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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
EMI / Conductor: Otto Klemperer
Leonore: Christa Ludwig
Florestan: Jon Vickers
Deutsche Grammaphone / Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Leonore: Gundala Janowitz
Florestan: René Kollo