The opera Fidelio (1804–1805) and the Fifth Symphony (1807–1808) belong at the peak of Beethoven´s heroic classicism. The composer was at work on them during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the heroic style had not yet been devalued and rejected – the cynical Congress of Vienna, which placed its cross on the grave of the heroic era in European history, still lay ahead.
Beethoven´s only opera, Fidelio (initially called Leonora, oder die Eheliche Liebe) was written in the traditions of a French «opera of terrors and salvation». It took Nicolas Bouilly´s libretto for the opera of the same name by Pierre Gavot (1798). It is based on a true episode of a wife saving her husband from prison, which occurred in Tours during the years of terror. Typically, Bouilly and Gaveau moved the action yet farther from sin to Spain. The contemporary subject became popular and, at the same time as Beethoven, Ferdinand Paër was working on it, in turn moving the action to Poland, in his opera Leonora becoming Zeliksa and Pizarro the tyrant Moroski.
Normally in an «opera of salvation» the noble hero is helped flee his confinement by his no less noble friends, or the hero saves his beloved lady. Here all is in reverse: the heroine is no longer a helpless victim, she dresses up in men´s clothes and saves the suffering protagonist – the whole system of operatic techniques is set into motion! Beethoven was even drawn by the gloomy romanticism of jails and underground caverns, so popular in the revolutionary era.
The premiere took place on 20 November 1805 at the Theater an der Wien. As fate would ironically have it, it occurred during the French occupation of Vienna, and officers of the revolutionary army, understanding nothing in the opera, damned it. Beethoven reworked the score twice, in particular writing four (!) different overtures, but Fidelio was destined to remain an opera with beautiful music and a complex stage destiny.
The first performance of the Fifth Symphony took place on 22 December 1808, and the score was dedicated to Beethoven´s patrons Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky. In terms of its scale, there is something of the gargantuan revolutionary celebrations. The makeup of the symphony was expanded in accordance with the theatre orchestras of Paris (despite the political disagreements, contemporary French music was very fashionable in Paris in those years).
In the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven completed his own revolution: he connected its various movements through the use of one motif (known as the «fate motif») and decreed that the third and fourth movements be performed without interruption. Today, all this in itself seems self-explanatory, but in those years, symphonies at large concerts served as a kind of crust for the pie: first, as an overture, there came the first three movements of the symphony, then came a variety of solo numbers (all kinds of arias and concert pieces – the tasty «filling»), the evening ending with the finale of the symphony itself. Not to mention that at the time it was accepted practice to applaud after each movement.
Beethoven, on the other hand, wanted for his symphonies to be perceived as integral beings, unbroken by unnecessary applause, or by «extra» concert numbers, and in the battle against old customs he took up the most radical means available. Onward, through battle, to victory!