Fidelio or the Musical Prison:

A Dark Essay on Freedom, Gender, and the State

Table of Contents

Esteban Buch

Esteban Buch (Buenos Aires, 1963) is a professor of music history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. A specialist of the relations between music and politics, he is the author of Trauermarsch (Paris, 2016) and Beethoven’s Ninth (Chicago, 2003), among other books. He has recently co-edited, with Robert Adlington, Finding Democracy in Music (Routledge, 2020).

by Esteban Buch

Music & Practice, Volume 8


Beethoven’s Fidelio is the opera of freedom: ‘Zur Freiheit, zur Freiheit!’ Florestan sings in his dungeon; ‘O Freiheit!’, the prisoners sing during their short walk ‘in free air’.[1] And its topic is not freedom in general, as some abstract, idealistic notion, but freedom’s practical relation to the state, to power and the abuse of power, to law and unlawfulness, to prison, to torture, to murder. Indeed, prison is not only the setting of the story, but also its content, its very fabric and experience. This, if anything, justifies Beethoven’s only opera – first performed in Vienna in 1805, and revised in 1806 and 1814, thanks to three consecutive librettists, Joseph Sonnleithner, Stephan von Breuning and Georg Treitschke – being called a political opera.

Fidelio is also political in that it thematizes gender and class. The pitch of the first act is well known: Leonore, a woman of the upper class, cross-dresses as a man to enter the prison where her husband Florestan is secretly held in chains. To that end, she seduces Marzelline, the young daughter of the prison’s jailor Rocco, also courted by the porter Jaquino, a lower-class man. A trouser role rather than a travestied character, since Leonore is disguised as a man without performing a male person, her character nevertheless puts gender trouble at the core of the work. Of course, even if her outfit suggests the contrary, the audience knows that she is a woman by listening to her soprano coloratura. Yet the consequences of her unsettling gender conventions resonate throughout the work. The opera is based on Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal, and as the original French title indicates, the story praises love by making of the marital promise of fidelity the very symbol of moral law. But it also problematizes it, as hope for conjugal happiness is enunciated not by Leonore, but by Marzelline, in her aria ‘O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint’. Indeed, the tragic side of this happy-ending story arguably lies in this young woman’s loving a person who makes her believe she is loved in return, and whose deceitful behaviour is pictured as a model of moral and political virtue.

Finally, Fidelio is political in the rich ways it engages with the spectator’s moral and aesthetical experience. Most of its music invites us to take pleasure in the triumph of the good identified as sonically beautiful. Carl Dahlhaus claimed that in listening to the chorus of prisoners at the end of Act I ‘there is no escaping the feeling that injustice has been done to people who express themselves in such music’.[2] On the other hand, the opera also allows the spectator enjoying the spectacle of evil and suffering, especially as the villain Pizarro vigorously sings his sadistic desires of murder. At the end, however, Florestan is freed, Pizarro is punished, and conjugal love is unanimously celebrated. Far from praising ambivalence, the moral lesson of the work is simple, even simplistic. Yet, whether this ending represents the actual triumph of freedom is open to debate. Ernst Bloch’s claim that Fidelio is ‘the dawning of a new day so audible that it seems more than simply a hope’[3] contrasts with Theodor W. Adorno’s dry remark that ‘freedom is real in Fidelio only as hope’.[4]

This essay contributes to this endless debate by discussing how Beethoven’s imaginary prison – a fiction set in Spain, written in France, and performed in Austria – related to the actual prisons of his time. In the first part, it compares the history of state prisons in these three countries, and retraces how Fidelio was framed by their representations and practices, especially as the composer and his librettists negotiated with the censors how the work was to display the power of the state. In the second part, it further analyses the opera’s moral universe by exploring how it exalts the agency of a woman, Leonore, in the pursuit of the common good yet, at the end, as Jonathan Goldberg noted, ‘the freedom that the opera extols returns her to her place’ – that of the spouse of a male hero.[5] In the conclusion, these two main themes converge on a discussion on the moral agency of the patriarchal state as it exerts its power over prisoners and women, and on how this relates to the agency of music itself, as the opera conventions sensorially display the contrast between good and evil characters, while allowing the audience to enjoy the spectacle of both good and evil.

This historical inquiry on the power relations between opera, gender and the state, takes as a starting point an avowedly provocative anachronism, namely the idea of seeing the prisoner Florestan as a desaparecido.

The desaparecido of the Staatsgefängnis

In 2006, the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance defined this crime against humanity as

the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.[6]

In Argentina, during the 1976–1983 dictatorship led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, nearly thirty thousand people were illegally abducted, held and tortured in clandestine prisons, and summarily executed by throwing them alive from airplanes into the Río de la Plata, among other sinister techniques. At the same time, several other thousands of prisoners were officially held in jail ‘at the disposal of the National Executive Power’, that is, without trial or term. After the democratic election of President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983, the top commanders of this system of state terrorism were sentenced to life imprisonment by a federal court; over the years since, other, lower-ranking officers have been prosecuted for similar crimes.[7] The Argentine desaparecidos were the main precedent of the ONU’s definition, even if enforced disappearance had been committed afterwards and, significantly for our purposes, also before. This included the Nazis’ infamous Nacht und Nebel operations and the French troops’ illegal activities during the Algerian war, but also, arguably, the repressive techniques of much older authoritarian and/or absolutist regimes.

Why might the story of Fidelio be a case in point? Beethoven’s opera is set in a ‘state prison’ (Staatsgefängnis) which, according to the libretto, is ‘a royal prison leagues away from Sevilla’, with no temporal specification.[8] This is no clandestine prison, as shown by the role of Don Fernando, the Minister who at the end punishes Governor Pizarro in the name of God and the king. In this institution all prisoners, and not only Florestan, are victims of ‘arbitrary violence’ (willkürlicher Gewalt), according to the letter that, by telling Pizarro that the Minister is on his way, accelerates his attempt to kill Florestan. Such violence is Pizarro’s responsibility, for which he is held accountable by the Minister. Yet it is this latter, the topmost representative of the state, who holds the list of prisoners who sing at the end of the first act: ‘The prison is a grave’, and who denounce the surveillance by state officers by saying ‘their eyes and ears are upon us’.

The ordinary functioning of the prison imposes on all detainees the privation of air and light in confined spaces, the absence of intimacy and recreation, the inexistence of any perspective of liberation, and a general incertitude about their fate, which is perhaps the most terrible aspect of their situation. Other violations of human rights are likely, but are left to the imagination of the spectator and/or the creativity of the stage directors – a crucial aspect of Fidelio, for sure, which unfortunately must be left aside in this essay. The prisoners’ walk in the courtyard is a concession that Leonore obtains from the jailor Rocco by appealing to his good heart, thus arising Pizarro’s ire; but the reason Rocco invokes as a pretext to justify this breach of routine is the fact that ‘the king’s birth-day is to day / and that we celebrate in this way’, thus highlighting its exceptionality under the prison’s ordinary rules.

