‘Fidelio’ is the one opera in the repertory that has the power to sway audiences even when it is indifferently performed. Yet it is a highly problematic work whose triumphant conclusion and the impression it is designed to convey of goodness winning out over evil do not go to the heart of what Beethoven was grappling with. Not that its plot is complex, or that, like many of the French operas of the day which influenced Beethoven and whose brilliance he admired, it is a long and complicated work: Fidelio’s success in the theatre derives in part from its compactness and intensity – in the course of two extremely taut acts, a devoted wife rescues her unjustly imprisoned husband, foils a tyrannically cruel Spanish grandee, and manages to release all the other prisoners arbitrarily imprisoned in his dungeons. Unlike most other operas, however, Fidelio is burdened with the complexities of its own past as well as the huge effort it cost its composer before he was able to present it in its ‘final’ form in Vienna on 23 May 1814. It is the only work of its kind he ever completed; it caused him a great deal of pain; yet despite the attention he lavished on it, he failed to get the satisfaction from it, in terms either of popular success or of aesthetic conviction, that his efforts entitled him to.
What we know today as Fidelio is the third version of a three-act opera originally produced as Leonore in 1805 and again, in a somewhat truncated two-actversion, in 1806, and finally, in an even more edited and reconfigured two-act version, in 1814 and 1815, as Fidelio. And that isn’t all. Fidelio must be the only opera whose composer wrote no fewer than four overtures for it (three to Leonore and one to Fidelio, composed for the 1814 version): these works are still played in the concert hall, although, of the four, only the overture to Fidelio makes no musical reference to the opera itself. Thanks to musicologists and musicians there now exists a fairly accurate composite version of the 1805-6 Leonore, which in recent years has been performed and recorded. Indeed, I know of two important performances of Leonore in 1996, one in New York and the other some weeks later in Salzburg, in a lean, semi-staged concert rendition by John Eliot Gardiner and his period-instrument Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire. This was followed, again in Salzburg, by Georg Solti conducting several staged performances of Fidelio, and in New York by Kurt Masur and the NY Philharmonic doing one extremely loud and stodgy concert version which highlighted Gardiner’s much more dynamic conception and execution.
Gardiner’s commitment to Leonore as a more interesting work than Fidelio was buttressed by a spirited essay he wrote for the New York programme booklet. ‘With the Leonore of 1805,’ Gardiner suggests, ‘Beethoven was struggling to recover the fiery revolutionary fervour and idealism of his Bonn years after the relatively cosy time he had been having in Vienna. If Leonore could be said to spring from that self which continually searches for the ideal in the face of fear, Fidelio, by contrast, represents Beethoven’s more settled, static response to tyranny and injustice, freedom and self-sacrifice.’ Leonore’s effectiveness, Gardiner continued, comes from the ‘power and purity of its emotion’. Gardiner is very harsh about Fidelio, which he claims reinforces ‘its abstract, collective and philosophical message’ at the expense of ‘personal and human complexity’. It was Fidelio and not Leonore that was, he says, ‘hijacked to honour Hitler’s birthday’ because of its ‘unfortunate nationalistic baggage’, and Fidelio again that, along with Germania and the Battle Symphony, put the remains of Beethoven’s heroic style at the service of the reactionary impulse in Europe. But he is certainly right to suggest that the 1815 Fidelio, whose associations with the Congress of Vienna lent weight to its authoritative density, never satisfied Beethoven, who often complained that the work needed rewriting from the beginning, despite the inordinate labour he had already expended on it over a period of ten or eleven years. Thus Gardiner in conclusion: ‘it is a fallacy to claim that in Fidelio Beethoven in every case refined and strengthened his first idea.’ And this leads him to add that there is ‘no final version that subsumes all that is good in the others’.
Whether or not we agree with Gardiner’s judgment in favour of Leonore over Fidelio, it is important to consider the later version as a continuation of developments that occur in Leonore, as a later opera, therefore, rather self-consciously encumbered with its own past – a past that persists as a central theme in all three versions of the work, that won’t settle down and co-operate, that keeps coming back to dislocate the certainties of the ‘rescue opera’ form that Beethoven was using. My reading of Fidelio sees the later version as extending and deepening rather than ending the work, or struggle, in progress that Gardiner discerns in Leonore.
