Overture: Fidelio, Ludwig van Beethoven arr Wenzel Sedlak (1776-1851)
Think of three names during this piece. The first name, of course, is Beethoven’s, with his passionate beliefs about freedom and liberty.
The fall of the notorious Paris prison the Bastille in 1789 became a symbol throughout Europe of the overthrow of tyranny and oppression, and a play Léonore, or conjugal love, written by Jean Nicholar Bouilly in 1794, at the height of the French Revolution, enacted mass delight at the ending of unjust imprisonment. Beethoven used the story as the basis of his opera Fidelio, but its first performance in 1805, when Vienna was occupied by French troops, was not a great success. By 1815, however, when Napoleon was finally defeated, the distinguished gathering of the crowned heads and prime ministers of Europe at the Congress of Vienna made a glittering audience for the only appropriate celebration of freedom: a performance of Fidelio.
The second name to think of is Napoleon’s, originally considered by Beethoven to be a hero. But by 1805, when Fidelio was first performed, Napoleon had had himself declared Emperor and Beethoven’s disillusionment—so Napoleon was only an ‘ordinary mortal’ on his way to being a tyrant—made him even more determined to continue his personal fight for freedom and equality: ‘Alle menschen werden Brüder’. Fidelio was an opera, therefore, that was not about personal courage and marital fidelity, but was a thrilling celebration of freedom and the downfall of tyranny.
The third name is probably unfamiliar but was a contemporary of Beethoven: Wenzel Sedlak, a court clarinettist for most of his adult life until 1835. He made a good living by transcribing operas, and the transcription he made of sections from Fidelio in 1815, approved by Beethoven himself, is considered to be his greatest achievement. The change from the rich sound of a large orchestra in full cry to the more intimate tone of a wind ensemble makes the music possibly less intense but more approachable; closer, it has been suggested, to the sounds of the human voice. See what you think, and also think kindly of a now forgotten musician who worked hard to make great music more easily available to the people.
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