Beethoven Leonore Overture No.3 | Symphony No. 7
The Age of Beethoven coincided with the Age of Napoleon. It must have seemed at the time that Beethoven was wreaking as much havoc in the musical world as Napoleon was in the political universe. He was enthusiastic about Napoleon at first, supposing that the Frenchman would replace the aristocratic tyranny of Europe with a more humanitarian social order. But in the spring of 1804, when news arrived that Napoleon, the standard-bearer of republicanism, had seized power as a dictator of absolutism, Beethoven’s fervor collapsed.
Military and humanistic concerns inhabit the opera Beethoven unveiled the next year under the title Leonore and then transformed over the course of nine years into what was renamed Fidelio. In the years immediately following the French Revolution, theatrical plots involving political oppression, daring rescues, and the triumph of humanitarianism grew popular in many European countries. Leonore/Fidelio fit snugly into this tradition, its plot involving a political prisoner (Florestan) whose wife, disguised as a jail attendant, manages to free him and turn the tables on his oppressor. The Leonore Overture No. 3, composed for an 1806 revision of the opera, foreshadows a dramatic highpoint in which an offstage trumpet heralds the arrival of the liberating forces while the devoted wife holds the oppressor at bay with a pistol. Other parts of the Overture foreshadow the opera’s plot, as well.
Its slow introduction, for example, wends its way ambiguously through the darkness of metric and tonal uncertainty, much as Florestan will grope about in the darkness of his cell, and the frenzy of the conclusion mirrors the ecstatic happiness Florestan and Leonora will share at the opera’s conclusion.
Not until 1812 did it appear that the tide would turn similarly for Napoleon, but it did over the ensuing three years, leading to his exile in 1815. Beethoven enthusiastically lent his talent to Austria’s anti-Napoleon efforts. On December 8, 1813, he unveiled two works in a Vienna concert organized to benefit troops wounded five weeks earlier fighting the French: his descriptive symphonic fantasy Wellington’s Victory, or The Battle of Vitoria, and his Seventh Symphony. The Seventh became one of his most popular symphonies, and in a letter Beethoven himself cited the “Grand Symphony in A” as “one of my best works.” Richard Wagner famously described this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance.” That seems a reasonable appraisal, particularly as it underscores the ceaseless buoyancy of the first movement, its Vivace urged on by an obsessively repeated rhythmic figure, the witty scherzo (Presto), and the highly charged finale (Allegro con brio). The haunting second movement (Allegretto) became especially popular, a fact that inspired Hector Berlioz to observe, “This does not arise from the fact that the other three parts are any less worthy of admiration; far from it.”
—excerpt from liner notes by James M. Keller