Listening to Beethoven #206 – Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Op.85

Jesus prays

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Giovanni (aka Josef Untersberger) Date unknown

Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) Op.85 for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra (1803, revised 1811, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Franz Xaver Huber

Duration 45′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

For the first time since the Joseph cantata of 1790, Beethoven was ready to write another large work for chorus and orchestra. This one was to be biblical, focusing in on a specific part of Christ’s Passion, where in the moment of greatest trial on the Mount of Olives, he begs God to relieve him of his suffering.

Lewis Lockwood tells how Beethoven wrote the work in two weeks, in close collaboration with Franz Xaver Huber, editor of the Wiener Zeitung and occasional librettist. He then writes how ‘Haste is evident in the inconsistent quality of the work, which ranges from routine recitatives and reasonably effective arias for Jesus and the Seraph, to bombastic choral writing for the warriors and youths. Revising it for publication at long last eight years later, he described it defensively and apologetically to Breitkopf & Härtel as ‘my first work of that kind’ (a sacred oratorio) and, moreover, an early work…written in a fortnight in all kinds of disturbances and other unpleasant and distressing events in my life (my brother happened to be suffering from a mortal disease).”

Jan Swafford writes engagingly on the premiere of Christus, the original form given on 5 April 1803 in Vienna, in the company of the first two symphonies and the Piano Concerto no.3. There were ‘tales of long rehearsals, players already fatigued by the other works in the program’…but ‘there was still a full house.’

Early reviews were relatively positive – but although the work ‘was good and contains a few first-rate passages…a number of ideas from Haydn’s Creation seem to have found their way into the final chorus’. Perhaps unexpectedly, Beethoven’s teacher Albrechtsberger was targeted by Gustav Nottebohm for Beethoven’s ‘failure to receive thorough training in the form of the fugue’  – a statement that flies in the face of the Eroica Variations.

Swafford notes the likelihood that ‘after his Heiligenstadt crisis of the precious Autumn, Beethoven felt a personal relationship to the suffering he was depicting. His final verdict, however, is damning. ‘Though Christus has its striking moments and is nothing but skillful, it was then and would remain one of the most misconceived, inauthentic, undigested large works Beethoven ever wrote.’

Thoughts

From the outset of Christus, Beethoven’s intentions are very clear. This is to be a serious and dramatic work, showing its composer’s abilities at writing for large forces and showing off his operatic credentials. Its impact, however, is a little more patchy. The solemn, slow introduction sets the scene and holds the tension, maintained with the arrival of the tenor, who pleads for the ‘cup of suffering’ to be taken from him in an extended solo detailing his pain in long notes.

The arrival of the seraph raises the stakes still higher, and the soprano role really hits the heights in its first aria. By this point Beethoven is in the key of A flat major, a familiar centre for profound solo movements such as that written for the Pathétique sonata, with prominent parts for the wind in counterpoint. The two duet, though the operatic style is relatively jaunty for music depicting intense suffering

The intervention of Christ’s faithful disciple Peter is a dramatic statement of allegiance, and the baritone role adds real gravitas to the piece. We lead to an exultant final chorus is especially Handelian, with strong parallels to Zadok the Priest in its hymn of praise.

Beethoven’s frame of mind when writing Christus would surely have been uneven, his illnesses and deafness at the forefront. The work is a powerful reaction, and feels like a composition Beethoven needed to get out of his system. In spite of its perceived imbalances and flaws it has some powerful music, the composer searching for – and increasingly pinpointing – his voice as a ‘big work’ composer.

Recordings used

Hanna-Leena Haapamäki, Jussi Myllys, Niklas Spångberg, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Leif Segerstam (Naxos)
Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass-baritone), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (LSO Live)
Luba Orgonasova (Seraph), Plácido Domingo (Jesus) & Andreas Schmidt (Petrus), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin & Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi)
James King (tenor), Elizabeth Harwood (soprano), Franz Crass (bass (vocal)), Helmut Froschauer (chorus master), Wiener Symphoniker, Wiener Singverein, Wiener Symphoniker / Bernhard Klee

Recordings of Christus are thin on the ground, and in spite of some spirited accounts it perhaps needs the attention of an established ‘period’ conductor like John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists elevate Kent Nagano’s version, while the recent live account from Sir Simon Rattle and LSO forces is a dramatic one.

Also written in 1803 Salieri Gesù al limbo

Next up Andante favori in F major, WoO 57

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