As to why these people are held in captivity, all we know is that they are ‘state prisoners’ (Staatsgefangene). According to a nineteenth-century edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, a prisonnier d’État is a man ‘detained for some action against the security of the state’;[9] the Grimm Brothers’ Wörterbuch defined him as somebody ‘who is imprisoned directly by the state, rather than by the judiciary’.[10] If these definitions might sometimes concern true criminal acts, they firstly correspond to individuals a government holds in prison without trial for dissident political opinions and acts. In Fidelio, the Minister declares he acts in the name of ‘the best of kings’, without referring to any judicial authority. The passive consent of the chorus of the people, which at the end joins in with the chorus of prisoners and the main characters of the opera, shows less the democratic dimension of the regime than the limits of freedom as it is granted by an absolutist state – one whose carceral system is, by today’s criteria, founded on systematic violations of human rights.

The fact that the Minister’s list does not include Florestan is precisely what distinguishes him among the victims of state arbitrary violence and makes him a candidate for the desaparecidos. The reason for that exception is the governor’s desire for personal revenge, since Florestan told a ‘truth’ about him that exposed him to ‘public scorn’ and nearly ended his political career. Now, if Pizarro did not face other consequences for the denunciation of his crime, whatever it was, it is because he was protected by influential people, like the friend who tells him that the Minister is on his way. Florestan is believed to be dead by friends and political allies like Fernando himself, who loves him and admires him. When the opera starts, Pizarro has kept his clandestine prisoner for two years in his ‘secret dungeon’, actually a former cistern, and holds him in chains in the most unhealthy and fearful conditions; for a whole month, he has been starved to death by Rocco on the governor’s orders. There is little doubt that Florestan has been deprived of liberty and tortured ‘by agents of the state’ who have also indulged in ‘concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person’. Leonore does not know where he is, and only a guess makes her knock at his prison’s door, like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo –the mothers of the desaparecidos– sometimes did, with much less success. The agents of the state implicated in Florestan’s disappearance include Pizarro, his officers, his guards, and his other subordinates, like Rocco, Marzelline, Jaquino and, yes, for a moment, Fidelio, who helps the jailor to find good deals for chains, and to dig the prisoner’s grave.

As a fictional story set in Spain, written in France, and composed and performed in Austria, Beethoven’s opera combined practices and imagery of the law associated with these three countries in a very unstable time, namely the aftermath of the French Revolution. The circulation of the story between the three countries presupposed that in all of them there were state prisons where human rights abuses were likely, and also people likely to see this as a moral issue – people represented in the play by Leonore and Florestan, and in reality by some members of the audience. On the other hand, the political regimes in each country were very different, as were the images that each of them had of the other two. Thus, Fidelio and other musical settings of Bouilly’s story – starting with Pierre Gaveaux’s 1798 original production – can be seen as the result of a collective, international creative process in which composers, authors, librettists and theatre producers shared responsibility with representatives of the states – especially the censors of the Habsburg Austrian empire who, in the case of Beethoven’s opera, imposed crucial elements of the depiction of the fictional state.

So, why was the story set in Spain? Did it have anything to do with Spanish reality? According to the original edition, Bouilly’s play depicts a ‘fait historique’, but the notion of ‘historical fact’ was itself a fiction.[11] Spain had the reputation of being a barbaric, unlawful country, mostly through a ‘black legend’ associated with the reign of Philip II (1556–1598), as depicted in Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos (1787).[12] Yet state prisons like the one imagined by Bouilly still existed in Spain in the eighteenth-century. A famous one was the Alcázar de Segovia, a medieval castle situated miles away from Madrid, where prisoners were held for crimes of lesa majestad and treason to the crown, especially during the 1701–1714 war of the Spanish Succession, which ended with the victory of the Bourbons over the Habsburgs. As a response to ‘a new type of political crime’, the king had the power to designate as traitor whomever he desired, and the motives and sanction were not explained to anyone – including the convict.[13] Bouilly might also have had in mind the Castillo San Jorge, a fortress situated in Seville that was until 1785 the Inquisition’s most infamous prison; even if it was run not by the state but by the Church, the association is likely, given the author repeatedly using the word forteresse.[14] Also, the Spanish judiciary held suspects of ordinary crimes in conditions that might remind one of a stage direction for Fidelio: ‘I have been in this dungeon for nearly two months, held in chains, sleeping on straw, harassed by rats and mice, full of hunger and other needs’, one prisoner wrote in 1789.[15]

However, Bouilly’s setting the story in Spain was obviously a way of not setting it in France. State prisons were part of the repressive policy of the Ancien Régime, whose description in the Encyclopédie might incidentally explain Pizarro’s title: ‘Prisons for state criminals are run by governors’.[16] Yet, for all their cruelty, these prisons d’État were more often than not ‘luxury prisons’ for politicians, writers, and other members of the upper classes, while some of the people kept in ordinary prisons were called the pailleux as they slept sur la paille, on the straw. Bouilly’s story conflated the worst of both, state prisons and ordinary prisons. These last were traditionally directed by a concierge or geôlier who, rather than receiving a salary, earned his living by providing small services – including food and drink – to the prisoners. Even if that slowly started to change in the eighteenth century, this domestic administration is reflected in the topical narrative of prisoners seducing the jailor’s daughter to escape, as in the well-known ancient song ‘Dans les prisons de Nantes’a likely precedent for the story of Leonore and Marzelline.[17]

The French Revolution was ignited on 14 July 1789 by the storming of the country’s most famous prison d’État, la Bastille, the governorship of which was an infamous symbol of despotisme, quite independently of the person who held the job. In practice, arbitrary detentions of political prisoners continued under the Revolution, though culminating in Napoleon’s 1810 decree against ‘dangerous individuals who cannot be judged because their crimes are political … and who cannot be freed without compromising the security of the state’.[18] Yet, after 1789, standard narratives on the 14 Juillet depicted a rebellion against the cruel tyranny of gouverneur de Launay, a figure whose imprint on Pizarro’s seems inescapable.[19]

Bouilly was a revolutionary who acted as judge in Tours under Robespierre, only to affirm later that ‘in order to distract ourselves from the storm of the Terror we had recourse to the consolation offered by the arts’, including a private reading of Léonore.[20] In his memoirs he said that the play was based ‘on a sublime deed of heroism and devotion by one of the ladies of the Touraine, whose noble efforts I had the happiness of assisting’,[21] and suggested that Pizarro was modelled on a police agent of the Committee of Public Safety, thus associating himself with the Thermidorian revolt. Yet, according to David Galliver, ‘no record of occurrences in the Touraine during the Revolution has been found to support his statement’; the plot, he claims, was rather ‘an imaginative synthesis of Bouilly’s own experiences and fantasies’, written only after Robespierre’s fall in July 1794, as the author was eager ‘to suppress the somewhat less glorious memories of his own recent activities’.[22] Two things are sure: he knew well standard narratives on the prise de la Bastille, and he had direct knowledge of the topic of his play.

