Beethoven wrote many overtures. Some were as stand-alone pieces, some were as incidental music, and several were for the various versions of his one opera. One overture for Leonore (later Fidelio) was not enough, and whenever he modified the opera, he added a new overture for it. Unfortunately, the numbering for them seems a bit awkward.
Overture for the first version of Fidelio in 1805: Leonore Overture, No.2
Overture for the second version in 1806: Leonore Overture, No.3
Overture for the third version in 1814: Fidelio Overture
What about Leonore Overture, No.1? It was only found after Beethoven’s death. For many years, scholars thought it was the composer’s earliest overture for the opera. However, recent studies show that it was written for an 1807 performance of Fidelio in Prague that never took place.
When Mahler was in charge of the Vienna opera, he inserted Leonore Overture, No.3 as a prelude to the opera’s second act. This was thought of as an act of genius by Mahler. In reality, the music was added to give the stage director Alfred Roller more time to change scenery. Performing this overture before act two became a tradition, and the opera is still occasionally performed that way today.
By the way, the Fidelio Overture was late for the 1814 opening. The first performance was on May 23, but the overture was not added until May 26.
A version of this program note was first published in the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s 2010-2011 program.