Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827
“Of all my children, this is the one that caused me the worst birth pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow, and for that reason, it is the one most dear to me.” So wrote Beethoven about his only opera, Fidelio, originally entitled Leonore.
Presumably it was the libretto’s celebration of bravery, steadfast love and defiance of tyranny – ideals that Beethoven held dear – that drew him to it. It may be based on actual events from the “Reign of Terror” that followed the French Revolution (although the setting was changed to Spain). The faithful wife Leonore disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, and frees her husband, Florestan, who has been imprisoned unjustly.
The opera’s long, bumpy evolution resulted in Beethoven’s composing no less than four overtures to introduce it. The piece known as Leonore No. 2 was performed at the unsuccessful premiere in 1805. For the launch of a revised edition the following year, Beethoven replaced it with Leonore No. 3. For many years, it was believed that he had written the piece published as Leonore No. 1 before the premiere, but it appears likely that he composed it in 1807, for a proposed staging in Prague that never took place. For the debut of the final, revised version of the opera in 1814, he created the Fidelio Overture, the most concise of the four. Ever since, it has been used to introduce virtually every production.
The Leonore Overture No. 3 is based on the same themes as No. 2, but it treats them in even more concise and compelling fashion. Beethoven recognized that it carries such an overwhelming emotional impact that it went beyond its function to prepare an audience for the opera. The most appropriate place for it is the concert hall. There it is free to assume its true nature as a symphonic poem in tribute to the emotional concerns of the opera: love, freedom, and the unquenchable strength of the human spirit.