In 1798 the first performance of Bouilly’s text set to music, by Gaveaux, was welcomed in Paris with general enthusiasm and special praise for the dungeon scene: ‘nothing could have been more heart-rending or arresting’.[23] Such intense feelings, though, could not be easily ascribed to a particular political stance, either pro- or counter-revolutionary, or pro- or counter-Bonaparte for that matter. This plasticity arguably helped translate Bouilly’s play to other countries, in settings such as Ferdinand Paer’s opera Leonora, ossia L’amore coniugale, premiered in Dresden in 1804, and Simon Mayr’s L’amor coniugale, first performed in Pavia in 1805.

In Austria, the story obliquely addressed concerns that had been in the Habsburg’s agenda since the times of ‘enlightened’ rulers Maria Theresia, Joseph II and Leopold II. Political persecution had entered positive legislation in Austria as early as 1768 under the figure of the Festungshaft, a differentiated prison regime for political prisoners. Paramount in German-speaking lands, in Austria, for all its severity, it required the intervention of justice officials.[24] Under Emperor Franz I, the Austrian system evolved into what is often described as a ‘police state’.[25] In 1793, Count Johann von Pergen, the Minister of Police, invited local authorities to ‘secretly set in motion all levers for converting those in error and for wiping out all subversive views with which individuals or classes may have been infected by sneaking agitators’, especially through ‘the agency of well-disposed citizens’.[26] As a result, ‘spies were placed in every branch of the government and among all levels of the population’.[27] The ominous presence of the secret police in the lives of the Viennese was attested by no other than Beethoven, who in 1794 observed in a letter that ‘no one dares to speak aloud, for fear of arrest by the police’,[28] and who by 1814, as Fidelio was performed again to great success, was the subject of secret police reports.[29]

Yet, in 1794, Pergen also wrote that ‘observance of said regulations could cause harm to no innocent person, while he who was found guilty could be sentenced only by his legally appropriate judge’.[30] In 1795, the severity of the repression of the so-called ‘Jacobine conspiracy’ was not incompatible with holding trials, which ended with the sentencing to death of several leaders, and long prison terms for others.[31] Around that time, an official contended that ‘the Viennese should rejoice in living under an administration that not only protects innocence and property, but gives even the worst criminal time to build up his case and punishes him according to the laws only after his guilt has been fully established’.[32] While the intervention of the judiciary was certainly a result of ‘enlightened’ reforms and spirit, public executions of convicts intimidated critics and would-be opponents, and legitimated the regime through collective fear and support.

All this suggests that in Austria the idea of a Staatsgefängnis holding political prisoners without trial nor term was less part of common practice and popular expectations than in France or Spain, without showing by itself the actual prevalence of the rule of law, especially the principle of equality before the law. In 1819, Beethoven personally experienced the reality of a class-based justice during the dispute with his sister-in-law Johanna over his nephew Karl, a story that eventually ended with what Maynard Solomon called his ‘nobility pretense’.[33] Yet in 1830 his opera was to be announced as Fidelio, oder das Staatsgefängnis, suggesting than even under Metternich’s rule a state prison in Spain commanded by a rogue official could function as a dystopia, to be pedagogically compared with the alleged virtues of the Austrian regime.

This picture of the law resulted from negotiations with the state, namely the theatre censor who, in 1805, seems to have directly or indirectly inspired most of the novelties inserted into what was otherwise a translation of the French play. The text was submitted beforehand, as was mandatory, and Fidelio was banned two weeks before the premiere, originally scheduled for 15 October. The ban was lifted only after a petition presented by the translator and librettist Sonnleithner on 2 October, and a personal letter of 3 October addressed by Sonnleithner to a member of the Council of State, Philipp von Stahl. On 5 October, the censor, who was affiliated with the Ministry of Police, authorized the performance on the condition of ‘a few changes’.[34] The performance eventually took place on 20 November in awkward circumstances, as the court had fled the capital and Vienna was occupied by French troops, who made up most of the audience.[35]

Robin Wallace and Michael Tusa have studied the censor’s role in 1805 on the basis of the existing sources. Wallace claims that the performance was authorized thanks to Empress Maria Teresa’s interest in the work based on its praise of conjugal love and fidelity, and hypothesizes that the modifications requested by the censor on 5 October never took place. He concludes that ‘the efforts of the Viennese police to censor Fidelio in 1805 did not have the backing of the imperial government and collapsed almost immediately when the empress’s name was invoked’.[36] Yet, traces of the empress’s possible interest in the case are only second-hand, indeed through Sonnleithner’s own claim, and even if she did intervene, this did not preclude other ways of the police’s exerting political agency in the creative process already before the ban. Tusa argues that

Sonnleithner revised Bouilly’s text to modify its political implications, hardly surprising in view of the Austrian guidelines for censorship promulgated in a number of documents from the late-eighteenth century and spelled out in detail in a memorandum of 1795 from the Viennese censor Franz Karl Hägelin to the theater authorities in Hungary. These guidelines sought to ensure that plays and operas would uphold principles of monarchical rule, hierarchical class structure, and the honor of the Hapsburg dynasty.[37]

For instance, Hägelin discussed the case of plays featuring disabled members of the military, asserting that ‘never should the country’s authorities (Landsfürsten) nor the institution itself be held accountable’ for their misfortune.[38] This resonates in Fidelio, as Sonnleithner, according to Tusa,

eliminates references in the spoken dialogue to Pizarro’s deception of the minister Don Fernando and to Pizarro’s political manipulations to have himself appointed prison governor shortly after Florestan’s disappearance, as well as to the minister’s expression of remorse for having allowed himself to be duped by Pizarro. These changes seem to address a concern evidently raised by the censor that Pizarro’s actions could be interpreted as state-authorized persecution of a just man.[39]

As a result, ‘Sonnleithner’s changes minimize the role of state complicity, even unintended, in Florestan’s persecution’.[40] This is indeed a striking departure from Bouilly’s original text, where Fernando takes personal responsibility for Pizarro’s crimes, as he says to Florestan: ‘Ah! I won’t have enough of the rest of my life to expiate for the suffering I caused to you’.[41]

In his 2 October petition, Sonnleithner argued that ‘the plot takes place in the 16th century’, and noted that ‘the evil minded governor is executing only a private revenge like Pedrarias in (sic) Balboa’.[42] Consistent with Bouilly’s naming his villain Pizarro after the conqueror of the Inca empire, this passage alluded to a famous dispute between two Spanish conquistadores, Pedro Arias de Avila and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, which ended in 1519 with Balboa’s beheading. The librettist also argued, in his letter to Stahl: ‘granted, a minister abuses his power, but only for personal revenge – in Spain – in the sixteenth century, and he is punished for it, punished by the court, while confronting the heroism of feminine virtue’.[43] The alleged setting in the sixteenth century is not mentioned elsewhere, but Sonnleithner’s point was that the story happened in a distant place and in a distant time, as a way to downplay its relevance for the contemporary situation in Austria. Simultaneously, it acknowledged this very relevance by highlighting the state’s capacity for autoregulation and exemplary justice.

