Personalities | Ludwig van Beethoven | Early Romantic | Opera

1770–1827, German

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn to a musical family, on 16 December 1770. He started composing at the age of 11 and experienced opera from the inside when he joined the Bonn court orchestra as a viola player in 1789. His letters reveal that from his early years in Vienna, where he moved in 1792, he was eager to compose music for the stage. In the event, though, it was to be over a decade before he completed the first version of Fidelio.

An Aborted Roman Opera

In 1803, Beethoven got as far as writing the first scene of a grand opéra, Vestas Feuer, to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder (1751–1812), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756–91) collaborator on Die Zauberflöte (‘The Magic Flute’, 1791). But the project foundered on the incongruity between the ancient Roman setting and what the composer called ‘language and verses that could only have come out of the mouths of our Viennese apple-women’. Beethoven was, though, to rework a G major duet from the abandoned opera as the climactic love duet for Leonore and Florestan in Fidelio.

A True Story

Much more to Beethoven’s taste was Jean-Nicholas Bouilly’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugale (‘Leonore, or Conjugal love’), based on a true incident in the author’s native Tours. Beethoven came across this libretto at the end of 1803 and gave it to the Viennese court secretary Joseph Sonnleithner to rework in German. Fidelio – the title was changed, apparently against Beethoven’s wishes, to avoid confusion with operas by Pierre Gaveaux (1798) and Ferdinando Paer (1804) – finally saw the stage on 20 November 1805. It lasted for only three performances, partly because Beethoven’s supporters had fled Vienna as Napoleon’s troops advanced, and partly because it was deemed too repetitious and undramatic. Beethoven tightened the score for a revival in 1806, but this, too, failed. It was only in 1814, after wholesale revisions, that Fidelio finally triumphed.

Search for Libretti

In 1807, Beethoven had offered to compose an opera each year in exchange for a fixed income. He continued to cast around for suitable libretti, making sketches for an opera on a German adaptation of Macbeth (1808–11) and around 1823–24, he was seriously contemplating a ‘fairy-tale’ opera, Melusine, to a libretto by the Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer. But Fidelio remained Beethoven’s sole opera, and the work he cherished above all others, yet of which he said shortly before his death: ‘Of all my children, this is the one that caused me the most painful birth-pangs and the most sorrows.’


1805 Fidelio (rev. 1806; 1814)


1770 Ludwig van Beethoven born Bonn, Germany
1795 First public appearance in Vienna
1798 First signs of deafness appear
1803 Writes first scene of Vestas Feuer, but later abandons it; discovers the libretto that will later become Fidelio
1805 Fidelio (originally called Leonore) premieres in Vienna, but is withdrawn after three performances
1806 Beethoven revises Fidelio...

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