Composers Datebook

Beethoven, Bonaparte, and "Fidelio" in Vienna

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture and Prisoner's Chorus, from Fidelio Dresden Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips 438 496

Composers Datebook for November 20, 2020


November 20, 2020


On today’s date in 1805, Beethoven’s opera “Leonore” had its premiere at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, after many postponements due to getting the opera’s libretto approved by government censors and the orchestral parts copied in time. There was also the little matter of the Austrian capital being occupied by French troops as Napoleon was sweeping across Europe.

The cream of Viennese society had fled by the time Napoleon arrived, so the skimpy audience for the premiere performance of Beethoven’s opera included a good number of French soldiers. What they made of Beethoven’s opera, which tells the story of a woman rescuing her husband from a political prison, is anybody’s guess.

As usual, the Viennese critics were not impressed. One wrote, “There are no new ideas in the solos, and they are mostly too long. The choruses are ineffectual and one, which indicates the joy of prisoners over the sensation of fresh air, miscarries completely!”

After several revisions and the eventual departure of the French, even the critics came to accept Beethoven’s opera– retitled “Fidelio”–and in particular the Prisoners’ Chorus, as one of Beethoven’s most moving creations.

Music Played in Today's Program

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture and Prisoner's Chorus, from Fidelio Dresden Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, cond. Philips 438 496

On This Day


  • 1873 - American composer Daniel Gregory Mason, in Brookline, Massachusetts;

  • 1942 - American composer and singer Meredith (Jane) Monk, in Lima, Peru;


  • 1518 - French-Flemish composer Pierre de la Rue, age ca. 66, in Courtrai (Kortrijk);

  • 1758 - Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman, age, near Kalmar;

  • 1894 - Russian composer Anton Rubinstein, age 64, in age 64; Peterhof (now Petrodvorets), near St. Petersburg (Julian date: Nov. 8);

  • 1927 - Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, age 56, in Stockholm;

  • 1950 - Italian opera composer Francesco Cilea, age 84, in d'Varazze, near Savona;


  • 1805 - Beethoven: opera "Fidelio" (1st version, with the "Leonore" Overture No. 2), in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien;

  • 1866 - Brahms: String Sextet in G, Op. 36, in Zürich, Swizterland (European premiere); The Brahms biographer and scholar Jan Swafford says the work's world premiere public performance occurred a few days earlier in Boston, at a concert by the Mendelssohn Quintet Club on November 11 that same year;

  • 1889 - Mahler: Symphony No. 1, by the Budapest Philharmonic, with the composer conducting;

  • 1891 - Loeffler: “Les Veilees d l’Ukraine” Suite, by the Boston Symphony, Arthur Nikisch conducting;

  • 1911 - Mahler: "Das Lied von der Erde"(posthumously) in Munich, conductor Bruno Walter;

  • 1925 - Copland: "Music for the Theatre," by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducting;

  • 1949 - Vaughan Williams: "An Oxford Elegy," in Dorking;

  • 1952 - Roy Harris: Symphony No. 7 (first version), by the Chicago Symphony, with Rafael Kubelik conducting;

  • 1964 - Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 9 and 10, in Moscow, by the Beethoven Quartet;

  • 1986 - Michael Torke: “Green,” by the Milwaukee Symphony, Lukas Foss conducting;

  • 1987 - John Harbison: String Quartet No. 2, at Jordan Hall in Boston, by the Emerson String Quartet;