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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Friday, November 20

Beethoven, Bonaparte, and "Fidelio" in Vienna

Synopsis

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

Additional Information

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