice: Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, Beethoven wrote nine. Haydn wrote 24 operas, Beethoven wrote one. Haydn wrote to meet external demands: if Count Esterházy was having a party Tuesday night, Haydn had to write a new symphony to entertain his guests. Beethoven, on the other hand, wrote to meet internal demands. He loved to take long walks in nature, and often came home with a new musical idea or two. He would then proceed to labor endlessly over them, writing and rewriting and re-rewriting until he had the piece exactly the way he wanted it. Because he was an astute businessman (as well as an entertainingly eccentric personality), he managed to make a comfortable living as a freelance composer and frequent guest of aristocratic patrons.

Beethoven started to go deaf during his so-called middle period. From this time (the first 15 or so years of the 19th century) dates much of his most popular music, pieces (such as the famous Fifth Symphony) both more refined and more forceful than much of what his contemporaries were writing. The masterpieces of his late period are the work of a man who was completely deaf. Isolated and lonely because of his deafness, Beethoven was somehow able to create out of it music of profound intimacy, so complex that some of it only begins to make sense after repeated hearings. He died at the age of 56.

Beethoven the Author

Best known as a writer of music, Beethoven wrote with words on three important occasions:

The Heiligenstadt Testament. Upon learning that he would go deaf and have to give up performing music, Beethoven wrote this moving letter to his brothers. In it, he speaks of his loneliness and despair, and how only the sense that he feels a responsibility to keep expressing himself in music prevents him from killing himself.

The Ninth Symphony Recitative. The final movement of Beethoven's final symphony is a setting of a poem by Schiller, the German Romantic. But Beethoven himself wrote the text of a recitative sung by the bass, who quiets the orchestra (which is noisily quoting the first part of the symphony) and introduces the famous tune of the "Ode to Joy" with the words: "My friends, enough of those sounds! Let us now make a more joyful music."

The Immortal Beloved. The day after Beethoven died, they found a ten-page love letter the bachelor had never mailed, addressed to "the Immortal Beloved." While no historian has conclusively proven who she was, there are about ten leading candidates, mostly beautiful music students and the charming wives and daughters of Viennese nobility.

Composing Fidelio

Revision was the key to Beethoven's genius. All his music went through multiple drafts, and his compositional sketches show how many of his greatest musical ideas began life as uninspired doodles. It took the composer a number of tries to get Fidelio right; in fact, Beethoven revised the aria for Florestan that opens the second act 18 times!

The opera itself exists in three complete versions, with four possible overtures. The first two overtures were written for the first version of the opera, which flopped at its first performance in 1805. Beethoven withdrew the opera, wrote a new overture (the "Leonore no. 3"), hired a new librettist, and reflowed the drama. While Beethoven had a sense of humor (witness his many scherzos), he was never particularly interested in comedy; he felt, for example, that the divine Mozart had squandered his gifts on vulgar farce with operas like The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. The revised Fidelio lost much of its humor, especially the comic highjinks of Jacquino and Marzelline, because Beethoven condensed the first two acts (about the domestic situation at the Rocco household) into one.

The revised version was performed the following year, but still the composer was unsatisfied. He withdrew the opera again, and seven years later took great pains to revise it thoroughly with a third librettist. This version opened with the overture known as the Fidelio overture. While opera companies almost invariably produce this final version of the opera (and open with its overture), you'll often hear the wonderful music of the other overtures. The magnificent "Leonore no. 3," in particular, used to be played during the scene change in the opera's second act. This custom, begun in Vienna by Gustav Mahler, has largely disappeared in the last decade or so, because the music of the Leonore no. 3 duplicates the music and action just heard. "Leonore no. 3," however, is frequently performed by symphonies around the world.

Beethoven's Greatest Hits

Symphonies: Beethoven may be most famous for his nine symphonies, which constitute the heart of the symphonic repertoire. The Fifth Symphony, with its familiar opening, may be the most famous of them all. Three of them have names (no. 3, the "Eroica"; no. 6, the "Pastoral"; and no. 9, the "Choral"), although they all have distinct characters. All nine reward repeated listening.

String Quartets: Beethoven's 16 string quartets take the form, as pioneered by Haydn and perfected by Mozart, to extraordinary new places. A good performance of any of them is an intense experience for both performers and audience.

Sonatas: Pianists everywhere live and breathe Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, which include popular favorites like the "Moonlight" and the "Waldstein" as well as many less familiar, but equally fascinating pieces. Beethoven also wrote a number of fine sonatas for small combinations of instruments, such as violin or cello and piano.