Maynard Solomon notes that 1813 was an unproductive year for Beethoven, immediately after which he resorted to an ‘ideological/heroic’ manner which yielded a series of noisily inferior works ‘filled with bombastic rhetoric and “patriotic” excesses’ that ‘mark the nadir of his artistic career’. Such works as Wellington’s Victory and several compositions written for the Congress of Vienna belong to the same period as the revisions to Leonore that resulted in the 1814 Fidelio. Solomon suggests that this ‘ideological/heroic style can be traced back to the 1790s in such works as the Joseph and Leopold Cantatas, as well as the Friedelberg war songs, yet in central works – Solomon cites the Third and Fifth Symphonies, Fidelio and the Incidental Music to Egmont – this aggressive, quasi-militaristic style ‘was sublimated into a subtle and profound form of expression’. It is not surprising that, as the last work in this series, Fidelio explicitly recalls some of its predecessors, perhaps as part of its own obsession with the past. A well-known example occurs in the second scene of Act Two: given permission by Don Fernando to release her husband from his chains, Leonore steps forward to perform the task of liberation. The music modulates from A major to F major, and proceeds to a moving oboe solo and chorus borrowed almost literally from the Joseph Cantata. In the opera, the episode bestows a majestic calm on what has so far been a turbulent and confused scene. Again, it would be hard to miss the echoes of the finale of the Fifth Symphony in the opera’s last scene; however animating the words and voices, there is in both a similar, pounding use of C major to possess the tonic and thereby dispel any lingering shadows.
Fidelio can also be interpreted as a terrific counter-blow to Così fan Tutte, an important antecedent and part of the past that Beethoven is working with. On the one hand, he incorporates the disguises, if not the malice of Così: on the other, he uses unmasking to assert the bourgeois ideal of matrimonial fidelity. Memory in Così fan Tutte is a faculty to be done away with in the pursuit of pleasure: in Fidelio it is a vital part of character. Yet at the heart of what Beethoven is arguing for – persistence, constancy, personal character as a source of continuity – there seems to be a contradiction that will not disappear. Every affirmation, every instance of truth carries with it its own negation, just as every memory of love and conjugal fidelity brings with it the danger, and usually the actuality, of something that will obliterate it. Most critics who have written about Beethoven’s heroic middle period – most recently, Scott Burnham, but also Paul Robinson, for whom Fidelio is a relatively uncomplicated enactment of the French Revolution – can see nothing except the triumphalism with which he appears to end these works. If we look a bit more closely at Fidelio, however, keeping its incorporated and cancelled versions in mind, we will see a more gripping, much more ambiguous and self-conscious struggle going on – one which makes Fidelio a more challenging opera than it often appears to be.
This struggle is evident from the beginning, although most commentators tend to treat as frivolous the opening scene, in which Jaquino and Marzelline spar over their future together (which Marzelline dreads because she has already fallen in love with her father’s assistant, Fidelio – i.e. the disguised Leonore). Like most things in opera, however, it is a hybrid, made up of elements that do not, because they cannot, blend; this produces a volatility and tension that Beethoven is trying to represent throughout the opera. It derives at the outset from the incompatibility of desires and hopes: Jaquino wanting at last to be alone with Marzelline, she pushing him away, Fidelio interrupting their spat with insistent knocking. Each has a different conception of time: time as urgency for the eager young swain; as hope for Marzelline; as anticipation and waiting for Fidelio. Fidelio’s first appearance bears most of the scene’s symbolic freight – and it is meticulously described by Beethoven: dressed as a young man, she carries a box of provisions on her back, a box ofletters on one arm and, on the other, a collection of chains. We are immediately to see the character as furnishing nourishment in the present, but also, like her husband and perhaps the other prisoners, loaded down with punishments brought on by past behaviour.
Rocco’s appearance gives Beethoven an opportunity to tie together the four characters of the opening sequence using a canon at the octave – again inspired by the canon in Act Two of Così. The idea of the canon is very similar in both works, a sort of discordia concors in which the characters express their incompatible sentiments in a rigorous, even scholastic, but at the same meditative, form. ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ is significant for another reason, which takes us to Beethoven’s problematic of representation in the opera and the kind of irreconcilability I mentioned earlier as hampering, and certainly complicating, the affirmations he seems to be trying to make. Bouilly’s L’Amour conjugale, which Gaveaux had already set to music in 1798, provided him with an entirely predictable rescue plot, in which wrongs are righted, and the prisoners freed. One of the things we respond to in Fidelio especially is the authority with which one form of power is dislodged and a new, or at least much more acceptable one, established in its place: Pizarro, the bloody-minded, tempestuous tyrant, is replaced by Don Fernando, emissary of light and truth. No reason is given for this salutary change – it emanates from an off-stage source of goodness and justice, inaccessible to Florestan, Leonore, Pizarro and the rest. Fernando makes clear to us that he has been despatched by the monarch, and is therefore a deputy, or substitute.