In Fidelio’s fiction, the handling of the Pizarro case by the state raises serious moral, legal and political questions. For instance, are the governor’s superiors and subordinates co-perpetrators of his crimes? This is a recurrent problem in contemporary trials of crimes against humanity, where prosecutors must decide between charging leaders with ‘command responsibility’, based in the proved existence of ‘effective control’ over their subordinates, or with a share in a ‘joint criminal enterprise’.[44] Pizarro certainly commands Rocco, whose personal liability evokes the fallacy of ‘due obedience to orders’ that was pleaded by officers guilty of atrocities under the Nazi or Argentine regimes. This is precisely Rocco’s defence: ‘I do what my duty commands me, but hate all cruelty’, he declares to Leonore as he digs Florestan’s grave. In fact, Pizarro pays gentle Rocco for his help and silence, while telling him that the prisoner must die because ‘it is of import’ to the state. This could hardly convince a man who responded to Leonore when she inquired whether the secret prisoner was ‘a great criminal’ that ‘he must have great enemies’, which in his view amounted ‘to about the same thing’. All the time, he is fully aware of the illegality and immorality of his acts, as he keeps complaining about them. In modern terms, Rocco is an archetypical accomplice. Yet the claim about his ‘due obedience to orders’ is acknowledged by the Minister who, at the end, rather than punishing him for his complicity, puts him in charge of the custody of Pizarro – not very good news for his former boss and new prisoner.

As to the ‘command responsibility’ of Fernando himself, and, by extension, the king and the state, the obvious answer is that the Minister punishes Pizarro in the name of the Court, as Sonnleithner argued in his letter to Stahl. Moreover, the Minister grants the prisoners what appears to be a general amnesty, at least in the most common reading of the opera’s ending. This includes a much-celebrated passage where he declares to the prisoners, who have waited for him on their knees: ‘The word and will of our gracious king / sends me here to you, poor prisoners, that I might strip malice of its might / which, black and heavy, shrouds you all. / Kneel no longer low like slaves, / far from me be tyrant-powers; / I seek my brethren as a brother / gladly to aid, if aid I can’.

The idea of an ‘enlightened’ state that punishes the governor for his ‘arbitrary violence’ against the prisoners, and for abusing of his power by prosecuting an innocent for personal reasons, is the most common view of Fidelio. This political statement, pronounced in the presence of the chorus of the people, protects the top officials of the state from all liability. Yet inviting the state prisoners to stop being ‘slaves’ is very different from granting them amnesty. The acknowledgment of the ‘brothers’ as citizens is fully compatible with them being sent back to the cells after the curtain goes down; indeed, that was the whole point of the reform of prisons towards what Michel Foucault called la pénalité moderne.[45] After all, the Festungshaft concerned citizens in the first place. In Fidelio, Pizarro’s unlawful rule is not replaced by the rule of law, but by deferring justice to God and the king, in other words, by restating the very roots of absolutism in the name of enlightened equality.

In Wallace’s opinion, commenting on the 1805 episode with the censor, ‘since the protagonist in this version was vindicated by the state, there was obviously no reason for the state to censor it. It remained for the twentieth century to witness abuses of power that once again cast the state’s very legitimacy into doubt’.[46] In 1814, the new librettist Georg Treitschke still contributed to Fidelio’s displaying the political system as virtuous, and Pizarro as a rogue agent who did not engage the government’s responsibility, by suppressing all discussion of the principles of justice that should decide his fate. Sonnleithner kept from Bouilly a passage where Florestan and Leonore asked Fernando to show mercy rather than reciprocating Pizarro’s violence, as he was prone to do, to which the Minister prudently replied –and that was Sonnleithner’s own contribution– ‘the king will be his judge’. Treitschke suppressed the whole passage, and made of the king the one and only possible source of justice, whose effigy he put to reign over the prison’s courtyard.

As a result, says Lewis Lockwood, ‘the Fidelio of 1814 is now generally regarded as a glorification of contemporary political authority at a time when the balance of power in Europe was palpably shifting toward the restoration of the monarchies’.[47] Indeed, the work was a sensation for many aristocrats who went to the Austrian capital to attend the Congress of Vienna. The rank and file of European monarchies – the Tsar of Russia, the King of Prussia, the King of Denmark, their spouses, ministers, and courtesans – cheered by the victory over Napoleon, rushed in to see and hear the story of the evil governor and the gentle minister.[48] It is unlikely that Fidelio fuelled in them self-critical introspection; it is unlikely that the day after the performance they ran into their many prisons to see whether there was some injustice to be repaired, some mistreatment to be denounced, some tyrant to be put in jail.

From a contemporary perspective that incorporates the twentieth century’s notion of state terrorism as a crime against humanity, the problem with Fidelio is not that the state may have attempted to censor the play, which in any case Wallace argues to be a historiographical myth based on ‘Beethoven’s reputation as a political progressive’.[49] Rather, it is the fact that in Fidelio’s libretto, constructed with the participation of that very state, the final negation of the initial dystopia is itself a dystopia.

The agency of music, the agency of women

If this is so, why was Fidelio so often celebrated as the opera of freedom? Why did Ernst Bloch write in 1938 in Das Prinzip Hoffnung that ‘every future storming of the Bastille is implicitly expressed in Fidelio’?[50] Was not the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter closer to the work’s content by claiming, shortly after the Anschluss, that the finale of Fidelio was ‘a prophecy’?[51] And what about the presence of Hermann Göring at the Vienna Opera production a few days after that? To whom did the Nazi chief feel closer, Pizarro or Fernando? Can one conceive he sympathized with Florestan, this loser saved by a woman? Why did Thomas Mann denounce in 1945 as ‘a scandal’ the fact that Fidelio was not forbidden under Nazi rule?[52] And why did the staging of Beethoven’s opera in 1980 in Buenos Aires, under Argentina’s dictatorship, not elicit any censorship nor criticism from a regime that had put thirty thousand political prisoners to die in similarly clandestine dungeons?[53]

The recurrent and evolving paradoxes of Fidelio’s reception cannot be addressed here, as they depend on close scrutiny of local circumstances. As with other iconic works by Beethoven, a cursory survey of its endorsements by Germany’s Nazi, liberal, social-democratic, and communist authors, makes unlikely attributing it any stable political meaning.[54] On the other hand, a normative limitation to hermeneutic indeterminacy was proposed by Carl Dahlhaus in 1985, in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

If we take the text of the libretto literally, and in isolation from the music, –which is aesthetically impermissible – the revenge of Pizarro wreaks on Florestan is a purely private affair: Florestan is the only person whose name does not appear on the list of prisoners. But the trite conclusion that the guilt or innocence of the other prisoners is therefore an open question is refuted by the music of the prisoners’ chorus and the finale of the second act: there is no escaping the feeling that injustice has been done to people who express themselves in such music. But if all the prisoners are victims of injustice – and the music does not allow any possible alternative – then, behind Pizarro, who uses his position for mere personal revenge, there loom the dark, shadowy outlines of an unjust state, where political opponents are thrown into gaol en masse. And then the Minister, who is the representative of that state, turns out – in accordance with the function of the ‘marvellous’ in operatic aesthetics – to be a fairy-tale figure who fulfills all the hopes invoked in the opera, contrary to any kind of probability. The music performs a dual function: because its language is incomparably more powerful than that of the text, it enables the private quarrel to open out into an affair of state, by which alone Fidelio is made a truly political opera; at the same time, it removes the political drama from the sphere of reality into that of the ‘marvellous’, which is opera’s native soil.[55]

Dahlhaus makes the political and moral content of Beethoven’s work pivot around the aesthetic meaning of a single piece of music, this famous  chorus of prisoners, which is undoubtedly one of the most moving pieces of political music ever written. Who, on earth, might assist in a production of Fidelio without sympathizing with the prisoners? Who might wish to lock them back as they go out of their cells? Göring perhaps? We really want to believe in their innocence, and Beethoven’s music is the strongest reason for doing exactly that. Indeed, failing to believe in their innocence would arguably entail renouncing to find aesthetic representations of moral conducts that could be recognized by all.[56] According to Dahlhaus, the chorus of prisoners provides a strong sensory clue for determining where the moral good of the story lies. By so doing, it also throws a contrasting sonic light, so to speak, on the immoral nature of the state which holds them in such pitiful conditions.

