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The Curious Incident of Fidelio and the Censors

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter revisits “the curious incident” involving Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and attempts to solve mysteries regarding its reception and political significance. The chapter examines the delay in the first performance of Fidelio, after librettist Joseph Sonnleithner was informed that the opera could be performed if the “harshest scenes” were altered. It reviews the context in which the Austrian police tried to censor Fidelio in 1805; whether the revised version of the opera confirmed the conservative goals of the Congress of Vienna and reinforced the role of traditional monarchy; and how Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who first sang the role of Leonore in 1822, neutralized Fidelio’s revolutionary politics by focusing on the secondary theme of marital love. The chapter also examines how the episode has influenced the prevailing interpretation of Fidelio as a political opera.

Keywords: Fidelio, opera, Ludwig van Beethoven, censorship, Joseph Sonnleithner, Congress of Vienna, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, politics, marital love, Austria

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes famously drew the attention of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Gregory to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The curious incident, of course, was that the dog did nothing in the night-time. The oft-told story of Fidelio and the censors may very well hinge on a similar paradox with curious implications of its own. That the “incident” is known at all is mainly due to two letters written by Beethoven’s librettist Joseph Sonnleithner. In the first, dated 2 October 1805 and addressed to the imperial royal police (Brandenburg 1996, 266–267 [no. 237]), Sonnleithner complained that the opera had been returned to him, three days earlier, as unsuitable for performance. He gave five reasons why the production should be allowed to continue, and asked to be informed as to what changes would be necessary. The following day he wrote to Philipp von Stahl, a high-ranking police official (267–269 [no. 238]), asking for his assistance. Though the written response has not survived, it came quickly. On 5 October Sonnleithner was informed that the opera could be performed if the “harshest scenes” (“grobsten Scenen”) were changed (Brandenburg 1996, 269 [no. 239]; Biberhofer 1921, 117).

It is a common misperception that this brush-up with the police delayed the first performance of the opera, which took place on 20 November 1805. In all likelihood, though, the postponement of the initial performance date of 15 October was due solely to “the mechanics of getting the music composed, copied and rehearsed.” (Thayer 1967, 386). Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in the definitive edition revised and edited by Elliott Forbes, also suggests, somewhat implausibly, “On October 5th, the ban was lifted after some changes had been made in the most harsh scenes” (Thayer 1967, 386). Within three days of Sonnleithner’s original letter of protest, in other words, changes are supposed to have been made and the opera approved for performance.

Could Sonnleithner have been advised of the necessary changes, made them, and received permission from the censors within three days? Even Willy Hess (1986, 55), the most indefatigable researcher on the early versions of the opera, acknowledges that the (p. 222) “untrimmed” (“unfrisiert”) text, while it would be interesting to see, exists only hypothetically. Thus, it is entirely possible that not only did the censors fail to delay the performance, but that no changes were actually made. Nor did the censorship issue crop up again, either at the ill-fated 1806 revival, nor at the more significant one that took place in 1814.

Nevertheless, this near non-event has contributed significantly to the prevailing interpretation of Fidelio, oder Die eheliche Liebe (the official title from the 1805 performances on) as a political opera. Paul Robinson (1996, 5) writes, “Fidelio has long enjoyed a visceral appeal for people on the left as the opera that most fully embodies the ideal of a pacified existence.” He goes on to point out, though, that Beethoven’s politics, and the political content of the opera, are far more elusive than such a simple analysis suggests. Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, on which Sonnleithner’s libretto was based, was actually inspired by opposition to the French Revolution, or at least to the Reign of Terror. Beethoven, meanwhile, has long been suspected of having been, in Virgil Thomson’s words, “an old fraud who just talked about human rights and dignity but who was really an irascible, intolerant, and scheming careerist” (Thomson 1981, 204). His ambivalence toward Napoleon and the ideals of the French Revolution is well known, and in fact the 1814 revival of Fidelio took place at precisely the point when his public popularity was at its peak due to his musical celebration of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon’s forces at Victoria. Later that year, Fidelio “became the first opera given for the assembled dignitaries of the Congress of Vienna . . . forging an almost official link between Beethoven’s operatic celebration of freedom and the great diplomatic enterprise that fashioned post-Napoleonic Europe” (Robinson 1996, 148).

