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Thread: What made Beethoven dislike Fidelio so much?

          
   
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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    What made Beethoven dislike Fidelio so much?

    While we wait for our new member moore712 to report for duty, let me tell you all what he and I were discussing yesterday. I was mentioning to him how Beethoven was profoundly depressed after the première (on November 12, 1805) of his only opera Fidelio, to the point of staying slumped on his couch for days, barely speaking, and refusing to eat and drink. The maestro apparently considered his work to be an utter failure, in spite of reassurance to the contrary by his friends. The performance was coldly received by an audience of mostly French military officers who were occupying Vienna. Beethoven was mortified, and as you all know, kept revising the opera for several years - shortening it, changing the overture several times. Some biographers mention that he was so traumatized by the experience that he decided that he'd never touch the task of composing an opera again. One wonders how many spectacular operas we have missed for this reason.

    Yes, Fidelio does have some problems with theatricality, with its wildly different halves. Yes, it does sound like a symphony. But no, it's not bad as Beethoven had assumed. It is rather magnificent, especially when we consider that it was Beethoven's first attempt. We know that even Wagner, Mozart, and Verdi had some hiccups when they first started to compose opera. I particularly think that as far as first operas go, Fidelio is one of the best. Hell, it's one of the best, period.

    So, my personal friend moore712 who like I said is very interested in psychoanalysis, was wondering what kind of plot content or symbolic dead-end Beethoven expressed in his opera, to get him to have such a negative relationship with this work. Did he put into it something that he later couldn't deal with? There are several very emotionally intense parts in Fidelio. And it all gets to end in a hymn to marital bliss.

    Remember, this was 1805. Beethoven was reeling from this disappointing relationship with Julie Guicciardi (his muse for the Moonlight Sonata, whom he felt he couldn't marry because she, a Countess, was of a higher class than his. She ended up marrying someone else in 1803. Then Beethoven fell in love with Josephine Deym, whose husband died in 1804. In spite of their mutual love, her family steered her into leaving him in 1807, again because he was a commoner and she was afraid she would lose the custody of her child if she stayed with him. She then married a Baron, in 1810. Well, it turns out that Beethoven fell in love with still a third lady, Therese Malfatti, to whom he dedicated Für Elise. Poor Beethoven's plans were once more thwarted by the fact that he was of low birth.

    During all this, Beethoven struggled with his opera with consecutive revisions until 1814. He famously wrote to his friend Treitschke: "I assure you, dear Treitschke, that this opera will win me a martyr's crown."

    OK, so, Beethoven lovers and biographers out there, what can we take from the plot of Fidelio and from the composer's personal circumstances to understand from the psychodynamic perspective, his strong negative fixation onto this object of his creation?

    The microphone is open.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); December 8th, 2011 at 05:09 AM.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    An intriguing question. I'm not a Fidelio expert by any means, and I won't try to offer any new insights into the composer's biography or the specifics of the plot. But it does strike me as ironic that in his one "dead-end" opera, Beethoven should have been so preoccupied with beginnings--writing four different versions of the overture. Granted, this revision was done over a period of years to accommodate different productions, and probably in conjunction with changes to the rest of the piece as well. Still, it's striking that a symphonic genius such as Beethoven should have been that uncertain about the most prominent purely musical part of his opera.

    Of course, Beethoven was always his own worst critic, continually struggling to fashion even his greatest works (no Mozartean facility for *him*). But even allowing for his usual compositional struggles, it’s intriguing to consider the specific problem he encountered with Fidelio. The original Leonore overtures, particularly the great #3, were simply too dramatic and powerful for the light comic opening scenes that followed.

    In a larger sense, this conflict may indicate something fundamental about Beethoven's character. Always aloof and anti-social, perhaps music expressed his deeper impulses in a more passionate, direct way than he could find outlet for in any other avenue. As abrupt as he was in life, impatient with social customs and formalities, perhaps his need to tone down his overture bespeaks a similar impatience with the slow-moving conventions of an unfolding narrative. If drama reveals passion through the surface medium of human behavior, music evokes that passion in a much more direct, unfiltered way. Perhaps Beethoven could only fully comprehend the world--and express his response to it--in such immediate, elemental terms.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Interesting, Amfortas, especially when we think that the overture and the finale are on opposite ends of the piece, and maybe Beethoven focused on the overture so much because he didn't really want to think of the marital bliss expressed by the finale. In psychoanalysis there is a concept called screen memory when someone uses a less painful memory as a screen to hide a more painful one.

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    Moore712 is reporting to duty but needs to do some homework before responding.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by moore712 View Post
    Moore712 is reporting to duty but needs to do some homework before responding.
    Heeeyyy!! Welcome aboard, buddy! (to others: moore712 is a real-life personal friend of mine - so glad to have him here!)
    Get your lovely wife to join as well so that she keeps company to CountessAlmaviva!

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    Banned Top Contributor Member
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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    (to others: moore712 is a real-life personal friend of mine
    Great, do you know Melvin1982 too?

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    Junior Member Newcomer NightHawk's Avatar
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    I feel that Beethoven's struggle with opera may have issued from his tremendous gift and concern for form and organic development. The plot of an opera, unless hand-tailored by the composer, seems constantly to be forcing musical content (or lack) that interrupts the forward flow. Fidelio, with its spoken dialogue, would exacerbate the stop/start clumsiness he must have felt as regards the total musical work.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Valid points, NightHawk, but wasn't his reaction a bit extreme if his only concern was the music? I'm no authority in his biography, but I wonder if the topic of the work didn't play a role in his dislike, given his personal circumstances.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Top Contributor Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Beethoven's music was purely instrumental in idiom and his vocal music was often the case too, from dramatic ones to religious pieces. (Sort of like the converse where many opera composers whose instrumental music were vocal in idiom). Maybe Beethoven had a harder time expressing the characterisation of his opera's characters. A composer who excelled in instrumental composition often thought about musical problems that way. You often notice an opera composer who was a composer of the voice by vocation attacking musical problems quite differently to an instrumental one. (There were of course exceptions, like Mozart who was capable of both and even when Mozart was at the height of his operatic creativity, his instrumental masterpieces of the same period showed operatic tendencies, even in his symphonies and piano concertos, for example).