It is far too easy – and, I think, inaccurate – to describe this rather slenderised politics as Beethoven’s attempt to embody in dramatic form the enormous liberation he had once discerned in the French Revolution. There is something far too swift and almost magical about the opera for it to represent a political process. Unlike Wagner or even Mozart, Beethoven was neither particularly well-read nor philosophically inclined. He read the great contemporary poets like Schiller and Goethe, but when it came to philosophical ideas or how to think about history, he was more or less a beginner. The striving and pathos of Fidelio have more to do with the actual business of putting words and music together for the stage than with any historical event or general idea about humanity. The ready-made story offered by Bouilly and Gaveaux was the starting-point for an endeavour to translate what had been wholly musical exertions into visual, verbal and plastic terms, and this he found strange and difficult to do, especially when strong emotions about a woman were involved. As all his biographers affirm, Beethoven was routinely moved by passions for unattainable women, but at the time when he began to work on Leonore he was especially vulnerable. A fragment of a letter to Countess Josephine Deym, a woman for whom he evinced the most powerful feelings but who did not reciprocate his advances, shows what this did to him:
why is there no language which can express what far above all mere regard – far above everything – that we can describe – Oh, who can name you – and not feel that however much he could speak about you – that would never attain – to you – only in music – Alas, am I not too proud when I believe that music is more at my command than words – You, you, my all, my happiness – alas, no-even in my music I cannot do so, although in this respect thou, Nature, has not stinted me with thy gifts. Yet there is too little for you.
Without wishing to read too much of this turbulent letter into Joseph Sonnleithner’s ungainly libretto for Fidelio, I still think we can see in it something of the travail experienced by Beethoven as he tried to transfer his musical impulses into the words and actions of the opera, a sense of the disparity between his musical competence and the consternation and over-excitement he felt as he articulated his feelings in melodic language. The purest instance occurs in the powerful, yet strangely tongue-tied duet in the second act between Florestan and Leonore, ‘O namenlose Freude’. Until this point, Florestan has been a hidden prisoner and Leonore has been disguised as a young man, both Rocco’s helper and the illicit object of Marzelline’s affection. Neither has been able to speak openly to the other. Then in the tempestuous dungeon quartet ‘Ersterbe’ Leonore reveals herself, the ‘magical’ trumpet call is heard twice, and it becomes clear to Pizarro that he and his evil plans have been defeated: finally, the husband and wife face each other and pour out their love for one another. In Leonore Beethoven had inserted a longish spoken interchange between husband and wife, each discovering the other, assuring the other of their presence, making the transition from a state of solitude to one of blissful union; in Fidelio this is almost completely eliminated, and although the sung duet in both versions is similar, the later music is more agitated and astringent.
There is no doubt that this moment has a greater psychological truth in the earlier version of the opera. But as with so much of the later version, the dialogue is eliminated as a way of intensifying the present at the expense not only of a hindering past, but of dramatic verisimilitude. It is as if Beethoven were snatching the characters up from the dreary prison – so laboriously explored and described earlier on in Act Two – into another, higher, even metaphysical realm where language and ordinary communication are impossible. One of the most striking characteristics of the duet is the amount of hyperbole and exaggeration in it – joy is nameless, sorrows are untellable (unnennbar) and happiness is overwhelming (übergross). These expressions are repeated several times, giving the music of the duet the breathlessly stammering, excited, elevated quality of the letter to Countess Deym. In addition, the duct involves a relentlessly ascending, aspiring, striving motif which is almost unique in the opera. It makes a striking contrast with the generally plaintive quality of the preceding music – in the dungeon trio, for instance, in which Rocco and Fidelio, who are there to dig Florestan’s grave, take pity on the starving man and offer him food and drink. The trio is melodically shaped by the descending figures, usually seconds and thirds, that give the music its pathos.
