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

Listening to Beethoven #18 – Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88


The Coronation of Leopold II at Bratislava (1790) Austrian School, 18th century, Mestske Galerie, Bratislava

Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Leopold II
Text Severin Anton Averdonk
Duration 23’30”

Watch

Chen Reiss sings the flagship aria Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese (Flow, tears of joy, flow), the second number in the score:

Background and Critical Reception

When Beethoven received his commission for the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, he was also enlisted to help celebrate the accession of his successor, Leopold II, again with text from Severin Anton Averdonk.. In the event neither piece fulfilled their function, due mainly to time constraints but also – possibly – due to the difficulty of learning and rehearsing new and challenging music for the time.

Thus the cantata was not heard in Beethoven’s lifetime, not emerging until the 1880s. Lewis Lockwood argues for its acceptance as a positive, optimistic counterpart to the tragedy of the Joseph cantata, anticipating in this early period Beethoven’s later way of contrasting two opposed expressive domains in consecutive works in the same genre.

He also notes that ‘though less majestic, it possesses the expressive chorus Stürzet nieder, Millionen (Prostrate yourselves, O millions) which textually associates with Schiller’s Ode to Joy and the Ninth Symphony by means of its passage asking the question ‘Stürzet nieder, Millionen?’ (‘O ye millions, do you fall prostrate?’)

One aria in particular stands out – the substantial Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese (Flow, tears of joy, flow), written for soprano soloist with key parts for flute and cello, drawn from the orchestra. In his notes for the Hyperion recording of the piece, Nicholas Marston suggests Beethoven’s operatic experience led him to include this ensemble number.

Thoughts

The Cantata on the Accession of Emperor II is a much slighter work than its predecessor mourning the death of Emperor Joseph II, being half the length of that piece. Nor does it quite sustain the high level of feeling Beethoven poured into that work. Having said that it comfortably fulfils its function as a celebratory piece, and demonstrates once again how the composer is fully at home working with larger forces.

There is a strong sense of occasion from the start, through the hushed delivery from both soprano and chorus. The music then swells into more obvious pomp and celebration, now in a ‘pure’ C major as opposed to the fraught C minor of the Joseph cantata. This is surely not a coincidence, and as Marston also notes, it anticipates a similar tactic used in the movement from darkness to light in the Fifth Symphony. Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese, the big aria, pushes forward with an optimistic look to the future rather than the caught under the heavy tread of the past. It includes some sparkling writing for the soprano soloist that culminates with a high E flat towards the end.

Later the choral writing is more red-blooded, setting the translated text ‘Look up to the lord of thrones who brought you this salvation’. All soloists and high choir are united in their praise of the new leader.

It is a shame for Beethoven that this music was not heard at the time of Leopold’s accession, for while this work does not quite reach the levels of the Joseph cantata it is still a fine and perfectly functioning celebration for the new emperor.

Performances

Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)

Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)

Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

As with the Joseph Cantata, recordings of Beethoven’s ceremonial music for Leopold II were thin on the ground until the release of Matthew Best‘s account with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra by Hyperion in 1996. It is an excellent performance, capped by exceptional female soloists in Janice Watson and Jean Rigby.

Again the performance from Christian Thielemann for DG is a glossier affair, but it is very fine indeed, and Charlotte Margiono is a very fine soprano soloist.

The recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos delivers a strong impact too, with full bodied choral singing.

Spotify links

The Hyperion version conducted by Matthew Best is not available on Spotify but clips can be heard on the Hyperion website here

Christian Thielemann (tracks 8-13)

Leif Segerstam (tracks 8-13)

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1790 Mozart Così fan tutte

Next up Klage

Listening to Beethoven #16 – Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87


Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Emperor Leopold II Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 1769, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Joseph II
Duration 41′

Background and Critical Reception

Emperor Joseph II reformed Vienna in his decade in power, but in that time between 1780 and 1790 Bonn was very much under his dominion. Beethoven had visited Vienna briefly, but had to return to Bonn early due to his mother’s fatal illness. However because Joseph II’s brother was Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, Beethoven was closer than many through his musical links.