More recently, a similar point was made by Martin Nedbal:

Fernando’s deference to the king represents the only addition by Sonnleithner to this section of the original French libretto. By incorporating the king, Sonnleithner must have been trying to make the finale seem more apt for Viennese sensibilities. Yet even before Fernando calls upon the king, Beethoven’s musical endorsement of Leonore and Florestan’s pleas for mercy indicates to the spectators which position regarding Pizarro’s future they should consider more desirable. By bringing out the correct solution through his music without disclosing what the absent king’s final decision will be, Beethoven at this point implicitly, and perhaps unwittingly, undermines the arbitrary powers of absolutist rulers and suggests that the voice speaking through Leonore and Florestan represents a higher instance of moral authority.[57]

Nedbal’s case is less straightforward than Dahlhaus’s, especially since he alludes to the passage of Sonnleithner’s 1805 libretto that was left out by Treitschke in 1814. Still, it is not doubtful that Leonore’s and Florestan’s singing, and especially their singing together the duo ‘O namenlose Freude’, give sensory confirmation to their role as moral agents of the play, frontally opposed not only to Pizarro’s evil and selfishness, but also to Rocco’s materialism and opportunism. From that perspective, the 1814 revision of Florestan’s aria, which allowed him to sing the climaxing ‘Zur Freiheit, zur Freiheit!’ as he hallucinates seeing his Engel Leonore, was politically and aesthetically most effective – even if the freedom the prisoner envisions is actually that of being freed by death, as a quasi-mystical confirmation of his Christian faith.

According to both Dahlhaus and Nedbal, then, in Fidelio – and presumably in many other operas – music has its own moral agency, capable of settling moral ambivalences that otherwise would remain uncomfortably open. This elegant argument is also fragile, as shown by Dahlhaus’s rhetorical emphasis, ‘there is no escaping …’ – isn’t there one? Extreme historical experience under Nazi rule, in particular, unveiled the precarity of the alliance between ethics and aesthetics. It is unlikely that Beethoven’s chorus of prisoners ever persuaded a jailor, a police chief or a minister to liberate any single soul.

On the other hand, the black beauty of Pizarro’s singing suggests that art can reintegrate evil into human experience. Every moment he is on scene is ripe with the aesthetic of evil, as if his voice could not sing anything but his will and power to do the wrong thing – and to do it splendidly. Once his power has worn out and he becomes a prisoner himself, the Minister orders him to shut up, and he becomes mute. Now, taking pleasure in the depiction of evil in an opera is a particular version of Aristotle’s paradox of tragedy, i.e. the fact that we enjoy sad stories; and that cannot be explained on narratological grounds alone, as it is arguably the case in literature, theatre or cinema.[58] Singing characters bring us pleasure quite independently of their agency in the plot. Evil music can be good music, in the sense of a portrayal of immoral conduct producing aesthetic satisfaction. Stephen Meyer has rightly associated the spectator’s experience of the many ‘operatic prisons’ of revolutionary times with the feeling of the sublime, theorized by Edmund Burke as a form of delightful terror.[59] Listening to Pizarro might be an example of such an experience.

On the other hand, for all its brilliance and skill, Beethoven’s music for Pizarro does not invite the listener to sympathize with him; on the contrary, as with the prisoner’s chorus, but in opposite direction, the music strongly contributes to anchor moral values in sensory cues. In the first act, in the aria ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!’, Pizarro’s hateful joy builds on strong contrasting melodic gestures and violently syncopated rhythms, up to a hammering, obsessive confirmation of the tonic; in the second act, in Pizarro’s ‘Er sterbe!’ moment of the quartet that leads to the denouement, the voice displays an ominous chromatic ascension to the monotone, trumpeted affirmation of his own frightful personality. The character is bad, and we take pleasure in him singing precisely that.

Pizarro makes clear that his cruelty and violence are attributes of his virility. ‘Shall I before a woman tremble?’, he cries as Leonore confronts him in the dungeon, before threatening to kill her too, together with her husband. ‘Thou tremblest? Are thou a man?’, is the criticism Rocco gets from his boss as he says he is willing to dig Florestan’s grave, but not to kill him with his own hands. Rocco is another example of patriarchal masculinity, one focused in money, work, family and a sense of ‘duty’ that does not prevent him from doing the most horrible things. This double critical appraisal of masculinity is remarkable, especially in the work of a composer who was for many decades an icon of manly virtues: ‘He is the most virile of musicians’, claimed Romain Rolland in 1927.[60]

According to Meyer, most ‘operatic prisons’ of revolutionary times were ‘the site of both sexual and political coercion’, as they ‘embodied not merely a negative image of state power, but also the sinister underside of the patriarchal authority of the bourgeois family’. Pizarro is such an operatic prison villain, in that ‘he lurks in all of these scenes as an invisible force, his power expressed by the heavy walls of the prison that we may in some ways read as an extension of his own body’.[61] In Fidelio, the musical display of violent masculinity, the best example of which is the military march of Pizarro’s entrance in the first act, pervades an opera whose actual topic is, as much as freedom and the state, gender trouble as moral trouble – witness, of course, the fact that the title role is a trouser role, i.e. a woman dressed as a man, playing a woman disguised as a man, yet singing with the voice of a woman.

Pizarro is deprived of his ultimate theatre of cruelty by Leonore’s coming out, as he runs towards Florestan with a knife in hand: ‘Kill first his wife!’ While making of her body a shield, and opportunely extracting a pistol from her manly clothes, she utters in turn a death threat against Pizarro: ‘Another word, and thou art dead!’ But she does not kill him, because at that very moment the trumpet announces the arrival of Fernando. It is worth stressing that, contrary to received wisdom reflected for instance in Ernest Bloch’s enthusiasm, the trumpet does not save Florestan. It saves Pizarro, as it was always supposed to do, from the moment the governor gave his men instruction to sound it ‘instantly’ as they spotted a carriage arriving from Seville.

