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Beethoven, Fidelio and the Longing for the Light

May 3, 2016

Love & Justice-Violins-Close-up

Music can’t break chains, it can’t topple dictators, it can’t cure the sick and it can’t bring back the dead. But it can bring hope and solace and strength. That’s a power not to be underestimated, and few have ever wielded it with more force and grace than Ludwig van Beethoven.

The ecstatic uplift of the Ninth Symphony, with it’s longing for a time when “all men will be brothers,” is well known, but perhaps Beethoven’s most direct address to the longing for human freedom came earlier, in 1805, when he completed his only opera, Fidelio. This story of a woman’s triumph over tyranny was, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford says, “enormously appealing to Beethoven at a time when all of Europe was increasingly a police state.”

The heroine of Fidelio, Leonore, disguises herself as a young man named Fidelio in order to infiltrate the prison where her husband, Florestan, is held by the tyrant Pizarro. Beethoven weaves an idiosyncratic musical tapestry, ranging from the comedy of mistaken identity (the prison guard’s daughter falls head over heels for Fidelio) to the tragedy of confinement without cause. It is a story of subterfuge, risk, suspense, love and, ultimately, justice. Leonore’s daring—her irrepressible hope—brings not only Florestan but all of the prisoners into the light.

But the rescue narrative itself cannot explain the power of the opera. “Rescue operas,” after all, were a genre, with a certain generic inspiration baked in. But the inspiration in Fidelio is anything but generic—rather, it is invested with a sort of sublime pain, a nostalgia for a freedom that once existed, a half-mythical “time before” that cannot be reconstituted, only recalled, and perhaps leveraged in the form of hope. At the time he was composing Fidelio, Beethoven was coming to grips with the news that he was losing his hearing, and that he would never get it back. There was no return from the place he was going—the finality of the judgment even forced Beethoven to the brink of suicide. But the longing for sound—to create sound, to take on the burden and responsibility of making music for the world, brought him back with fierce determination. He not only rejected death; he rejected the confinement of his gift. The music in his mind would not be kept from the world. A listener could be forgiven for hearing in Fidelio the intensity of Beethoven’s own quest for liberation.

Fidelio is the subject of a new documentary by Kerry Candaele, Love & Justice: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Rebel OperaThe film is the second in a planned trilogy called Beethoven Hero; I worked with Kerry on the first film, Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, and am lending a hand as story producer for Love & Justice as well. Following the Ninth, which premiered in 2013, has been screened to critical acclaim in more than 250 cities worldwide. We hope for a similar fate for Love & Justice. About half the film has been completed, and Kerry is gathering resources to get it across the finish line. Please visit his Kickstarter page for more information on the film and opportunities to get involved.

– Greg Blake Miller


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