There is thus a crowning irony in the fact that the paradigmatic opera of political liberation took its present form, and acquired its present status, precisely at the time of what is widely regarded as a triumph of reactionary politics, particularly in Austria. The irony, though, may very well begin with an exaggerated emphasis on a comparatively trivial episode during the work’s inception nine years earlier. This essay will explore the implications of re-examining the episode, its consequences, and its relevance to our current understanding of the opera as a political work.

The Background of the Story

Since fashions in opera can change even more quickly than those in other kinds of music, it is worth spending some time reviewing the context in which Sonnleithner’s text for Fidelio took shape. From this perspective, the opera was neither new nor particularly provocative: it was one of the most conventional topics that Beethoven could have chosen.

Fidelio is a late example of the “rescue opera,” a genre that was widely popular in the late eighteenth century and remained so briefly at the beginning of the nineteenth. The best known today of the many earlier works of this type is Mozart’s Die Entführung (p. 223) aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), the first opera that he wrote for the Viennese stage. By far the most successful in its own time, though, was Cherubini’s Les Deux Journées of 1800. It was first performed in Vienna on 13 August 1802 (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 5, 25ff.) and, under the title Der Wasserträger (and sometimes also as Graf Armand or Die Tage der Gefahr), it continued to be widely heard in the German-speaking countries into the 1840s and beyond. Its libretto, which was also written by Bouilly, tells a story that is not only cut from the same mold as that of Fidelio, but is in some respects nearly identical to it. Both are ostensibly based on events that took place during the Reign of Terror. Both hinge on a dramatic scene in which a wife emerges from disguise to defend her husband. In Les Deux Journées her actual name is Constance. Both feature a host family of a lower social class with a daughter named Marceline (spelled with a final “a” in Les Deux Journées). In both Bouilly texts, the lower class characters slur words together in a way that marks them immediately as socially inferior to the primary actors.

Both of Bouilly’s versions were first performed at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris, where the audience must have noticed the resemblance. Crucially, both feature a government official who abuses his power. In Les Deux Journées it is Cardinal Mazarin, and the action takes place in the seventeenth century in France, while Bouilly’s Léonore and its subsequent adaptations are set in Spain and the villain is the governor of the prison. Sonnleithner may have used this resemblance to try to confuse the Viennese censors; the fourth reason he gave for lifting the ban on the work’s performance was that it was set in the sixteenth century, a fact that he had “forgotten” to mention on the title page. (In fact, the time of the action of Fidelio/Léonore is never specified by Bouilly or anybody else.)

For Bouilly, then, it can be said that the libretto of Les Deux Journées constituted a second draft of the Léonore material, presented in a way that was perhaps more dramatically effective but no less politically charged. One of the main differences is that the later story places far less emphasis on the themes of wifely fidelity and marital love. This is significant because the first argument that Sonnleithner presented to the Viennese censors for allowing the opera to be performed was that the empress, Marie Therese, had assured him that no opera text had ever pleased her more than that of Bouilly’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal.

In his informative study of Marie Therese’s activities as a patron of music, John Rice (2003, 10–11) has established that the empress was especially dedicated to the theme of marital fidelity. He believes that she played a crucial role in the creation of two Italian operas on the Léonore theme—those by Paer (Leonora) and Mayr (L’amor coniugale)—and, on the basis of Sonnleithner’s comment, suggests that she was “at the nexus of a web connecting the three Léonore operas of 1804–05” (257). Indeed, Beethoven’s version was initially to have premiered on the empress’s name day, 15 October. If Rice’s speculation is correct, there can be no doubt that Marie Therese chose the story because of the theme of marital fidelity. In every other regard there is little reason to prefer it to that of Les Deux Journées or countless other rescue operas.

