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RIFFS, Rants, Raves, Reflections

Playing Favorites With Beethoven


You won't hear my favorite Beethoven work next week when the Philharmonic Society's yearlong Beethoven festival crescendos. (All nine symphonies and the "Leonore Overture No. 2" will be performed by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique led by John Eliot Gardiner at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.)

Don't get me wrong. I love the nine symphonies and that overture as much as anyone. The symphoniesy especially are the bedrock of the repertory. They teach the possibilities of the form, and they range from the tender to the sublime, from the calm to the tempestuous.

From a cultural literacy standpoint, you need to know them just as you need to know Shakespeare's most important comedies and tragedies.

But minute for minute, measure for measure, I don't think anything Beethoven wrote compares with the "Leonore Overture No. 3." in the scope and power of its dramatic impact. I'll go further to say I don't think any music compares with it on that basis.

Extreme? Probably.

But listen to what former New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter wrote in program notes for an Angel recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Otto Klemperer:

"In relation to the length of time it takes (and some would even omit this qualification), Leonore No. 3 is the most overwhelming of all orchestral compositions. The trumpet call, when it arrives, is indeed distant , but . . . [like Gabriel's final trumpet call on the day of judgment] announcing as if to all mankind the end of tyranny."

Or what Donald Francis Tovey said more succinctly in his irreplaceable program notes (collected and reprinted by Oxford University Press; 1989):

The overture "is about 10 times as dramatic as anything that could possibly be put on the stage."

Tovey devoted about 14 pages to discussing the four "Leonore" overtures, giving numerous musical examples to show, among other things, the differences between Nos. 2 and 3.

Why are there numbers in the titles, anyway?

The answer is a bit complicated. Beethoven wrote one opera, which we know as "Fidelio" but which he first called "Leonore" when it premiered in Vienna in 1805.

Leonore, the heroine, disguises herself as a man (Fidelio) in order to search for her husband, Florestan, who has been unjustly imprisoned for his political beliefs. Eventually, she rescues him. Evil is defeated; justice triumphs.

Beethoven wrote just this one opera. But he wrote four overtures for it.

"Leonore No. 2" was probably the first. It was certainly the one played at the Vienna premiere.

"Leonore No. 3" was the second. He wrote it when he revived the opera a year later. Both are related in musical material, but No. 3 throws out hundreds of measures to tighten the music to a blazing intensity.

Beethoven "has struck out his finest passages because he needs room to develop something finer," wrote Tovey.

"Leonore No. 1," made up of entirely different material, was the third overture, composed for a performance in Prague in 1807 that never materialized.


It gets worse.

Beethoven thoroughly revised the opera in 1814. It hadn't been a success earlier and he agreed to rework it considerably. He also changed the title to "Fidelio" and wrote yet another overture with entirely different material. That's the "Fidelio" Overture we hear today before the curtain goes up.

Unable to let No. 3 disappear from the opera house, however, Gustav Mahler began the tradition of inserting "Leonore No. 3" between the two scenes of the final act.

Poor Mahler has come under abuse for doing this. But I sympathize. This music cannot be heard too often.

I had fallen under the spell of the overture long before I heard or saw the opera.

In fact, I first experienced "Fidelio" as an adolescent, but not in an opera house or through recordings. I saw a television program (I think it was a Project XX show; any other quinquagenarians out there to help?) that depicted the rise and fall of Hitler and Nazi Germany by juxtaposing historical newsreel footage with snippets of scenes from a performance of Beethoven's opera.

The parallels were eerie. The music sounded appropriate. Even now, I wonder what other music could have fit so well.

It may be unreasonable to expect all of his music to be played in a so-called festival year, but you would think that one of his greatest compositions by anyone's standards would be performed.

So far, it hasn't been presented at all this year in Orange County, at least by any major orchestra. Comb through back issues of this newspaper and you'll find it hasn't been played here since 1995 when Gisele Ben-Dor led the Pacific Symphony in a summer concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

It's not on anyone's schedule for next year either.

So, while we can all enjoy Gardiner's salute to the symphonies, let's consider reinstating one of the gems of Beethoven's canon; bring back "Leonore Overture No. 3"--it's been way too long.

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