On the Emperor’s death Beethoven was commissioned to set a text by Severin Anton Averdonk in commemoration, yet the resulting cantata was never to be performed in his lifetime. A planned performance in 1791 did not take place, seemingly due to the complexity of the music and the time (two and a half weeks) available to write and rehearse it. That Beethoven finished it was impressive enough, but once the moment had passed it would have been difficult to secure further performances.

The works remained unknown until the 1880s – when we have, as Lockwood describes, ‘an astonished letter of praise from Brahms, who said of the Joseph cantata, “It is Beethoven through and through”. He was later impressed by its “noble pathos…its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression”.

Jan Swafford suggests Beethoven would not have been too disappointed at this, and points to several unusual qualities about the piece. It is a funeral cantata that ‘does not mention God until the third number, and then only in passing; only toward the end does it give lip service to paradise and immortality. In this cantata death is nothing but tragic, and Joseph’s main immortality is his legacy on earth, not his bliss in heaven.

Beethoven writers are united in their view of the Cantata’s important. Lewis Lockwood sees both this cantata and its successor, the Cantata for the Accession of Leopold II, as ‘the capstones of the Bonn years’. Swafford notes how Beethoven pulls out all the stops in his efforts to impress. ‘If he pulled too many, that is a sign of his youth, but already the expression is powerful, the handling of the orchestra effective and expressive the voice unmistakably his own. As a sign of that dynamism, he mined ideas from this cantata again and again in later years’.

The Joseph cantata anticipates important elements in Leonore of 1805, the first version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. While discussing this, Swafford praises how ‘he could also resurrect a beautifully sculpted melody that perfectly fitted both cantata and opera’.

Thoughts

This is a very different Beethoven. His response to setting the solemn text proclaiming Joseph’s death is so profound it is tempting to assume he is channeling his own experiences of bereavement into the score.

We hear Beethoven’s first orchestral ventures in the very solemn opening pages, a hushed introduction that calls to mind the desolation of Haydn’s representation of chaos from his oratorio The Creation. The chorus gives an equally weighty account of grief, reacting as it is to the text proclaiming and repeating ‘Joseph the great is dead’. In response to this sombre beginning Beethoven writes music of impressive heft for the soprano, then the bass voice sings triumphantly of Joseph’s triumph in ‘defeating the monster’. The orchestra gets caught up in the excitement, while the pacing of solo vocal flourishes (recitatives) and general momentum feels slightly in thrall to Handel.

The soprano brings warmth with an aria Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (Then mankind climbed into the light), which is a thoughtful and ultimately radiant aria with choral backing. Another soprano aria, Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden (Here slumbers in his quiet peace the great sufferer), feels like the emotional centre of the piece, a really substantial slow movement that leads up to a restatement of the opening choral passages. Here the tragedy of death takes root once again, the desolation complete – and all in Beethoven’s now-familiar ‘tragic’ key of C minor.

The Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II feels like the most substantial Beethoven piece to date by some distance, and the most openly emotional too. With it Beethoven joins his idols Haydn and Mozart in the ability to write for large forces without ever appearing daunted by the prospect. Ultimately it feels like a fitting memorial to his mother, whether that was intended or not.

Performances

Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)
Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)
Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Recordings of the cantata were thin on the ground until 1996, when Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers and Orchestra made a landmark release for Hyperion. Best’s use of a harpsichord in the ‘continuo’ role dates the piece, heightening its progression from the music of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. He does much to inhabit the drama and is helped by excellent soloists, soprano Janice Watson hitting superlative heights and José van Dam giving a sonorous contribution as bass. The chorus are also excellent.

Christian Thielemann followed soon after for DG’s complete Beethoven edition of 1997, and his account is used on their big box this year. It is superbly paced and appropriately weighty, a little sleek in places but really getting to the tragic nub of the work. He achieves a hushed intensity from the start, and never lets up – with Charlotte Margiono imperious as soprano soloist.

A recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos offers stiff competition, a dramatic interpretation with excellent soloists in Reetta Haavisto and Juha Kotilainen.

Spotify links

Christian Thielemann

Leif Segerstam

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1789 Haydn String Quartets Op.64 nos.1-3

Next up Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (Elegy on the death of a poodle)