Then, too, there is the main theme of Florestan’s aria at the beginning of Act Two: when recollecting his early life in the desolate tranquillity of Pizarro’s dungeon, he is given that basic descending figure which is triply familiar because it is a motif in all three of the Leonore overtures. The passage is especially worth looking at because it is the first time Beethoven gives us at least a glimmering of an idea of the nature of Florestan’s crime. In Act One, Rocco, his altogether too accommodating and servile jailer, informs us only that the man is in prison because he has powerful enemies. Now the prisoner himself avers that in his youth, ‘Wahrheit wagt’ ich kühn zu sagen,/und die Ketten sind mein Lohn’ (‘I boldly dared to speak the truth, and these chains are my reward’). Beethoven offers us no indication at all of what that truth is, except that it contained a denunciation of Pizarro’s ‘treason’, (which is unspecified), but it is clear that Florestan’s entombment, his death-in-life, has distanced him permanently from some irrecoverable, unrepeatable utterance in the past. So rare and (to his worldly enemies) so threatening is that truth that, having once spoken it, he cannot do so again. We must assume that what Florestan said is political to some degree – and eloquent and dangerously effective: in the final scene Don Fernando describes Florestan as a noble soul ‘der für Wahrheit stritt’, ‘who struggled for the truth’. What exactly that truth is, however, is not disclosed, either in Fidelio or in its earlier versions. In all three Florestan consoles himself for having done his duty (‘meine Pflichten hab ich getan’) in uttering that elusive truth, which nevertheless remains very much a political liability – an indescribable but deeply felt encumbrance.
Until his fall in Act Two, only one character in the opera, Pizarro, fully inhabits the action. It is his jail, his castle, his will; his servitors and prisoners are under his control; he is vengeful and cruel, and even though he is a one-dimensional figure, he is clearly someone to be taken seriously. In his well-known study of Fidelio, Carl Dahlhaus notes that whereas the lesser characters of the opera – Rocco, Marzelline and Jaquino – try to create an idyll suited to their class-based tastes and predilections, Florestan and Leonore, who seem to belong to a higher class, strive on behalf of a utopia based on brotherhood and freedom. Pizarro is the foil to both schemes. He breaks up the idyll by forcing the venal and temporising Rocco into service as an accomplice to murder; and so far as a political utopia is concerned, he is the embodiment of everything dystopic. He has an almost sensual feeling for the present moment: he will, for example, be able to have his revenge on Florestan, and at the same time revel in the act of killing itself.
Like so much else in the opera that is emphatically, indeed feverishly, gestured at, none of this will come to pass. At the climactic moment of Act Two, as Leonore and Rocco ready the grave, and Pizarro prepares himself for his long-awaited moment of self-realisation, Beethoven rather ingenuously engineers not only Leonore’s brave interposition between her husband and Pizarro’s bullet but also the magically-timed trumpet call. More has been written about this episode than any other passage in Fidelio, and the providential trumpet call has been interpreted as a symbol not only of freedom, but of hope, the new bourgeois world, the end of humanism and so on. Characteristically, Adorno has one of the shrewder insights in his 1955 Darmstadt Lecture, ‘Theater-Oper-Bürgertum’. I will not try to summarise the whole of his argument, but his main intention is to identify opera as a specifically bourgeois form. Thus the relevant passage on Fidelio:
The fanfare of Fidelio ... consummates almost ritualistically the moment of protest that breaks open the eternal hell of the prison cell and puts an end to the rule of force. This interlocking of myth and enlightenment defines the bourgeois essence of opera: namely, the interlocking of imprisonment in a blind and un-selfconscious system and the idea of freedom, which arises in its midst.
This seems to me to grasp very accurately the singular abruptness that characterises Fidelio’s style, and is very different from the more flowing, more humanly acceptable procedures of the opera’s two earlier versions. John Eliot Gardiner’s description of Leonore as a work in progress catches the sense of labour, development and process that makes the earlier version so compelling; above all, Beethoven seems much more interested in developing a set of relationships in Leonore rather than a set of positions. This is very evident in the quasi-domestic scenes of Act One in which, for instance, Beethoven allows for a little foreplay – excised from Fidelio – between the love-struck Marzelline and her father’s ever so coy and evasive young assistant. The abruptness of Fidelio has less to do with the unmediated amalgam of enlightenment and magic that Adorno speaks about than with a strange, almost two-tiered style. At one level, various numbers are used to advance the action: the trio sung by Fidelio, Rocco and Marzelline (‘Gut Söhnchen, gut’) in ActOne, for example, which prepares Fidelio and Rocco to go down into the forbidden areas of the prison, and – a sort of continuation of the trio – the Rocco-Pizarro duet a few moments later in which ‘der Gouverneur’, as Rocco calls him, presses Rocco into quick action in order that Florestan might be killed before Fernando arrives. At another level, sudden spaces or moments of opportunity are created so that one or more characters can stand outside the action and reflect, calmly or passionately, as the case may be, on their sentiments. ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ is a perfect example of the latter device, as is the superb Prisoners’ Chorus, which for a brief moment is allowed to take place outside Pizarro’s dark prison cells.