Concertos: The piano came into its modern shape during Beethoven's lifetime, and so his five piano concertos, like his piano sonatas, form the core of the solo piano repertoire. He also wrote a well-known violin concerto.

Beethoven's Politics

In his art and his thought, Beethoven championed the freedom of the individual. He lived through the American and French Revolutions and captured, in his music, the spirit of the age. All intellectual Europe grew excited about what was happening in France in the 1790s; Beethoven even dedicated his Third Symphony, the "Eroica," to Napoleon when it looked like the French general was going to promote French-style liberté, égalité, and fraternité around Europe. (A few years later, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor and became a tyrant like every other, Beethoven erased his name from the dedication!) The text of Beethoven's famous "Ode to Joy," the finale of the Ninth Symphony, is an uplifting poem by the German Romantic Schiller espousing liberty and the brotherhood of man.

The political message of Fidelio is obvious. The simple story of Leonore, or Conjugal Love had already given rise to operas in French and Italian before Beethoven wrote his first version. Many composers of the day were writing "rescue operas." Two great ones by Mozart are The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute. Fidelio differs from these in that Beethoven takes the rescue-plot extremely seriously, whereas many of these rescue operas are comic. In fact, Fidelio was so incendiary, the censors of a later Hapsburg administration would never have permitted it to be staged.

Classical and Romantic Opera

The most popular operas in the world today are operas written during what we call the "Romantic" period, the sequel to the so-called "Classical" period. The values of the Enlightenment-science, reason, and order; impulse and emotion tamed by intellect-were inverted to become the values of the 1800s: emotion broke free of rational bonds; industrializing, urbanizing Western man began to seek solace in untamable nature; and popular literature gloried in doom, gloom, and chaos. During both periods, opera dominated European culture. But today, audiences seem to prefer Romantic operas about uncontrollable passion, sex, vengeance, and death to Classical operas, which concern duty and justice and feature role models who struggle and eventually triumph. (Unhappy endings came in with the Romantics.)

Composers like Beethoven and Mozart straddle the gulf between Classical and Romantic. Although his training with Haydn was quintessentially Classical, Beethoven is usually considered a Romantic composer. Certainly, the overwhelming power of his music to celebrate and revel in emotion paved the way for the wild emotionalism of later Romantic music. Beethoven's music for Fidelio, like Mozart's for Don Giovanni, explored new ways of expressing emotion in music. No one had really heard music of such snarling hatred as Pizarro's, of such despair and emptiness as the imprisoned Florestan's, or of such love and courage as Leonore's before Fidelio. And yet the opera's plot, despite its revolutionary politics, is typically classical: idealized good people struggle and overcome an obstacle, assisted by a standard Enlightenment deus ex machina (a happy ending achieved through luck) at the end.

The Music of Fidelio

Fidelio is one of the earliest German operas, and it was written at a time when German opera was considered a lower form of art than lofty Italian opera. In fact, German operas of the day were called "singspiels," song-plays, and typically involved lots of spoken dialogue. You'll hear some spoken dialogue in Fidelio, and also some "melodrama," a musical form in which the singers speak while the orchestra is playing (melodrama = drama with melody). But you'll also hear all the standard opera forms: arias for Leonore, Florestan, Pizarro, and Rocco; duets, trios, and quartets; and several large ensembles.

The most famous piece of music in the opera is the moving "Prisoners' Chorus," sung by the other inmates of the prison when Rocco caves in to the demands of Fidelio and Marzelline and brings some of the prisoners upstairs for a glimpse of the sun and a walk around the yard. Beethoven's music graphically depicts leaving the cold, dark cells underground and slowly emerging into the blinding sunlight and fresh air.

Fidelio is Beethoven's only opera, and the demands it makes on its singers are extraordinary. The composer was accustomed to writing for piano or for orchestral instruments, and sometimes he seems to expect singers to be able to do anything a violin can do. Despite the extreme difficulty of this music, singers relish the challenge and audiences cherish the opera, which communicates Beethoven's message and can inspire us with hope and, perhaps, even courage.

Recommended Recordings

EMI / Conductor: Otto Klemperer
Leonore: Christa Ludwig
Florestan: Jon Vickers

Deutsche Grammaphone / Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Leonore: Gundala Janowitz
Florestan: René Kollo

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