The empress also had a predilection for the so-called sotterraneo scene (Rice 2003, 94). The sotterraneo was a large-scale scene complex set underground, and was also (p. 224) commonplace in operas of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Often, as in Fidelio, the setting was a dungeon. Stephen Meyer (2002, 481) has written, “the popularity of the prison scene seems to have increased significantly from 1790 to 1815 . . . such scenes were featured in dozens of operas during these decades.” Though not all underground opera scenes are set in prisons—and, of course, not all prisons are underground—the dungeon seems to have had a special appeal as a place of horror and mystery. Meyer suggests that in operatic prison scenes, “as in so much of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, our attention is directed away from external action toward the internal drama within the prisoner’s soul” (478). This is certainly true of the scene that opens act 2 of Fidelio, but in historical perspective this scene was hardly a novelty. Indeed, the most venerable of all operatic stories, that of Orpheus, deals with a spousal descent into a kind of underground prison and an attempted rescue (480). What distinguishes the Fidelio scene, according to Meyer, is the fact that, in the 1814 revision, it uses music in a unique way to signal transcendence—the oboe solo that begins the final section of Florestan’s aria thus serves the same function as does the portrait of Leonore that inspires and comforts him in Bouilly’s original (514). In this view, then, the 1814 version is less political and more “internal” than the earlier version.

The Theme of Marital Love

If the empress appreciated the story of Fidelio primarily for its portrayal of wifely fidelity and conjugal love, so did contemporary critics. After the 1805 performances, the Viennese correspondent of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung describes the subject of the opera as follows:

A man having been unjustly and suddenly dragged off to a dungeon through the fierce vindictiveness of his enemy and languishing there under fierce treatment, his death must now hide the shameful deed forever, since here and there something of the crime is beginning to be made known. However, his loving wife (Fidelio) has followed him into prison as the warden’s apprentice, has been able to win the trust of the tyrant and finally rescues her husband. The daughter of the warden falls in love with Fidelio and causes thereby a rather commonplace episode.

(Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 173)

Despite the reference to Pizarro as a “tyrant,” it is clear that this writer saw the story in terms of individual human relationships rather than politics. Pizarro is Florestan’s “enemy,” his imprisonment a “shameful deed” and a “crime.” Fidelio/Leonore, the only character mentioned by name, is portrayed as the hero of the action, her rescue of her husband as its consequence. In short, the writer presents Fidelio oder die eheliche Liebe (he is careful to cite the full title) as a rescue opera whose distinguishing feature is a strong female lead and a theme of conjugal love.

Meanwhile, the critic of Der Freymüthige, also citing the full title, described the work only as “a story of liberation of the kind that has come into fashion since Cherubini’s (p. 225) Les Deux Journées” (Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 176). The reviews of the 1806 and 1814 revivals, while much more enthusiastic about the music, barely mention the story, although the Zeitung für die elegante Welt stated in 1806: “It is incomprehensible how the composer could have resolved to enliven this empty shoddy piece of work by Sonnleitner [sic] with beautiful music” (179).

One of the most significant contributions to Beethoven’s reception in general is Amadeus Wendt’s lengthy 1815 essay on Fidelio (the title is now given in its shortened form) in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Here is Wendt’s brief summary of the plot:

The story of the opera is that of a noble woman who rescues her husband, who has been overthrown by a court intrigue and placed in the deepest dungeon as a state prisoner as a result of the inhuman revenge of the governor of the state prisons, from assassination, through which the governor strives to remove him from the sight of the minister who is visiting the prison, and who naturally brings about poetic justice in the end. By means of the confidence, which, disguised as a young man, she has won from the dungeon master she finally discovers her husband after great exertion.

(Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 203)

Wendt goes on to point out, “This subject . . . is outwardly, that is, in relation to dramatic and scenic variety, very deficient; inwardly, however, that is, in regard to the active description and elaboration of the situations that occur that is possible here by means of poetry and music, it is endlessly fruitful” (203).

