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Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 2, 1934, Otto Klemperer conducting
Beethoven spent more time writing the overture to Fidelio than Rossini and Donizetti spent on entire operas, overtures included. But then Beethoven did write a total of four overtures to his only opera, which itself underwent several revisions.
To make a potentially interminable story short: Beethoven was dissatisfied for various reasons, practical and aesthetic, with the first three versions of the overture. All three are today referred to as “Leonore,” after the opera’s protagonist – and the working title of the first version (1805) of the opera itself – a woman who, disguised as a man, Fidelio, rescues her husband, Florestan, from political imprisonment and imminent death.
Leonore No. 1 was regarded by the composer as too slight to bear the burden of the drama that was to follow; No. 2, in his estimation, possessed the right ideas but too roughly worked-out; and No. 3 was too grand to be anything but self-sufficient. So Beethoven shelved them all and started from scratch to produce in 1814 what we know as the Fidelio Overture: a compact, energetic curtain-raiser that, unlike its three predecessors, avoids themes from the opera proper.
As far back as the early 1920s Arturo Toscanini was already a champion of the terse, until then rarely-encountered No. 1 (every conductor programmed the gigantic, symphonic No. 3 and the Fidelio Overture). No. 2, on the other hand, has had to wait until very recently, for the occasional revival of Leonore, i.e., the first version of Fidelio, to arouse more than passing interest. Like Leonore itself, the present overture doesn’t represent a final destination, but a way-station, although one decidedly worth visiting.
Leonore No. 2 is hugely dramatic, mirroring the intensity of the darkest events of the opera it was once intended to precede. It is largely derived from the scene that opens the second act in both versions of the opera: a depiction of Florestan’s dungeon, to which we are led via dark, descending octaves and dissonant harmonies. The theme of Florestan’s aria, “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” (In the springtime of my life), follows and serves as the springboard for a free-form tour of the opera’s action, capped by roughly the same tumultuous finale as that of No. 3.
— Herbert Glass