BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY – Saturday, November 2, 1822

Today is the big dress rehearsal of the revival of Fidelio, to be conducted by Beethoven and starring Wilhelmine Schröder, then only seventeen years old. She eventually (after Beethoven’s death) developed a reputation as the greatest of all the Fidelios.

Schröder left an account of the dress rehearsal for her debut as Leonore, as set forth in Thayer-Forbes at p. 811 as follows:

“Under the guidance of my talented mother, many of the traits in Leonore’s character became clear to me; however I was still too young, too little developed within to have a full understanding of what took place in Leonore’s soul, emotions for which Beethoven had conceived his immortal harmonies. At the rehearsals, which were led by Umlauf, who was then kapellmeister, the limits of my underdeveloped young voice soon became known and many things in my part were changed for me so that the effect did not suffer too much.”

“The last rehearsals were set, when I learned before the dress rehearsal that Beethoven had asked for the honor of conducting the work himself in celebration of the day. On hearing this news, a great fear came over me, and I also remember my frightful awkwardness, which nearly drove my poor mother, as well as those who were working with me, to despair. But Beethoven sat in the orchestra and waved his baton over everyone’s heads, and I had never seen the man before! – At that time the master’s physical ear was already closed to all sounds. With a bewildered face and unearthly inspired eyes, waving his baton back and forth with violent motions, he stood in the midst of the performing musicians and didn’t hear a note! If he thought it should be piano he crouched down almost under the conductor’s desk and if he wanted forte he jumped up with the strangest gestures, uttering the weirdest sounds. With each piece our courage dwindled further and I felt as though I were watching one of [E.T.A.] Hoffmann’s fantastic figures appear before me.”

“The inevitable happened: the deaf master threw the singers and orchestra completely off the beat and into the greatest confusion, and no one knew any longer where they were. Beethoven, however, knew nothing of all this, and so with difficulty our rehearsal came to an end, with which he seemed to be well satisfied, for he laid down his baton with a cheery smile. But now it was impossible to entrust him with the performance, and Kapellmeister Umlauf had to perform the heart-rending task of pointing out to him that the opera could not be given under his direction. I am told that he resigned himself with a melancholy look upwards.”

Anton Schindler’s highly melodramatic account of the dress rehearsal contradicts that of Schröder in numerous important respects (for instance, he claims that Umlauf stopped the rehearsal after the first duet), and also as typical makes Schindler out to be the hero and already a trusted intimate of Beethoven when he was not, and is thus not worthy of credence or repetition here.