Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (including offstage trumpet), 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
Beethoven spent more time writing the overture to Fidelio than Rossini and Donizetti spent on entire operas, overture included. But then Beethoven did write four overtures to his only opera, originally (in 1805) called Leonore, after its protagonist, a woman who, disguised as a man under the assumed name of Fidelio, rescues her husband, Florestan, from political imprisonment and imminent death.
For one reason or another, the composer rejected each of the three Leonore overtures as inappropriate curtain-raisers, No. 3 because it was too grand to be anything but self-sufficient. So, starting from scratch he produced in 1814 the succinct Fidelio Overture, which, unlike its predecessors, avoids themes from the opera proper.
No. 3, however, distills the essence of the opera itself, transmitting its power in less than a quarter-hour's playing time. The opening is a picture of Florestan's dungeon, succeeded by a quotation from his gigantic second-act aria, which quickens, is richly developed, and then cut off by a trumpet call signifying his liberation. This leads to a passage suggesting Florestan's realization that it is Leonore who is responsible for freeing him. The overture ends in a jubilant celebration of freedom and conjugal love.
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.