Anyway, the trumpet avoids Leonore becoming a murderer, or rather, a tyrannicide. Just before that, her coming out is both a declaration of queerness – a woman out of place, performing a male’s task – and an acknowledgment of straightness – a woman in her place, besides her husband. Fidelio puts to the test Marjorie Graber’s contention that since ‘class, gender, sexuality, and even race and ethnicity … are themselves brought to crisis in dress codes and sumptuary regulation … the transvestite is the figure of and for that crisis, the uncanny supplement that marks the place of desire’[62] – especially since a trouser role is arguably the transvestite of a transvestite, the disguise being itself a sign of gender as ‘code’.

The unveiling of Fidelio as Leonore puts an end to the crisis of the convention, by seemingly restoring a ‘natural’ social order. As Lenard Berlanstein has noted, in the age of Rousseau ‘audiences seemed to appreciate travesty deeply just when they were coming to see a radically different code of dress for males and females as natural and necessary’.[63] While Leonore’s bravery and kindness define her character all along, it is as Fidelio that she performs her essential political act, namely asking Rocco to let the prisoners breathe the ‘free air’ of the garden. This idea was actually Treitschke’s, since in Bouilly, followed by Sonnleithner, the promenade was a daily routine. Anchored in a quite diverse historical reality, it echoed stereotypical narratives on the Bastille’s gouverneur prohibiting it as a gesture of cruelty, while leaving room for Leonor proposing it as a sign of humanity.[64]

Fidelio is also the first to mention humanitarian ideals by noting in Act I that Pizarro has suppressed from his soul the very ‘voice of humanity’. Even if her feminine sensibility arguably appears under her disguise precisely in her pursuing humanitarian, compassionate ideals, following the topical association of womanhood with ‘the heart’, the end of her disguise suggests that in real life, outside the prison, she is deprived of all social existence besides being the spouse of a hero. Leonore’s last action is the breaking of Florestan’s chains, which the Minister delegates to her as a reward for being a ‘noble woman’. According to Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Leonore’s ability to grant her husband freedom fulfills a Kantian paradigm of marriage: his freedom lies in the public sphere; her place is the domestic sphere to which the man relegates his sexual desire precisely so that he is free to act in the world’.[65] As a result, ‘the freedom that the opera extols returns her to her place’.[66]

This was no ordinary story. Even if the saving of a prisoner by his wife echoed the classic story of Alceste, set to music most famously by Lully and Gluck, it was unusual compared to the many plays, novels and more realistic accounts that, by the time Bouilly wrote his ‘fait historique’, explored the dramatical and political potential of women dressed as men. In Sylvie Steinberg’s rich corpus of stories on transvestites, only one anecdote of Revolutionary times, that of a woman soldier aptly called Liberté Barrau, is close to Leonore’s in that she performed a heroic deed – helping her wounded husband in the battlefield – out of pure conjugal love.[67] Leonore’s searching for Florestan might also echo the story of Adrienne de La Fayette joining the Marquis de La Fayette as a state prisoner of Emperor Franz I in 1795 in Ölmutz, but that did not imply any cross-dressing, nor any liberation for that matter, as she simply decided to share her husband’s fate, together with their two children.[68]

By bringing together gender trouble and the prison sublime, Fidelio arguably combined elements from both serious ‘rescue operas’ like Bouilly and Cherubini’s Les deux journées – an avowed model for Beethoven – and comic ‘abduction plots’ such as early théâtres de la foire or Mozart’s Entführung aus der Serail.[69] But while ‘the heroines of the rescue opera are frequently the object of the villain’s overwhelming physical lust’, a villain whose goal is ‘to make the heroine a sexual slave’,[70] Pizarro does not desire Leonore. In Fidelio, gender dramaturgy is rather attuned to cross-dressing theatre’s favouring of the spectator’s desire in non-binary ways. This, of course, is the story of Leonore, Marzelline and Jaquino, but arguably the thread of desire also appears, quite differently, in Rocco, Pizarro and Florestan. As for Leonore, she is the only one who, as an ‘onstage spectator’, does not see a cross-dressing character on the stage. As Tracey Sedinger argues

desire is not some affect or orientation possessed by or inhering within the individual character, but an effect of a representation in which the spectator’s vision of objects onstage has been deliberately placed in opposition to her narrative knowledge. The cross-dresser therefore generates or constructs a homoerotic desire that is not represented within the play but is instead recognized by another, in this case the spectator.[71]

Even if the masculine characters of Fidelio are similarly bound by the convention of ‘the onstage spectator’s failure of perception’ that prevent them from recognizing Fidelio as Leonore, only Marzelline suffers in her body and mind of the fact that, generally speaking, ‘the crossdresser is not an object of perception. He or she is rather a fantasy structure materializing the contradiction that desire for knowledge is grounded in failure of perception.’[72] Yet in Marzelline’s case, the trouble is not the disguise as such, but the fact that it serves an end that is indifferent to her very existence. And this ‘fantasy structure’ rests on one of opera’s ‘marvellous’ conventions, valid for both trouser roles like Fidelio – a feminine character played by a woman disguised as a man – and cross-dressing roles like Mozart’s Cherubino – a masculine character played by a woman – namely that all characters are deaf to the cross-dressed character’s voice as sensory cue to his or her gender identity.

Leonore’s name means ‘compassion’. Heart allied to justice is a likely definition of human law, which she incarnates through her love of Florestan. Yet some of her actions are a practical example of the immoral dictum that the end justifies the means. Young Marzelline’s seduction by Fidelio is probably a case of abuse, which might or not be called sexual in kind. This moral issue, which was also a concern for the censor, was solved by granting Leonore passing regrets, like muttering for herself ‘Oh! Nameless agony!’ as she realizes that Marzelline is indeed in love with her. The young girl’s faith in conjugal love might not have easily overcome the deception of her fiancé, especially since he turned into the transvestite wife of a man. Neurosis and melancholia were likely to follow – or perhaps some foreshadowing of modern scepticism about declarations of love and people’s truthfulness.

Leonore’s attitude towards Marzelline, and Marzelline’s character itself, are part of a general discussion of Fidelio’s dramatic structure, and its alleged shortcomings as reasons for Beethoven’s successive revisions. In 1996 Winton Dean put it in the crudest terms by claiming that ‘the root of the problem’ was no other than ‘the undue prominence of Marzelline’.[73] More recently, in an essay on Fidelio’s second version (1806), Robert Pearson put her role in historical perspective by distinguishing two models of marriage, associated with each woman of the story: Marzelline’s, based on domestic bliss and hard work, and Leonore’s, based on Romantic fusional love. His analysis is much subtler than Dean’s hasty dismissal, but his conclusion goes in the same direction, namely stressing ‘Marzelline’s naivety’: ‘Having learned from Leonore’s example of marital fidelity, Marzelline can embrace the Romantic view that marriage is more than simply “quiet domesticity” achieved by hard work’.[74]

Marzelline learns from Leonore what marriage might entail for a woman: risking her life out of love for a man, and deceiving another woman if necessary. This is but an aspect of the structure of class and gender inequality that solidly holds together, despite an apparent and often-deplored contradiction, the domestic comedy of the first act, and the political drama of the second act. Jaquino, for one, obediently reintegrates the role of a low-grade assistant to state repression, while being faithful to his own idea about Marzelline, heralded in the very first scene: ‘I have chosen you to be my wife.’ He probably does not deserve her any more than the unfaithful Fidelio does. Yet perhaps these two will be reunited when the curtain goes down, after all, to sing Jorge Luis Borges’s verse: ‘No nos une el amor sino el espanto’, ‘It is not love, but horror that unites us’.[75]