All this produces a highly eccentric kind of continuity in Fidelio: perhaps ‘discontinuity’ is a better word for it. If a listener were first to hear Leonore and to follow that with a hearing of Fidelio, there is every likelihood that the 1814-15 version of the work would sound disjointed and forced, despite the linking dialogue (retained by Beethoven from Singspiel), but powerfully effective even so, precisely because the composer has forged a discontinuous style carried forward not by considerations of plot or psychology but, on the contrary, by the sudden intensifications I have been trying to describe. Yet even with Don Fernando’s magical appearance late in the opera, we experience Beethoven’s world in most of Fidelio as somehow natural and, more important, secular. Leonore and Florestan are ordinary citizens without any apparent hereditary rights. They both have an acute sense of injustice which is not shared by Rocco, or his daughter or Jaquino. But it is very likely, given what Florestan tells us so sketchily about his past, that he and his wife belong to a better class, though one which is less protected and privileged than either Pizarro’s or Don Fernando’s. Dahlhaus tries to explain the social distinctions in the work with reference to French aesthetic classifications said to have been borrowed by Beethoven from the Encyclopaedists (there is not, alas, much evidence to support this ingenious theory). He suggests that the early scenes between Rocco, his daughter, Jaquino and the disguised Fidelio are taken from the comédie larmoyante, whereas the interplay between Pizarro, Florestan and Leonore is based on the tragédie bourgeoise; finally, according to Dahlhaus, the tableau and pathetic scenes that give the opera its unique emotional quality are indebted to what Diderot and Lessing considered to be a wider category than the first two, and which in fact included them, that of the genres intermédiaires, which allowed dramatists to assign convincing and moving attributes to characters who are not noble or of high civil rank.
Plausible enough, but is that the only way to explain Fidelio’s extraordinary political and visionary power, given the work’s abruptness, its lapses and strange ellipses as well as its passionate discontinuities? I think not. There are two strong undercurrents in Fidelio, one political, the other quasi-metaphysical: neither has played a prominent role in analyses of the opera, most of which accept its explicit themes of freedom and constancy as defining, if not exhausting, its meaning. It is taken to be internally consistent and to accomplish, in its conclusion, a complete synthesis of its various elements. Borrowing from Adorno, Rose Subotnik formulates the distinctive feature of Beethoven’s second-period style as the ‘apparent ability’ of its structures and movements
to derive the principle of formal organisation not from any outside source, but from within themselves, and thus to establish as a reality the musical analogue of the free individual, the ‘musical subject’, which has mastered external constraint and dissent and determined its own destiny ... [In fact] the recapitulation [or conclusion] seems to confirm the rational irresistibility of the subject’s return to itself, since it nearly always seems to emerge as the logical outcome and resolution of what has preceded.
What I have been trying to suggest is that Fidelio is a work riven by different pressures and counterforces, partly the result of its own complicated history as a collaborative, much fussed-over work whose irregularities of style, disruptive energies and unstilled, problematic nature were often beyond Beethoven’s control. Certainly it is wrong to interpret the opera as reconciling all its elements as if by a creative miracle, though naturally enough the work pre-eminently bears the mark of Beethoven’s genius. Steeped though he was in French and Viennese opera, Beethoven’s only attempt to produce one himself also bears the marks of the enormous problems he faced in trying to get it right. Fidelio highlights not only its own peculiar features but also those of opera in general, a cultural form that is thoroughly hybrid and wonderfully overstated. But because opera as spectacle has become so routinised and unthinking, we don’t find it in ourselves to do much more than venerate this cultural form and reproduce a set of clichés about it – clichés that are no less unthinkingly reinforced by modern producers and directors. That there might be something invisible (faultlines and unresolved antitheses, for instance) and transgressive about most interesting operas eludes the spectator for whom opera is out there, the bigger and more lavish the better: at the Metropolitan Opera in New York there is no shortage of applause for a typically overstuffed and under-directed Zeffirelli production of a bad Verdi and worse Puccini – and apparently no sense of what an appallingly vulgar mess the whole business is.
