Beethoven wrote four overtures to his only Opera Fidelio, the action of which is set in Spain. It originally bore the title Leonora, the name of the heroine. We know the first three overtures that he wrote as Leonoras Nos. I, II and III, and the fourth as Fidelio. Number I was discarded before the opera’s première in 1805, for which he wrote No. II. Number III preceded the revised production of 1806, and the year 1814 saw the final revision and the change of title. Unfortunately the cosy chronological numbering and use of the four overtures has been challenged by more recent scholarship.
Of the four overtures, No. III must be regarded as the most noble. It has been dubbed the “first orchestral tone poem of the early Romantic Era”. The Overture is based on Sonata form – symphonic structure. Following the slow dramatic opening, allusions are made to Florestan’s Act III aria and the great quartet of Act III.
The critical point of the overture is the trumpet call which, when heard during the on-stage action, heralds the turning point in the fortune of the ill-used Don Florestan. Imprisoned, and being slowly starved to death by his political enemy and Governor of the Prison Don Pizzarro, Florestan is to be saved by the ingenuity and resolve of his wife Leonora disguised as a boy calling herself Fidelio. At the trumpet call, the Minister Don Fernando enters and crowns Leonora’s heroic efforts by ordering Florestan’s release. Pizzaro is made the prisoner.