Some qualifications need to be made. Wendt had heard, in Leipzig, what he believed to be the original version of the opera (it was actually a makeshift three-act adaptation of the 1806 Fidelio). He suggested that one reason for its initial failure was that people in Vienna were already acquainted with the subject “to the point of saturation” through Paer’s Leonora (Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 202). He was obviously wrong about this as well, since Leonora was not performed in Vienna until March 1806 and was not performed publicly there until February 1809 (Robinson 1996, 34). However, his comment implies that, far from finding the subject controversial, he found it commonplace; this perception, in fact, supports one of the central themes of his essay, which is that Beethoven’s music alone creates the dramatic unity that makes the work outstanding.

Fidelio and German Nationalism

One theme that does emerge strongly from the early reviews is that of German nationalism. Reviewing a 1829 performance in Dresden, Richard Otto Spazier wrote, in the long-winded style typical of such appeals:

Whoever knows the circumstances under which the German opera in Dresden has had to operate since its inception, in competition with a rival, which for many years had monopolized the interest of the public, but otherwise enjoying support and (p. 226) patronage, with no means seeming too costly, no task too great for its maintenance, and which thus tried, successfully, to keep as much as possible within its possession, so that German art was always forced to clothe itself with those rags that the other had left behind and, as has rightly been said elsewhere, had to run like a humble beggar in pursuit of an arrogant rich man in its own fatherland: whoever knows the situation will rightly take phenomena like [the success of the Fidelio performance] as harbingers of a new dawn, which now, thanks to the persistent efforts of the men who influence the dissemination of art in Germany, is beginning to break forth upon the long overclouded artistic sky of a city gifted with quite rich resources.

(Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 258)

As distasteful as such comments may appear in historical hindsight, it is worth emphasizing that in context they are often associated with progressive political thinking, and thus militate against the idea that an “almost official link” existed between Beethoven’s opera and the conservative legacy of the Congress of Vienna. If the Congress represented a reaction against the revolutionary fervor that had swept Europe during the previous two decades, a strong reflection of its conservatism was seen in the cross-cultural nature of the newly formed Austrian empire, which by its very existence ignored the rising tide of nationalist sentiment that was to transform Europe over the next century. As Henry Kissinger writes in his classic reappraisal of the Congress of Vienna:

In 1919, the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated not so much from the impact of the war as from the nature of the peace, because its continued existence was incompatible with national self-determination, the legitimizing principle of the new international order. It would have occurred to no one in the eighteenth century that the legitimacy of a state depended on linguistic unity. It was inconceivable to the makers of the Versailles settlement that there might be any other basis for legitimate rule. Legitimizing principles triumph by being taken for granted.

(Kissinger 1956, 265)

By the early twentieth century, in other words, Spazier’s vehement nationalism would have seemed mainstream, while in context it was revolutionary.

This point can be sustained by comparing the stunning success of the revived Fidelio with the parallel trajectory of the “Posse” Unser Verkehr by Karl Borromäus Alexander Sessa (1786–1813). First performed in Breslau in 1813, this notoriously anti-Semitic farce premiered in Berlin on 2 September 1815. There it shared the stage of the royal opera house with Fidelio, which first appeared there the following month—a fact that explains Clemens Brentano’s statement in the Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats-und gelehrten Sachen of 17 October that Fidelio had appeared “without much noise, without prior proclamation, for this is none of our business (unser Verkehr)” (Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 223).

Sessa’s play was a vicious satire of the attempts of German Jews to fit into mainstream culture. It was precisely the question of linguistic unity that was at stake. By broadly satirizing the way that even assimilated Jews spoke German, the play mocked their (p. 227) pretensions to have left their former identity behind (Grossman 2000, 148, 150–152). Its performance in Berlin had encountered the determined opposition of Prussian Chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg, who had also been one of the leading diplomats at the Congress of Vienna (Hertz 2007, 141). Hardenberg doubtless saw it as a direct rebuke to the Emancipation Edict of 1812, which for the first time had made Prussian Jews citizens. Thus, unlike Fidelio, Sessa’s play faced determined censorship at the very highest level of authority and was only performed due to sustained public demand. Unser Verkehr remained controversial, and Ferdinand Alois Wurm (some sources give his name as Albert Wurm or even Albert Wurms), whose highly provocative portrayal of the character Jakob intensified the play’s anti-Semitism, was quickly sentenced to a year in prison and banished from Berlin. (Senner, Wallace, and Meredith 2001, 231; Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 17, 840).