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HarpsichordConcerto View Post
    Beethoven's music was purely instrumental in idiom and his vocal music was often the case too, from dramatic ones to religious pieces. (Sort of like the converse where many opera composers whose instrumental music were vocal in idiom). Maybe Beethoven had a harder time expressing the characterisation of his opera's characters. A composer who excelled in instrumental composition often thought about musical problems that way. You often notice an opera composer who was a composer of the voice by vocation attacking musical problems quite differently to an instrumental one. (There were of course exceptions, like Mozart who was capable of both and even when Mozart was at the height of his operatic creativity, his instrumental masterpieces of the same period showed operatic tendencies, even in his symphonies and piano concertos, for example).
    That's interesting, HC. Even though it may be a bit off-topic in this thread, would you be able to point to examples of instrumental works by Mozart that have operatic tendencies, and where you see those tendencies inside the piece? I think we can afford a bit of parallel discussion in this thread unless it becomes really dominant in which case we should start a different thread for this in the Non-Operatic Classical Music section.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Top Contributor Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    That's interesting, HC. Even though it may be a bit off-topic in this thread, would you be able to point to examples of instrumental works by Mozart that have operatic tendencies, and where you see those tendencies inside the piece? I think we can afford a bit of parallel discussion in this thread unless it becomes really dominant in which case we should start a different thread for this in the Non-Operatic Classical Music section.
    A good example is the 3rd/final movement of his piano concerto #22 K482. The finale is interrupted by a lengthy and slow minuet episode before returning to the main theme for a lively finish. This clearly recalled the Count Almaviva's adagio pleadings for forgiveness leading to a buffa conclusion in Le Nozze di Figaro, which he was working on at about the same time. In this version that I randomly picked (which was used for the movie Amadeus), the Figaro-like theme and lengthy slow minute episode starts at about 4:00 and movingly continues for another three minutes or so. In anycase, the whole movement strikes me as operatic, and in this movement you can explicitly hear Mozart quote his own opera! (There were two genres that Mozart poured his genius into wholeheartedly and consistently - opera and the piano concerto).


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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    I'm not certain that Beethoven's problem was with Fidelio specifically, but with opera in general. Prior to selecting Sonnleithner's translation of Bouilly's play as the subject matter for his opera, Beethoven had started work on a different piece, Vestas Feuer, for the Theater an der Wien, but then abandoned it.

    Certainly, Beethoven's experience with his only complete opera was more than usually frustrating. The theater management made him change the title from his preferred Leonore to Fidelio to avoid confusion with Ferdinando Paer's Leonora, also based on Bouilly's play, which had premiered in Dresden the previous year. There were also apparently some (unspecified) issues with the censors before the curtain ever went up. Then there was the less-than-enthusiastic audience at the 1805 premiere, followed by two performances before empty houses, which made Beethoven temporarily abandon the opera. In addition to problems with the tenor who sang Florestan, Beethoven supposedly also had a spat with Anna Milder, his Leonore. She is supposed to have told him that his music was unsingable, whereupon he made some uncomplimentary remarks about her, and the battle was on. The two subsequently patched things up and she again sang the title role at the 1806 and 1814 premieres of the opera's second and final versions.

    It's also interesting to note that, in an 1814 letter to Milder, Beethoven even made reference to writing another opera worthy of her!

    I do think Beethoven had an idealized conception of "womanhood," and the character of Leonore represents an ideal. He also had a habit of falling in love with women who, for one reason or another, were unattainable. Was this perhaps a deliberate -- though unconscious -- choice? Did he consider himself somehow unworthy of his ideal?

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    I saw a presentation on Beethoven's tortured mind and his music, by Dr. Richard Kogan, a psychiatrist and pianist. The lecture was illustrated by Dr. Kogan playing three of Beethoven's piano pieces. It was excellent. I asked Dr. Kogan to join us here and give us his opinions on Fidelio. I think that chances that he'll actually do it are slim, but if he does, I'd be very curious to learn his opinion on the issue we've been preliminarily debating here.

    Dr. Kogan has this DVD, which unfortunately is unavailable at Amazon.com:

    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Senior Member Involved Member jflatter's Avatar
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    I love Beethoven but I honestly feel that Fidelio is no great work. I don't think I am alone in thinking that and wonder whether it would stay in the repertory if it was written by some less well known. Of course I know that there are a lot of people who think it is sublime.

    So I feel that he was in many ways his best critic.

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    This is odd, because I've never heard any stories about Beethoven disliking Fidelio . On the contrary , from everything I've heard , he actually had a very soft spot in his heart for it. The composition of the opera gave him a great deal of difficulty , and it took repeated revisions for him to put it in definitive form .
    There have been a few recordings of the earlier versions,called Leonore , conducted by Herbert Blomsted in his only opera recording so far (it's not likely there will be more at his advanced age ,84), with Edda Moser as Fidelio, and John Eliot Gardiner on DG Archiv with his period instrument orchestra, the ORR , and Michel Soustrot and the Bonn Beethovenhalle orchestra. I've heard the Blomstedt and Gardiner recordings, and the differences are fascinating .

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