Friday, February 03, 2006

Beethoven on Justice, Human and Divine

In the year of the premier of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Beethoven was sixteen years old. The innovator who took classic musical forms into new territory only wrote one opera, and it has been eclipsed by the brilliance of his nine symphonies. In contemporary productions the opera is known as Fidelio, after the pseudonym of the courageous wife of Florestan who is a political prisoner under a corrupt administration. It can be seen as visionary art on Schiller's model wherein art leads in the creation of a civic religion undergirding human rights and freedom. Leonora finds a way to subvert Governor Pizarro’s intent to murder her husband, whom Pizarro has unjustly imprisoned. Like Mozart, Beethoven lived during the birth of the modern era. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Eroica, was originally dedicated to Napoleon before the general, on the success of his wars of liberation, became a tyrant himself. Beethoven then withdrew the original dedication of his music.

The subject of Beethoven’s opera was derived from a play by Bouilly called Leonore, or, Conjugal Love. The opera was first performed in Vienna on November 20, 1805. The vocal parts are so difficult that the first cast complained they were impossible to sing. The city of Vienna was in disarray because the French had occupied it several days before the premier, and most of the city’s music patrons had fled. The plot of the opera turns on the rectification of injustice by a noble woman who disguises herself as a boy called Fidelio. She gains employment in the prison where her husband Florestan is incarcerated and held in solitary confinement. Under threat of the impending visit of a prison inspector who might discover Pizarro’s plot, Pizarro tries to persuade the warden Rocco to murder Florestan. Rocco refuses but agrees to dig his grave if Pizarro will commit the crime.

Leonora overhears the rudiments of the plot and suspects that her husband is the intended victim. Her plight is made clear in the aria she sings after Pizarro and Rocco exit. Pizzaro’s fury is incomprehensible to her, but she clings to transcendent hope beyond the darkening clouds.

Come to me, hope, let not the last star
That guides the weary fade from sight
Be it ever so far, light my goal,
Sweet love, that I may reach it

I follow my inner desire
I waver not
I am strengthened by the duty
Of true married love

To make sure married love is understood for the courage and vigor it inspires in Leonora, Beethoven repeats and extends the phrase and the word Gattenliebe through the final thirty two bars of the aria.

Ich folg dem innern Triebe
Ich wanke nicht
Mich stärke die Pflicht
Der treuen Gattenliebe

Leonora persuades Rocco to allow her to accompany him to the darkest cell. Before they descend, however, the prisoners are allowed briefly into the sunlight for exercise in the prison yard. The prisoners’ chorus is another expression of spiritual perseverance against injustice. The singing as prisoners come out of the darkness of their cells into daylight is like a chorus of souls liberated from hell. A solo tenor voice accentuates the only basis for hope.

Trusting we shall ever
Count on help from God
Hope whispers softly
We shall be free
We shall find peace

Pizarro is informed by an officer that the prisoners have been granted this moment of air and sunlight, and he comes in to angrily interrogate Rocco for taking this liberty. Rocco deflects his anger, telling him it is in celebration of the King’s festival and that it will keep everyone occupied while the man still in his cell dies. Pizzaro tells Rocco to go down and dig his grave. As the act concludes, the prisoners are sent back to their cells, and Rocco and Leonora prepare for their descent.

The final act begins in the darkness of Florestan’s cell. Florestan’s aria is among the most difficult in the repertoire. For most of the dramatic tenors in the world in any generation it is impossible. Beginning on a sustained G with the words: God, what darkness here! it is the contemplation of a man who has had the courage to speak truthfully against evil and now finds himself in chains. He takes consolation in having done his duty and commits his fate into God’s hands.

Oh painful trial!
But God’s will is just
I complain not
This allotment of sorrow
Is in thy hands

A key change signals the vision of Leonora coming to console him, light in the darkness, the breath of a murmuring breeze, an angel like Leonora in rose colored mist. The new theme ascends repeatedly into the upper extremes of the tenor range. Stentorian B naturals accent the phrase. My angel Leonora, my wife, leading me to freedom in the heavenly domain.

Ich seh, wie ein Engel im rosigen Duft
Ein Engel sich tröstend zur Seite mir stellet
Ein Engel Leonora, Leonoren, der Gattin so gleich
Der, der führt mich zur Freiheit ins himmlische Reich
Der, der führt mich zur Freiheit ins himmlische Reich
Zur Freiheit ins Himmlische Reich
Zur Freiheit ins Himmlische Reich

The exultation of the vision dispels the gloom for while before the prisoner sinks back down on the floor.

During the interval Leonora and Rocco have been descending into the darkness of the prison. Florestan sees the visitors as another hopeful sign and calls to them. While Leonora tries to determine if this is her husband, he sings, You will be repaid in a better world. Heaven has sent you to me. Once inside the cell, Leonora recognizes her husband, even while helping Rocco to dig the grave being prepared for him. Rocco gives Florestan a little wine and a piece of bread.

Pizarro descends into the dungeon brandishing a knife. He tells the prisoner he will die, but first he must recognize the man whom his testimony was intended to depose. Pizarro throws off his cloak and says, “The avenger now stands before you.” He attempts to stab the prisoner, but Leonora throws herself between Pizarro and Florestan, declaring that she is the wife of the prisoner who will expose the plot. Pizarro in rage is about to kill both of them, but Leonora draws a pistol and threatens to use it. At the critical moment the inspector arrives heralded by trumpets. Pizarro runs out to meet his superior officer. Florestan and Leonora embrace.

The ensuing dialogue leaves little doubt about the outcome. Rocco recognizes his freedom no longer to serve the tyrant Pizarro and cries, God be praised! Leonora and Florestan sing, the hour of retribution has come. Unspeakable sorrows now end in overwhelming joy!
The high ranking inspector liberates the prisoners, all victims of Pizarro’s tyranny. They sing, Justice, arm in arm with mercy, appears at the door of our grave. The inspector recognizes his lost friend Florestan, now in chains. He begins to unlock the shackles, but then turns to Leonora. The woman who saved her husband’s life should be the one to set him free.

Beethoven rewrote the overture to the opera Fidelio, entitled Leonora, four times. It has such nobility in its own right that it is often played as a concert piece. Yet none of the early performances of this opera were successful. Weber tried to revive it in Prague where it was again badly received. During Beethoven’s lifetime it was never recognized as the masterpiece it is now acknowledged to be. Beethoven said God never deserted him. Apparently, in faith like that of Florestan in chains, he was able to accept God’s will.

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