In this case, the “conservative” legacy of the Congress of Vienna stood in direct opposition to the mounting German nationalism that would eventually make that legacy, and the diplomatic order on which it depended, obsolete. The attempts of Spazier and others to celebrate Fidelio as a nationalist work need to be read in this context. They show that, contrary to the claims of an “almost official link” with the Congress, Fidelio quickly became a powerful symbol of German cultural and linguistic identity. In the years of the Vormärz, this made it, at least potentially, a revolutionary work—though not in a way that appeals to twenty-first-century sensibilities.

The Austrian Police

The context in which the Austrian police attempted to censor Fidelio in 1805 is also more complicated than is commonly understood. Austria under Metternich has the reputation of having been a police state, and Beethoven already complained in 1794 to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, “You can’t speak too loudly here, or the police give you a place to stay” (Brandenburg 1996, 26 [no. 17]; my translation). Lewis Lockwood (2006, 480) refers to a Viennese civil servant who recorded in his diary the yearning that many Viennese felt, on the arrival of the French, for “the times of the unforgotten Joseph II,” when “free thought . . . [was] relieved of its fetters.”

Donald Emerson (1968, 7) has made it clear, however, that it was Joseph II himself whose “torrent of imperial efforts incidentally tossed up a new police system while he displaced the old provincial Estates in favor of his own administrators whose organization he passionately strove to systematize and strengthen.” In 1793, three years after Joseph’s death, his “Police Ministry was definitively incorporated into the Hapsburg government . . . to guard the security of Austria at war then with revolutionary France” (Emerson 1968, 1). Johann Anton, Count von Pergen (1725–1814), used his considerable skills to consolidate this ministry, so that “by 1787 all the provincial arms had emerged for the centralized police system by which [he] sought to surpass the other great states of Europe” (11).

(p. 228) Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, tried to reverse this process, turning “from the Count’s simple concentration on the security of the state to new emphasis on individual security and public welfare.” Leopold’s disregard for Pergen’s consolidation of police power led to the latter’s resignation in 1791, but he was reinstated by Leopold’s successor Francis II (later Emperor Francis I) the following year in the midst of growing concern over the threat posed by revolutionary France (Emerson 1968, 18, 22). Thus, during Beethoven’s first years in Vienna, a pitched battle was underway between Pergen, the great proponent of centralized police authority, and highly influential opponents who feared the kind of power that Pergen sought to obtain. That battle had begun under Joseph II well before the French Revolution, which only served to intensify it.

It was not until 1801, though, that the Police Ministry was entrusted with censorship powers (Emerson 1968, 27). By the time Fidelio appeared four years later, Pergen had retired permanently, removing the most effective police advocate from the field. The following year, his successor was described by “an informed critic . . . as a man who could not achieve the goals of higher state police: an inconceivable weakling who lacked will, tact, sagacity, and education” (Emerson 1968, 27).

In other words, the Police Ministry that attempted to censor Fidelio in 1805 was not the all-powerful entity of the Metternich years; it was more of a bungling, wounded giant poised between the power of the newly created imperial state and that of implacable enemies who sought to make the most of the situation. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Sonnleithner was able to pull strings behind the backs of the police and win approval for the opera. The fact that the police were unaware of the empress’s interest in and support for this very story is symptomatic of the often difficult role they had to play in competing for imperial favor.

The Congress of Vienna

By the time the opera was revived in 1814 the political situation was, of course, very different. The threat of Napoleon had been contained, but the one posed to the established order by revolution was as strong as ever—a fact that Napoleon’s dramatic escape from Elba and return to Paris would illustrate the following year. The long years of war had institutionalized the role of the centralized police force begun by Joseph II and made possible the truly oppressive censorship that would shortly begin under Metternich.

