Ernst Bloch: Utopian Present in “Fidelio”

Film: » Fidelio «

There is one work in which the note simultaneously loads and aims in a quite exceptional fashion. This is Fidelio, where it is a matter of making one call audible and every bar is tensed towards this. In the light and superficial prelude between Marzelline and Jaquino there is already a disquiet and a pounding that is more than superficial. Everything is future-oriented, “then shall we rest from troubles”, and every note is symbolic. “Think you I cannot read your heart?” Rocco asks Leonore; and then the scene contracts as four voices build up pure inwardness. “I feel so wondrous strange, my heart is stifling me”, begins the quartet, the Andante sostenuto of a song giving vent to absolutely nothing but its “wondrous”, borne upon darkness alone. Marzelline sings it for Leonore, and hope illumines the goal, though the danger is great. “Now I see a shining rainbow resting on the gloomy clouds” – Leonore herself is speaking within this light in the truest aria of hope, rising and falling above sombre agitations of sound, her face turned to that star which comforts the weary. The star’s influence was already felt in the timid “wondrous” with which the quartet began. It influences Leonore’s aria and the Prisoners’ Chorus, when not only Leonore and Florestan but all condemned men on this Earth look up to the light of the morrow. But the star is dazzling and high in Florestan’s feverish ecstasy, being Leonore herself. To this star belongs the visionary cry, “to freedom, to freedom, into the kingdom above”, soaring with superhuman cadences, then collapsing unconscious and dying away.

Then comes the start of the subterranean monodrama, the scene of the wildest suspense; Florestan confronts Pizarro, “a murderer, murderer stands before me”, Leonore shields Florestan with her body, revealing her identity; renewed onslaught of the murder theme, the pistol is pointed at Pizarro, “one more sound, and you are dead”. Were the spirit and dramatic scope of this music to give rise to nothing further, then the pistol shot would be both the symbol and the act of rescue, and its tonic the answer to what was called and the call itself from the outset. But on the basis of the music’s imperatively apocalyptic spirit and scope, this tonic obtains a symbol from the requiem: more specifically, from the Easter mystery in the Dies irae. We refer to the trumpet signal. If one understands this signal in a superficial sense, from Pizarro’s earlier order to sound it from the battlements as a means of warning him, then it is merely a literal herald of the Minister’s arrival from Seville. But in Beethoven’s mind, it is the tuba mirum spargens sonum announcing the Saviour’s arrival. That is how it penetrates to the dungeon below, to the torches and lights which accompany the governor upwards. Thus does it penetrate the “namen-, namenlose Freude”, the ineffable joy where Beethoven’s music no longer holds back, and the chorus of “Hail to the day, hailed be the hour!” in the transformed courtyard of the fortress.

It was an inspired idea of Mahler’s to play between the dungeon scene and the final liberation the third Leonore overture, that overture which is really a utopian memory, a legend of fulfilled hope, with the trumpet signal at its centre. The signal is sounded, without and after the staging, and the music answers with a melody of calm which cannot be played sufficiently slowly. Then the signal is sounded a second time, and the same melody answers, mysteriously modulated, in a remote key out of a world already changed. And now back into the scene of liberation, the Marseillaise over the fallen Bastille. The present moment has come, the star of fulfilled hope in the here and now. Leonore removes Florestan’s chains: “O God, what a moment this is” – and at these words, which Beethoven has raised to metaphysical heights, there arises a song, a veritable tarrying moreover, which would deserve to go on arriving for ever. First the sudden switch to a distant key, then an oboe melody expressing fulfilment; the Sostenuto assai of time standing still and absorbed in the moment. Every future storming of the Bastille is implicitly expressed in Fidelio, and an incipient substance of human identity fills up the space in the Sostenuto assai. The Presto of the final chords just adds the reflected glory, the rejoicing around Leonore-Maria militans.

Beethoven’s music is chiliastic, and the form of the ‘rescue opera’, which was not uncommon at the time, only furnished the superficial material for this music’s moral contents. Does not the character of Pizarro bear all the features of a Pharaoh, of Herod, Gessler, the demon of winter and indeed that same gnostic Satan who put Man into the dungeon of the world and keeps him prisoner there? Here and nowhere else, on the other hand, music becomes a rosy dawn, militant-religious, the dawning of a new day so audible that it seems more than simply a hope. It shines forth as the pure work of Man, as one which had not yet appeared in the world surrounding Beethoven, a world that existed irrespective of men. Thus music as a whole stands at the farther limits of humanity, but at those limits where humanity, with new language and haloed by the call to achieved intensity, to the attained world of ‘we’, is first taking shape. And this ordering in our musical expression means a house, indeed a crystal, but one derived from our future freedom; a star, but one that will be a new Earth.

From “The Principle of Hope”, Cambridge University Press 1985

(Ernst Bloch’s reflections, which he first published in 1927 in a program note for the Kroll Opera in Berlin, were formative for Jan Schmidt-Garre’s production of "Fidelio".)

Film: » Fidelio «