Pizarro is the only character who does not join the final chorus. To avoid sharing with him the hell of the outcast, Marzelline does sing to celebrate the universal validity of conjugal love, as represented by Leonore and Florestan, and her voice even stands out praising God: ‘You try us, you desert us not’. One of the darkest aspects of Fidelio is perhaps the fact that the two losers of the story, Pizarro and Marzelline, are moral poles of a gender binary, namely a guilty man and an innocent woman; and yet, instead of acknowledging this asymmetry, all celebrate the triumph of the good, thanks to Beethoven’s providing in the finale, once again, ‘the correct solution through his music’. Marzelline is the victim of a final abuse by the operatic genre, which in Beethoven’s time tolerates no dissonance between the good and the beautiful. On the contrary, both converge in a cadential happy end, as if joy itself did not care about the individuals’ suffering to express it, and even to feel it. At the end of the day, and even while letting some room for hope, Fidelio’s musical prison performs for the ear and the eye the dark spectacle of the patriarchal state’s reigning over both prisoners and women.


[1] The author thanks Falk Bretschneider, Gabriel Entín, Anders Førisdal and Natalia Muchnik for their comments to a preliminary version of this text.

[2] Carl Dahlhaus, Ludwig van Beethoven: Approaches to his Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 182.

[3] Ernst Bloch, Essays on the Philosophy of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 243.

[4] ‘Freiheit ist real bei Fidelio nur als Hoffnung’. Theodor W. Adorno, Beethoven: Philosophie der Musik, 2nd edn (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994), 61.

[5] Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Fidelio: Melodramas of Agency and Identity’, Criticism, 55/4 (2013), 547–65, here 561.

[6] Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, United Nations, 2006. See ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’, Wikipedia, accessed 13 August 2020.

[7] Marcos Novaro and Vicente Palermo. La dictadura militar (1976–1983): Del golpe de Estado a la restauración democrática (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2003); Mark Osiel, Mass Atrocity, Ordinary Evil, and Hannah Arendt: Criminal Consciousness in Argentina’s Dirty War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[8] All citations of Fidelio follow the 1845 bilingual edition of the libretto by the managers of Prince’s Theater, London. Available on the Library of Congress Website,, accessed 14 August 2020.

[9] ‘Renfermé pour quelque action contraire à la sûreté de l’État.’ ‘Prisonnier’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 5th edn (1835),, accessed 13 August 2020. Previous editions do mention the prisonnier d’État, but without defining it.

[10] ‘Der unmittelbar vom Staat, nicht von der Rechtspflege gefangen gesetzt ist’. ‘Staatsgefangener.’ Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm (1845). Available at Wörterbuchnetz,, accessed 13 August 2020.

[11] Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal (Paris: Barba, 1798). Available on Gallica,, accessed 14 August 2020.

[12] Alexandra Merle, ‘Philippe II d’Espagne: construction, diffusion et renouvellement d’une légende noire (XVIe–XIXe siècle)’, Histoire culturelle de l’Europe,, accessed 28 July 2020.

[13] ‘Un nuevo tipo de delito político.’ Isabel Peñalosa Esteban-Drake, El Alcázar de Segovia, Prisión de Estado: La Guerra de Sucesión Española (1701–1714) (Segovia: Patronato del Alcázar de Segovia, 2001),, accessed 4 August 2020.

[14] Natalia Muchnik, personal communication, 11 November 2020.

[15] ‘Hace cerca de dos meses que me hallo en dicho calabozo, cerrado con grillos, sin cama más que un costal con paja, acosado de ratas y ratones, lleno de hambre y necesidad.’ Letter of an unidentified prisoner, Logroño, 1789, quoted in José Luis Gómez Urdáñez, Juan Ibáñez Castro, Isabel Ilzarbe López and Diego Moreno Galilea, ‘Justicia y orden social: delincuencia y represión del delito en Logroño en el siglo XVIII’, Brocar: Cuadernos de investigación histórica, 39 (2015), 119–44, here 126. See also José Miguel Palop Ramos, ‘Delitos y penas en la España del siglo XVIII’, Estudios: Revista de historia moderna, 22 (1996), 65–104.

[16] ‘Les prisons pour les criminels d’état ont des gouverneurs.’ Louis de Jaucourt, ‘Prison’, Encyclopédie de Diderot,, accessed 14 August 2020.

[17] Christian Carlier, ‘Histoire des prisons et de l’administration pénitentiaire française de l’Ancien Régime à nos jours’, Criminocorpus, 2009,, accessed 14 August 2020; Thomas Nutz, Strafanstalt als Besserungsmaschine: Reformdiskurs und Gefängniswissenschaft 1775–1848 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2001), 137–40; Natalia Muchnik, Les prisons de la foi: L’enfermement des minorités (XVIe –XVIIIe siècle) (Paris: PUF, 2019); Sophie Abdela, La prison parisienne au XVIIIe siècle. Formes et réformes (Ceyzérieu: Champvallon, 2019).

[18] ‘Des hommes dangereux qui ne peuvent être mis en jugement parce que leurs délits sont des délits politiques (…), et qu’ils ne peuvent être mis en liberté sans compromettre la sûreté de l’État.’ Décret du 3 mars 1810, cited in Gabriel Vauthier, ‘Les prisons d’État en 1812’, Revue historique de la Révolution française et de l’Empire, 7/1 (Jan.–Feb. 1916), 84–94. See also Emmanuel Berger, ‘Les mesures de haute police sous le 1er Empire (1804–1814): État des sources et questions méthodologiques’, in Violence(s) de la préhistoire à nos jours, ed. Marie-Claude Marandet (Perpignan: Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 2011), 239–53.

[19] Hans-Jürgen Lusebrink and Rolf Reichardt, ‘La “Bastille” dans l’imaginaire social de la France, 1774–1799’, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 30 (1983), 196–233, here 204–05.

[20] David Galliver, ‘Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal: A Celebrated Offspring of the Revolution’, in Music and the French Revolution, ed. Malcolm Boyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 157–68, here 159.

[21] Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, Mes récapitulations. 2. (Paris: n.e., 1836–1837), 81. Available on Gallica,, accessed 14 August 2020.

[22] Galliver, ‘Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal’, pp. 165–6.

[23] Courrier des Spectacles, quoted in Galliver, ‘Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal’, 168.

[24] Karl Richard Sontag, Die Festungshaft (Leipzig: Winter, 1872), 42–5.

[25] Walter Consuelo Langsam, ‘Emperor Francis II and the Austrian “Jacobins”, 1792–1796’, The American Historical Review, 50/3 (1945), 471–90, here 481.

[26] Count Pergen to governors, 5 April 1793, quoted in Langsam, ‘Emperor Francis II and the Austrian “Jacobins”’, 476.

[27] Langsam, ‘Emperor Francis II and the Austrian “Jacobins”’, 476.

[28] Beethoven to Simrock, 2 August 1794, in Elliot Forbes, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vol. 1, 170.