In this context, it is traditional to read the changes that Treitschke and Beethoven made to Fidelio as a capitulation. As is widely known, the opera was altered so that the dramatic uncertainty of the earlier ending, which took place in the dungeon, is resolved in a triumphant scene on the parade ground of the prison, in which it is announced that the king has set all the prisoners free. Thus, the benevolence of monarchy is affirmed while an entire people—it is easy to see the prisoners as representing Austria under Napoleon—is liberated. The presumptive historical precedent, the storming of the Bastille, is turned on its head, with the prisoners being set free by the state rather than (p. 229) from it. This change presumably made the censorship issue moot: even though a state minister still abuses his power, it is beyond question that, as Sonnleithner had claimed in 1805, he is only exercising private vengeance.

Such a reading, though, becomes problematic when viewed with the benefit of historical hindsight. If the opera indeed confirmed the conservative goals of the Congress of Vienna and reinforced the role of traditional monarchy, then its “visceral appeal for people on the left” is clearly based on a profound misunderstanding. It is hard to believe, however, that the more subversive implications of the liberation scene could have been completely overlooked in 1814. With the abundance of rescue operas during the preceding decades, audiences were predisposed to understand the genre in a broader context of progressive politics. Meyer has written:

Even in the absence of overt statements or gestures, the political meanings of operatic imprisonment are impossible to ignore. Indeed, in these decades European culture was so saturated with narratives and images of imprisonment that it would have been difficult for audiences not to regard the prisons in which the tenors and sopranos languish as miniature versions of the Bastille or Bicetre . . . Familiarity with the sources upon which rescue operas were based strengthened the tendency to read the operatic prison through the lens of politics.

(Meyer 2002, 483)

It would have been highly unusual for that lens to reveal a simple reaffirmation of the pre-Napoleonic status quo.

The Congress of Vienna, though, was also more complex and contradictory than is often recognized. As mentioned earlier, it stood in opposition to the kind of German nationalism that encouraged the virulent anti-Semitism of the later nineteenth century. A serious attempt was also made at the Congress to end the international slave trade, which is often seen as a crucial step toward its eventual abolition (Nicolson 1946, 209–214). The settlements reached at the Congress mark an important precedent for all later international peacekeeping systems, including the League of Nations and the United Nations, which came into existence after similarly cataclysmic wars. As Richard Langhorne explains, the Congress’s reputation rose in the 1930s when it became evident that the Treaty of Versailles had failed due to the exclusion of Germany from the negotiations. By contrast, the full inclusion of France at Vienna had helped to guarantee a solution that maintained the balance of power for a century through what is often called the Concert of Europe (Langhorne 1986, 313–314). During the 1950s, against the background of this changing perspective, Henry Kissinger made a highly influential attempt to rehabilitate Metternich’s reputation as a statesman and peacemaker.

Thus, it is entirely fair to associate the Congress with “hopeful new beginnings,” and even, as Robinson (1996, 148) also suggests, with “fundamental political transformation.” It is also easy to understand why the opera’s more revolutionary implications were downplayed during the years of the Vormärz, when “revolution” was the enemy of the international order in the same sense that communism was in the later twentieth century (Langhorne 1986, 316). As is so often the case with major political events (p. 230) and great works of art, both the Congress and Fidelio pointed in multiple directions at once.

Ironically, then, the fact that the opera avoided censorship in 1814 may be largely a result of the hopeful political climate in which it re-emerged, which focused attention on its optimism rather than on its revolutionary political pedigree. But there are other, as yet unconsidered, possibilities as well.

