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Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

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.

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Spark of Joy – Piano concerto No. 3, Op. 37 in C-minor.

Beethoven premiered his third piano concerto in 1803 at a massive benefit concert, which also featured the premieres of his Second Symphony, the oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, and a reprise of the first symphony (premiered a year earlier). As the composer had been completing orchestral scores for the oratorio in the wee hours of that morning, there was no time for him to write out the piano score for his new concerto. Hence the great consternation of his page-turner, Ignaz von Seyfried, who saw nothing but “empty pages with here and there what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs, unintelligible to me, scribbled to serve as clues for him,” and had to rely on surreptitious nods from Beethoven to signal that it was time to turn the page.
In this concerto, composed in the C-minor tonality, Beethoven once again pays homage to Mozart, whose 24th piano concerto was also in C-minor and is considered to be his greatest.
Here, Seong-Jin Cho performs Beethoven’s third piano concerto, Opus 37, with the WDR Symphony Orchestra. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19

What was published as Beethoven’s second piano concerto was actually composed between 1787 and 1789 while Beethoven still lived in Bonn. He took it with him to Vienna, probably premiered it at the Burgtheater in 1795, and wrote a different finale for a 1798 performance in Prague. It was an important display piece for the young composer’s virtuosity at the keyboard.
Appropriately, the 12-year-old Harmony Zhu performed this concerto with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Arie Vardi, demonstrating impeccable technique as well as maturity well beyond her years. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15

Beethoven’s five piano concerti were written between 1793 and 1809. The first two were quite experimental, intending to fill the palpable void in Vienna for this genre of composition left by the death of Mozart in 1791. By the third concerto in C minor, Beethoven was fully the master of the form. 
Beethoven also personally premiered each concerto, composing the cadenzas for each one himself, making the case for his preeminent virtuosity as a pianist, with the exception of the 5th by which time his loss of hearing had become acute.
Here is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, with Fabio Luisi conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden and pianist Margarita Höhenrieder.  [Notes John Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Opus 9, no. 3, string trio: Foreshadows Later Great Works

The third of the Opus 9 string trios is a masterwork in C-minor, the tonality associated with some of Beethoven’s most dramatic works (think of the “Pathétique” and Opus 111 piano sonatas, for example).
This is Beethoven’s farewell to the string trio. After 1798 he would begin working on string quartets, a genre which would bear fruits throughout the rest of his life.
The Opus 9 no. 3 is played with great musicality by the Camerata Pacifica. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – String Trio, Opus 9, No. 2

The Opus 9 no. 2 string trio differs from its siblings in its quietly introspective character, with Beethoven’s melodic genius fully on display, especially in the second and fourth movements.
Here it is in full score, performed by the Grumiaux Trio. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Opus 9, No. 1: A Gem Trio Dedicated to an Irishman Who Served in the Russian Army!

Beethoven’s Opus 9 is a delightful set of three string trios, deserving of broader popularity than they enjoy today. They were dedicated to one of his early patrons, Count Johann George von Browne, the son of an Irish soldier of fortune who had risen to the rank of major general in the Russian army. This one, Op. 9, no. 1, was written in 1798. Here is a riveting performance of the Opus 9 no. 1 from the Camerata Pacifica. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Spark of Joy – Opus 3, his first trio, reveals echoes of Mozart’s Divertimento K. 563

Beethoven’s earliest chamber works were composed for string trio (violin, viola, and cello). During the 1790s he published five string trios and the Opus 8 Serenade before abandoning the genre in favor of other combinations –  notably including the string quartet, and sonatas for piano and one other instrument. His first trio, known as Opus 3, takes as its model Mozart’s Divertimento K. 563 – both consist of six movements, and are composed in the key of E-flat – but even in his earliest works Beethoven is no imitator, but imbues each work with his unique creative spirit. Here is the Opus 3 with full score, performed by the Grumiaux Trio. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Beethoven’s contribution to a Dialogue of Cultures: his “Spanish Songs”

George Thomson was an Edinburgh-based publisher and collector of folk music, who commissioned classical arrangements of traditional folk melodies from composers such as Pleyel, Kozeluch, Weber, and Haydn. Beethoven, a passionate believer in the brotherhood of man, wholeheartedly took up the project, and between 1809 and 1820 contributed 179 compositions, the majority based on folk songs from the British Isles. Tucked among these, however, is a small collection, “23 songs of various nationalities” (WoO 158a), with melodies from all over Europe – from Ukraine to Italy to the Iberian Peninsula.
The Catalan soprano Monserrat Alavedra sings Beethoven’s “Spanish Songs” from this collection in both Spanish and German. (Unfortunately, no English translations are available.) [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy!

Beethoven: Sparks of Joy – Op. 4, Wind Quintet

Despite its high opus number (103), the Wind Octet was composed in 1792 when Beethoven was still in service to the Elector in Bonn. The Elector, Maximilian Franz, was a great lover of Tafelmusik – background music to be played at dinner – and maintained an excellent wind band. After arriving in Vienna, Beethoven revised the piece as a string quintet, published in 1796 as Opus 4. It’s a most enjoyable piece, featuring some furious virtuoso writing for the horns, especially in the fourth movement. This performance is from the University of Michigan Symphony Band, conducted by Michael Haithcock. [Notes by Margaret Scialdone.]

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