It is all the more important to recognise that the creative subject behind Fidelio is a fractured and only partially coherent thing, surrounded by uncertainties and incapacities, facing problems it cannot resolve and solutions it cannot fully pull off. Fidelio’s political undercurrent is a perfect case in point. Tyranny and benevolence operate more or less as equivalents in Fidelio; they can be substituted for each other by the miracle, or myth as Adorno calls it, of prompt arrival: Pizarro’s police and Fernando’s trumpet are interchangeable. Florestan’s explanation for his plight is that the state has moved against him, but we never learn – nor can we – what sort of state it is. Who are the other prisoners? Are they also unjustly punished intellectuals, or do they include thieves and murderers? All strive for freedom and light, but is it clear that they are all moved by principles (like Florestan) or fidelity to a loved one (like Leonore)? Yes, it is the case, as Maynard Solomon and others have pointed out, that the opera moves in Act One from Rocco’s quarters in the castle to the underground gloom of the prison, and in Act Two from the darkness of Florestan’s dungeon to the sunny, liberating atmosphere of the yard, but what can the composer do to guarantee that the story of tyranny will not repeat itself?
The fact is, as he well knew, that the source of real power in his society lay outside anything that Fidelio, as a relatively compressed theatrical work, was able to represent. Beethoven’s audience, his patrons in effect, were aristocrats, not ordinary middle-class citizens. He lived at the heart of an empire during a period of violent change and counter-revolution: the opera’s audience was presumably made up principally of delegates to the Congress of Vienna. In a seminal article published in 1971, well before his Beethoven biography appeared, Maynard Solomon argues that to the Viennese and Prussian aristocrats who nurtured Beethoven’s early career, the Enlightenment was welcome not only as the creation of French aristocrats or of men like Rousseau who had been adopted by the aristocracy, but as representing
a philosophy of duty, service and rationality, in part as a means of avoiding the painful reality of social existence and national fragmentation, in part as the false consciousness of a dying class ... and if it was one of the means by which absolutism co-opted the radical intellectual and neutralised the mood of its most advanced sections, it simultaneously was one of the means by which absolutism was ultimately destroyed ... Separated from the degraded sources of their immense revenues [their vast landed estates] by distance and generations of myopia, the nobility nurtured the arts, and especially music, with a lavishness equalled only by its vast expenditures on food and dress.
There was a ‘disharmony’ between someone like Beethoven and the sources of patronage and this, Solomon goes on to say, was ‘a spur to the breaking of existent moulds, to the expansion of the means of musical expression’ – and this in turn supplied new utopian images which permitted the composer to disengage from the old style of patronage altogether, to write pieces of his own choosing, not for gifted aristocrats but for professional musicians like himself. If the aristocracy saw a possibility of utopian affirmation in music and elaborate operatic entertainment despite war, the revolution and the fading of the old order, then it was possible for a few great musicians to find for themselves a new mode of utopian affirmation – and this, Solomon daringly proposes, was sonata form. ‘The sonata distinguished itself from all other fantasy forms by its containment of its own fantasy-content, its moulding of the improvisational, its suppression of the extemporaneous, its rationalisation of the irrational. It was with this development that the sonata became a closed, rational, musical system, a “principle” of composition rather than just another musical form.’
The problem with sonata form, however, is that although it furnished a rìgorous system of order, tonality, contrast, development and recapitulation in instrumental music – symphonies, sonatas, quartets – it could scarcely serve the same totalising function in opera, which is too long and various to be confined in that way. Individual numbers within the opera may employ sonata form, but what drives the work as a whole is the plot, a narrative sequence with its own dynamic of beginning, development and conclusion. A century after Beethoven, Alban Berg, faced with the same problem in Wozzeck, felt that he had to seek a separate principle of musical organisation to give the opera a sense of ‘dramatic unity’, and for this devised a remarkably complex series of forms, often archaic – classical suite, passacaglia, fugue. Fidelio belongs to the same tonal and compositional world as the Eroica and Fifth Symphonies, but the narrative complexities of opera required a more flexible system of organising sound.