Schröder-Devrient and the Theme of Marital Love

The fact that the opera’s political content remained secondary through much of the nineteenth century is often attributed to the influence of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who first sang the role of Leonore in 1822 and quickly became identified with it. As Robinson writes:

Schröder-Devrient’s performance was geared to convey a single passion: Leonore’s unstinting devotion to her husband. She anxiously examined the faces of the prisoners as they entered the courtyard; she embraced Florestan rapturously at the moment of rescue; and in the final tableau, according to Chorley, “there was something subduing in the look of speechless affection with which she at last undid the chains of the beloved one, saved by her love.”

(Robinson 1996, 150)

The implication here is that Schröder-Devrient neutralized the opera’s revolutionary politics by focusing on the secondary theme of marital love. In this view, the rediscovery of Fidelio as a political opera did not occur until the twentieth century.

We have already seen, however, that this “secondary” theme is the only one discussed in any depth by early reviewers, and that Marie Therese’s interest in it may well have motivated Beethoven to write the opera and helped to overcome the censors’ objections. Did the twentieth century simply invent the idea that Fidelio had always been a political opera, causing the censorship episode to acquire more significance than it really deserves? Or is it possible that modern critics, like Conan Doyle’s Inspector Gregory, are missing something obvious but unremarkable?

Meyer (2002, 484) hints at this latter possibility when he writes, “the operatic prisons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries manifest a more broadly disseminated tendency to cast political drama in terms of interpersonal relationships.” Meyer cites Lynn Hunt’s book The Family Romance of the French Revolution, which, while it does not refer to Fidelio directly, certainly suggests a strong connection between the opera’s political themes and its central story about wifely virtue and heroism. Hunt’s thesis is that French writers—particularly novelists—of the late eighteenth century used stories about family relationships to work out their understanding of the (p. 231) changing nature of political power. In particular, mounting distrust of royal authority was reflected in a large number of stories in which the traditional “good father” was almost entirely absent, forcing children to take a much more active and creative role in defining their place in the world (Hunt 1992, xiii). (The Freudian term “family romance” refers to what Freud saw as a widespread tendency to deny one’s true parents and replace them with imaginary ones more gratifying to a patient’s self-image, usually because they have a higher social standing.)

In a fascinating final chapter, Hunt shows how the family was then rehabilitated in post-revolutionary stories in ways that legitimized the new order while also reflecting crucial changes in the ways that authority and legitimacy were understood:

Fathers were restored as rightful heads of the family, but only if they were willing to take on new roles as nurturers and guides rather than unfettered tyrants. Women were to confine themselves to motherhood, but motherhood was given greater value, and many questions remained about just what mothers should know . . . . The new forms of social organization did not simply incarnate the power of the father; they instituted a fragile, unstable, constantly shifting equilibrium between the individual and the family. (191)

Significantly for our understanding of Fidelio, one of the crucial forms in which that equilibrium was explored during the 1790s was the emerging genre of the melodrama. First appearing as a distinctive form with the abolition of the royal theaters in January 1791, melodrama was at the peak of its popularity when Bouilly’s Léonore appeared in 1798 (Hunt 1992, 181–183). Although Bouilly’s version, unlike Beethoven’s opera, did not include a melodrama, it had most of the standard characters of the new genre: “the persecuted innocent, the traitor, the tyrant and the liberator were all stock types taken from the pantomime tradition” out of which the melodrama sprang (Hunt 1992, 183). The chronology is significant because such stories became prominent in the years immediately after the Reign of Terror, when the excesses of rapid, radical political change were fully apparent.

Situated in political and historical context, then, Bouilly’s play is a clear, if perhaps partly unconscious, response to contemporary events. Florestan, the man of reason, has no effective father figure to protect him against the arbitrary vengeance of his immediate enemies. It falls to his wife to take on the unaccustomed role of protector and vindicator. In doing so, she of course steps out of her accustomed gender role and literally “wears the pants” for much of the opera. Her actions, however, also affirm the significance of marriage as a force of social stability in whose maintenance wives have an expanded but still limited role. Leonore the revolutionary and Leonore the Biedermeier housewife are, paradoxically, one and the same.