[29] Esteban Buch, Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 81.

[30] Quoted in Langsam, ‘Emperor Francis II and the Austrian “Jacobins”’, 476.

[31] Helmut Reinalter, ‘Le Jacobinisme dans la monarchie des Habsbourg’, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 255–256 (1984), 155–79, here 177.

[32] Quoted in Langsam, ‘Emperor Francis II and the Austrian “Jacobins”’, 482.

[33] Maynard Solomon, ‘Beethoven: The Nobility Pretense’, The Musical Quarterly, 61/2 (1975), 272–94.

[34] Karl Glossy, ‘Zur Geschichte der Theater Wiens (I, 1801–1820)’, Jahrbuch der Grillparzer-Gesellschaft, 25 (1915), 84.

[35] Forbes, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, vol. 1, 386–7; Jean and Brigitte Massin, Ludwig van Beethoven (Paris: Fayard, 1967), 142.

[36] Robin Wallace, ‘The Curious Incident of Fidelio and the Censors’, in The Oxford Handbook of Music Censorship, ed. Patricia Hall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[37] Michael C. Tusa, ‘Frey nach dem Französischen bearbeitet: Fidelio and the Viennese Vogue for Opéra-comique, 1802–1805’, The Journal of Musicology, 35/4 (2018), 498–534, here 501.

[38] Quoted in Carl Glossy, ‘Zur Geschichte der Wiener Theatercensur. I’, Jahrbuch der Grillparzer Gesellschaft, 7 (1897), 314.

[39] Tusa, ‘Frey nach dem Französischen bearbeitet’, 503.

[40] Tusa, ‘Frey nach dem Französischen bearbeitet’, 503.

[41] Bouilly, Léonore, 40.

[42] Sonnleithner to the theatre censor, 2 October 1805, quoted in Forbes, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, vol. 1, 385–6.

[43]  ‘Es ist wahr, ein Minister missbraucht seine Gewalt, aber nur zur Privatrache – in Spanien – im 16. Jahrhunderte –, aber er wird bestraft, durch den Hof bestraft, und der Heroismus der weiblichen Tugend steht gegenüber’. Quoted in Glossy, ‘Zur Geschichte der Theater Wiens’, 84.

[44] Mark Osiel, ‘Modes of Participation in Mass Atrocity’, Cornell International Law Journal, 38/3 (2005), 793–822, here 795.

[45] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1997).

[46] Wallace, ‘The Curious Incident of Fidelio and the Censors’, np.

[47] Lewis Lockwood, ‘Beethoven’s “Leonore” and “Fidelio”’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 36/3 (2006), 473–82, here 474.

[48] Buch, Beethoven’s Ninth, 75–6.

[49] Wallace, ‘The Curious Incident of Fidelio and the Censors’, np. See also John Bokina, ‘Opera and Republican Virtue: Beethoven’s “Fidelio”’, International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique, 12/2 (1991), 101–16; and Stephen Rumph, ‘Allegory and Ethics in Beethoven’s Fidelio’, Les Cahiers de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique, 11/1–2 (2010), 47–60.

[50] Bloch, Essays on the Philosophy of Music, 243.

[51] Quoted in David B. Dennis, Beethoven in German Politics, 1870–1989 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 165.

[52] Thomas Mann to Walter von Molo, September 1945, quoted in Dennis, Beethoven in German Politics, 175.

[53] Gustavo Fernández Walker, Colón: Teatro de operaciones (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2015), 105–6; Abel Gilbert, Satisfaction en la ESMA : música y sonido durante la última dictadura, PhD diss., Universidad Nacional de La Plata, 2019, 233–8.

[54] Dennis, Beethoven in German Politics, passim.

[55] Dahlhaus, Ludwig van Beethoven, 182.

[56] Elinor Amit and Joshua D. Greene, ‘You See, the Ends Don’t Justify the Means: Visual Imagery and Moral Judgment’, Psychological Science, 23/8 (2012), 861–8.

[57] Martin Nedbal, ‘How Moral Is “Fidelio”? Didacticism in the Finales of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Operas’, The Musical Quarterly, 95/2–3 (2012), pp. 396–449, here 421.

[58] Jean-Marie Schaeffer, L’expérience esthétique (Paris: Gallimard, 2015), 164–76; Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, ‘A Structure of Antipathy: Constructing the Villain in Narrative Film’, Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 13/1 (2019), 69–90,

[59] Stephen Meyer, ‘Terror and Transcendence in the Operatic Prison, 1790–1815’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 55/3 (2002), 477–523. See Esteban Buch, ‘The Sound of the Sublime: Notes on Burke as Time Goes By’, SubStance 49/2 (Issue 152) (2020), 44–59.

[60] Quoted in Sanna Pederson, ‘Beethoven and Masculinity’, in Beethoven and His World, ed. Scott Burnham and Michael Steinberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 313.

[61] Meyer, ‘Terror and Transcendence in the Operatic Prison’, 485.

[62] Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), 28.

[63] Lenard R. Berlanstein, ‘Breeches and Breaches: Cross-Dress Theater and the Culture of Gender Ambiguity in Modern France’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 38/2 (1996), 338–69, here 350.

[64] Lusebrink and Reichardt, ‘La “Bastille” dans l’imaginaire social de la France’, 218.

[65] Goldberg, ‘Fidelio: Melodramas of Agency and Identity’, 556.

[66] Goldberg, ‘Fidelio: Melodramas of Agency and Identity’, 561.

[67] Sylvie Steinberg, La confusion des sexes: Le travestissement de la Renaissance à la Révolution (Paris: Fayard, 2001), 255.

[68] Meyer, ‘Terror and Transcendence in the Operatic Prison’, 506–7. See Marquis de La Fayette, Memoirs of General Lafayette (Boston: E.G. House, 1824). Available at, accessed 14 August 2020.

[69] David Charlton, ‘On Redefinitions of “Rescue Opera”’, in Music and the French Revolution, ed. Malcolm Boyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 169–90; Patrick Taïeb, ‘Dix scènes d’opéra-comique sous la Révolution: Quelques éléments pour une histoire culturelle du théâtre lyrique français’, Histoire, économie et société, 22/2 (2003), 239–60; Jama Stilwell, ‘A New View of the Eighteenth–Century “Abduction” Opera: Edification and Escape at the Parisian “Théâtres de la foire”’, Music & Letters, 91/1 (2010), 51–82.

[70] Meyer, ‘Terror and Transcendence in the Operatic Prison’, 485.

[71] Tracey Sedinger, ‘“If Sight and Shape be True”: The Epistemology of Crossdressing on the London Stage’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 48/1 (1997), 63–79, here p. 78.

[72] Sedinger, ‘If Sight and Shape be True’, 70.

[73] Winton Dean, ‘Beethoven and Opera’, in Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio, ed. Paul Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 22–50, here 42.

[74] Robert D. Pearson, ‘Harmony of Hearts: Marital Love in Beethoven’s Leonore of 1806’, 19th–Century Music, 38/2 (2014), 145–68, here 152.

[75] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Buenos Aires’, Obras Completas, (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1996), 325.