What Beethoven retained from his experiences with sonata form was the need for closure, for achieved stability after a long and turbulent struggle. Hence the crucial status of the final scene in which punishments and rewards are handed out. In Fidelio, the last part of the last chorus is a mighty ensemble led by Leonore and Florestan for all the main characters (except Pizarro) plus the entire chorus. Full of anticipations of the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony, the ensemble concludes with a terrifyingly accented presto section, the last few moments of which settle into an anxiously strident dominant-tonic pattern similar to the last measures of the Fifth. Ostensibly, the much-repeated words of this section inform us that Leonore cannot be praised too highly and so ‘hail to her who saved his life’; they are also a tribute, by implication, to the new freedom that seems to have been established thanks to her heroic fidelity.
There were plenty of indications in preceding scenes that Pizarro’s castle is not a temporary, makeshift structure, but a dominating feature of the actual world. Yet the chorus which sings away enthusiastically in Fernando’s commanding presence represents townspeople who have lived in close proximity to Pizarro’s dungeons and seem never to have heard of him before. And, alas, the genial Rocco reveals himself to have been a collaborator, blaming others for his role as jailer and becoming, in spite of his protestations, Pizarro’s virtual accomplice. So the final cadences are much more provisional than they sound – a temporary union of Beethoven’s romantic and utopian impulses with the sordid world he and his librettists have been representing throughout the opera. And then there is the silence which confirms the precariousness of the affirmative cadence, which cannot be extended beyond the last C major chord. Solomon puts the general point well, and though he only mentions Fidelio in passing, I think his remarks apply to that work, too:
In Beethoven no affirmation is complete; the finale of the Eroica is a prelude to the struggles of the Fifth; the brittle affirmations of the Fifth’s finale in turn do not result in harmony or resolution. There are no ultimate reconciliations in Beethoven; there are a series of utopian reconfirmations, but all are conditional, one-sided, temporary. Each work in Beethoven’s total output is part of a larger entity, and each affirmation, each happy ending, looks forward to a new struggle, to further agonies of introspection, to winter, death and towards a new victorious conclusion ... The works are a perpetual cycle of struggle, death and rebirth. Each work looks both backward and forward–Janus-like–for within the work, the happy ending acknowledges the pain which preceded it.
The metaphysical current in Fidelio is part of a contemporary cultural pattern, well described by M.H. Abrams in Natural Super-naturalism. The age of the French Revolution is one of ‘apocalyptic expectation’, which impresses a whole generation of poets and philosophers, and the composer himself. Yet most of them lose ‘confidence in a millennium brought about by means of violent revolution’, though ‘they did not abandon the form of their earlier vision. In many important philosophers and poets, Romantic thinking and imagination remained apocalyptic thinking and imagination, though with varied changes in explicit content.’ In Fidelio as well as in, say, the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven is very much of this disenchanted, yet still apocalyptic, cast of mind; one finds in both works the kind of reconstituted theology that Abrams speaks about, but in a radically problematic musical and dramatic form which, almost in spite of itself, highlights a lack of confidence in millennial change, while retaining aspects of its enthusiasm and sense of triumph.
Finally, it would seem that Fidelio’s internal wrestling with its own past, its attempt to transcend its early earthbound versions, and its own dramatic setting in the actual, with an intensely elevated lunge at utopian brotherhood, points towards Beethoven’s so-called late style and to the torments of his last years. He never stopped looking for another opera libretto to set, but because of his deafness and the anomalies of his fame and isolation, he retreated further and further into the abstruse style announced in 1816 by Opus 101, the A major Piano Sonata, and in 1817-18 by Opus 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata. What in Fidelio’s last scene is left unarticulated beneath the resounding final C major chords is uncovered once and for all in the late style where, as Adorno has said, Beethoven attempts no reconciliation between sections: ‘the caesuras, the sudden discontinuities that more than anything else characterise the very late Beethoven, are ... moments of breaking away; the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward.’ And, he also says, ‘that sets the mere phrase as a monument to what has been making a subjectivity turned to stone’. The uniqueness of Fidelio is that it arises, so to speak, in the heroic element of his middle period but ends up as herald of the last works. No final synthesis here, but rather testimony to what Adorno calls Beethoven’s ‘power of dissociation’, his ability to tear the works ‘apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal’.