With this understanding, we can draw some intriguing conclusions about the censorship incident and its historical significance. Far from being an arbitrary and external event, it mirrors the “internal” action of the opera with remarkable symmetry. The Viennese police force, which attempted to censor the work, was acting not as a proxy (p. 232) for the state, but, much like Pizarro, as a rogue agent plagued by insecurity about its role. The work’s vindicator, who had stood by it from the first, was the wife of the powerful but remote Emperor Francis I, busy carving out for herself a new, if underappreciated, role as a patroness of the arts. The empress admired this story above all others because she no doubt saw in its heroine a character with whom she felt a deep affinity: a woman who exercised her power to influence history through and because of her identity as a wife. Both Marie Therese and Leonore were responding to historically determined ambiguities in their roles as women, and were doing so reconstructively, by affirming the relevance of those roles at a time when traditional authority had been largely discredited.

At the time of the opera’s revival the empress was dead, and royal authority—now imperial authority—was well on the way to being legitimized again. It is conventional to read the changes made to the opera’s story in 1814 as a bow to this new reality, but it might be more accurate to see them as springing from a common source: the deep desire to see social stability restored on lasting post-revolutionary terms. This desire, which was implicit in Bouilly’s original story, had no convincing historical embodiment in 1805—certainly not in the person of Napoleon, who was still a highly destabilizing figure—and so no such embodiment was suggested, either by Bouilly or by Sonnleithner. By 1814 the prominent figure of the benevolent monarch was not simply convenient but was directly conceivable as an object of both conservative and progressive political goals: conservative in that it restored order, but progressive in that it did so, ostensibly at least, on more enlightened terms. Though the historical record in Austria did not immediately bear out these more liberal expectations, they might have seemed highly plausible to Beethoven and Treitschke in 1814. Thus, the “internal” modifications that they made to the story were just as clear a reflection of political reality as was Bouilly’s original. By this reading, Fidelio in both versions was a political opera both inside and out.


Our examination of this “curious incident,” then, has indeed helped to solve a few mysteries about Fidelio, its reception, and its political meaning. To summarize:

  • The efforts of the Viennese police to censor Fidelio in 1805 did not have the backing of the imperial government and collapsed almost immediately when the empress’s name was invoked.

  • The opera’s two themes—those of political liberation and wifely fidelity—were strongly linked at the historical moment when the opera was written.

  • Likewise, the external effort at censorship and its failure mirror these internal themes to a surprising extent.

  • The changes made to the story of Fidelio in 1814 are an accurate reflection of the ways in which popular understanding of the role of authority figures—both in the (p. 233) family and in society at large—had been changed, and those figures rehabilitated, in the decade since the premiere.

  • The political legacy of the Congress of Vienna at least partially vindicates this view of authority. In Austria that legacy led to oppression and increased censorship, but the Congress also provided a bulwark against the darker forces of nationalism that remained in place throughout a century of significant political progress.

  • The prevailing later nineteenth-century view of Fidelio as an opera about marital fidelity does not cancel its political significance. Rather, it suggests that the opera was understood, at least in part, as a parable about how traditional power relationships can change to fit changing circumstances.

Finally, we can surmise that the re-emergence of Fidelio in the twentieth century as an overtly political opera simply reflects the obsolescence of the marital theme, which could no longer be understood in progressive political terms at a time when traditional authoritarian power structures, now incapable of being rehabilitated, were instead being swept away.

Beethoven’s reputation as a political progressive has no doubt helped the opera’s political theme remain relevant to twentieth- and twenty-first-century audiences. Ironically, however, changing circumstances have made the later version, which is now solidly anchored in the standard repertory, appear less political than its predecessors. As this summary has suggested, it was neither more nor less political; it was simply a reflection of a different political reality. Since the protagonist in this version was vindicated by the state, there was obviously no reason for the state to censor it. It remained for the twentieth century to witness abuses of power that once again cast the state’s very legitimacy into doubt. Thus, people in our own time have needed to believe in a censored Fidelio that was subversive enough to challenge state power in a fundamental way. That Fidelio is largely our creation, not Beethoven’s.


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