Beethoven: Spark of Joy – Oratorio, Op. 85, Christ on the Mount of Olives
Beethoven’s little-known oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85”, is considered a failure by most critics and scholars today, and they insist that Beethoven also considered it so. Yet, despite its many detractors, it was a great success in its time, until it was banned in 1825; and even though it was composed in two weeks, with a weak libretto, Beethoven thought enough of it to revise parts that he thought needed it. Could it be that objections to the work are based more on its radically different treatment of the character of Jesus Christ than any musical deficiencies?
The Origins of the Work
Before Beethoven attempted string quartets, he wrote three string trios to sharpen his compositional skills to the level necessary. Similarly, the oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives“ was very likely Beethoven’s preparation for his first opera, Leonore, later known as “Fidelio”. Both works were commissioned by the same individual, Emmanuel Schikeneder, who is best known for having commissioned and written the libretto for Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”. The opera was commissioned shortly after the premiere of the oratorio, most probably on the basis of its success. Both premiered in Schikeneder’s theater—the Theater an dem Wien—Christ on the Mount of Olives in 1803, and Leonore/Fidelio in 1805.
Oratorio and opera both combine music and drama, but in . . . oratorio, there is no scenery, the characters are not in costume, and they do not act. They stand and sing, letting the music tell the story. The chorus plays a much greater role than in opera. In “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, there are no acts, but six numbered sections featuring three soloists—Jesus, the Seraph, and Peter, as well as the chorus (playing different roles) and an orchestra.
What unifies these two works is the conception Beethoven shares with the great poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller—the Promethean idea of humanity—the idea that an individual person can intervene into history to change its course.
In the classical Greek play “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus, Prometheus, himself an immortal god, has stolen fire from the tyrannical chief God Zeus; and given it and other gifts of knowledge to the “creatures of a day”- mankind, whom Zeus wishes to destroy. Armed with knowledge, and a vision of the future (Prometheus’ very name means “forethought”), mankind is lifted above its bestial condition, and progresses. Zeus, in anger, imposes hideous punishment on Prometheus-to be chained to a rock, where an eagle returns every day to eat his liver. All of Prometheus’ friends, who live for the moment, urge him to compromise with Zeus, in order to ensure his immediate survival. Prometheus refuses to compromise. He operates on a higher level. Despite great suffering, he orders his life in the present, in order to bring about a future he knows has to be.
In his “Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Mankind”, Schiller also called upon the artistic community to give human beings a gift—of a more powerful, true, and beautiful notion of their own human nature. More than any other composer, Beethoven responded to Schiller’s call. Beethoven and Schiller shared something with Prometheus; they would not compromise an inch on matters of moral importance for humanity. Both introduced the bold idea of a woman as a Promethean leader; Schiller in his “Maid of Orleans” (the story of Joan of Arc), and Beethoven in his Lenore, the hero of his opera “Fidelio”.
Jesus as Promethean Hero
Part of the controversy over “Christ on the Mount of Olives” was the way Beethoven portrayed Jesus. For Christians, he is both the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man.” Some felt that portraying the human side of Him undermined his identity as “the Son of God.” There were plenty of gnostics trying to claim that he was the greatest of men, but still only a man. So, there was a reluctance to have either an actor or singer play Him directly. (Ft1) J.S. Bach did so, but as a bass, and like the evangelist, singing for the most part recitative, as a kind of narrative, rather than playing a direct dramatic role. For Beethoven, Jesus was also the “Son of Man’ as he called himself, and the human side of Him was often missed. In emphasizing Jesus’ identity as a human being though, Beethoven is not in any way seeking to undermine His divinity.
Unlike the “Passion” settings of the story, Beethoven’s oratorio does not deal with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but just the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. It also differs in that Jesus is the main dramatic character, and his part is sung by a Heldentenor (heroic tenor.)
It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus accepted His hard fate: the inevitability of His own death, in order to fulfill His mission on earth. It was presented to Him in the form of a cup, from which He must drink. If He were only a God, there would have been no need to fear, but as a Man, it was terrifying.
He did not want to die, and prayed three times: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”
He looks around at his Apostles, and they have all fallen asleep. He realizes that no-one else is going to do it, and says to God the Father: “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39).
But, in order for us to love the sublime heroism of Jesus, his suffering must be real. The Biblical account of Christ’s suffering is powerful, but short:
“And his sweat were as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38)
The shortness of that Biblical passage can allow readers to skip over it, without really taking it into their hearts. In his essay, “On the Pathetic” (discussed in the posting of April 7th), Schiller says that “the artist portrays suffering not for its own sake, but for the heroic quality of overcoming that suffering in order to act”. It is not art to become master of feelings, which only lightly and fleetingly sweep the surface of the soul; but to retain one’s mental freedom in a storm, which arouses all of sensuous nature, thereto belongs a capacity of resisting that is, above all natural power, infinitely sublime. Therefore, one attains to moral freedom only through the most lively representation of suffering nature, and the tragic hero must have first legitimized himself to us as a feeling being, before we pay homage to him as a being of reason, and believe in the strength of his soul.
Beethoven commissioned a libretto that would develop and dramatize the short passage: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” > > > [Excerpts from Fred Haight’s Daily Dose of Beethoven; the whole part 1 can be found at this link.
Here a sublime performance of Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85, performed by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Vienna Academy Chorus, Hermann Scherchen, Jan Peerce, Maria Stander, Otto Wiener ℗ 2013 Past Classics.