While many artists and composers have depicted the Passion of Christ, Beethoven carried an especially weighty cross in the form of his privation of hearing, which isolated him from society and forced him to compose music from his “inner ear.” Like Christ in the Garden, he found himself alone and forsaken, wrestling with a tribulation seemingly unlike that faced by any other human being.
In 1802 Ludwig van Beethoven was gradually going deaf—a condition which would become complete about ten years later. While taking a rest in the countryside, he wrote a remarkable letter which has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. Part confessional letter and part will, it expressed his feelings of anguish and isolation due to his increasing deafness together with a resolve to go on living for the sake of his music.
Shortly after writing the Testament, Beethoven began work on his one and only oratorio, Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), which was premiered in 1803 during Holy Week. It is a unique work in the composer’s output, and uniquely neglected. In this Passion play, the Passion itself is not depicted; the focus is on Jesus’ spiritual struggle beforehand in the Garden of Gethsemane. There are solo roles for Jesus, a consoling angel, and Peter, with a divided chorus representing the Roman soldiers, the disciples, and angels.
Singularly, the role of Jesus is assigned to a heroic tenor. This is only one of several ways in which Beethoven’s work sets itself apart from other Passions—notably Bach’s—in which Jesus is a bass. The tenor timbre effectively brings out the youthful, innocent, and vulnerable qualities of Christ. The German text by Franz Xaver Huber, elaborating poetically on the Gospel account, is like a dramatic snapshot of the Passion, and the composer responded with powerfully dramatic music. A foreboding orchestral introduction effectively sets the scene, groping through the dark keys of E-flat minor and C minor. Jesus’ fervent prayers to his Father are conveyed in a series of intense recitatives and a turbulent aria: “My soul is deeply distressed by the agonies that threaten me, and from my brow trickles not sweat, but blood.”
The oratorio is divided into meditative and active halves. The first part focuses on the psychology of Jesus’ suffering, as he asks God to “take this cup of sorrows from me.” The Seraph—an operatic coloratura soprano in Beethoven’s setting—looks with pity on the suffering Jesus, and she and he share a sublime A-flat duet: “Great is the torment, the terror, the dread… yet even greater is His love, with which His heart embraces the whole world.” This is the emotional heart of the oratorio and features some of Beethoven’s finest vocal writing.
When the soldiers arrive for the arrest, an angry Peter swears vengeance but is restrained by Jesus: “I have taught you only to love all men, and to forgive your enemies!” If the chorus of soldiers seems to have wandered in from a comic opera, this may have been a deliberate gesture on Beethoven’s part—we sense the futility and banality of evil. The ensuing trio among Jesus, the Seraph, and Peter resolves the conflict created by Peter’s hot-blooded desire for revenge.
As the Roman forces close in and Jesus accepts his chalice of suffering, the oratorio ends on an affirmative note: a choral fugue of angels that strongly recalls Beethoven’s favorite composer, Handel. For a long time, this section was the most popular part of Mount of Olives, often performed on its own and labelled “Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus.”
Beethoven and Huber stress Jesus’ human nature heroically overcoming fear and accepting his divine mission to redeem mankind. Despite his dark night of the soul in Gethsemane and the impending trials of Calvary, the ultimate tone of the work is hopeful, looking forward to the fulfillment of salvation:
“Soon my torment will be over,
The work of redemption accomplished,
Soon the powers of hell
Will be entirely overcome and defeated.”
Enlightenment Christianity had its overly-optimistic elements, but here we sense that the optimism is rooted in true Christian hope, a belief in the all-powerful nature of Good. The work is also typical of the Enlightenment in its emphasis on Christ as Teacher, although Huber’s text insists that this ethical authority comes from his divine nature:
“Those who have set out to capture me are now drawing near.
My Father! O bring the hours of suffering over me quickly,
that they may speed past like clouds driven by storm winds across
your heaven. Yet not my will, but yours, be done.”
Effectively, Beethoven’s setting takes the hallowed Passion oratorio into a new era. Running about fifty minutes, it is highly succinct and concentrated. The drama is even more immediate than in Bach’s Passions, especially since Beethoven dispenses with the Evangelist/narrator singing the words of the Gospel. Even though Beethoven technically wrote only one opera (Fidelio, which he considered his masterwork), Christ on the Mount of Olives amounts to a miniature sacred opera.
These operatic qualities seem to have given Beethoven pause; he waited eight years before publishing his oratorio, expressing misgivings about the quality of Huber’s text as well as the theatrical nature of his music. It’s true that the vocal writing is highly emotional, more appropriate to concert hall than church. Yet this theatricality has the effect of sanctifying the world, making the concert hall a venue for religious contemplation. Mount of Olives—like the composer’s Mass in C and Missa Solemnis, and like countless other religious works in the classical canon—participates in the great Christian and Catholic tradition of imbuing the sacred within the secular, of fleshing out the realism of the Incarnation in the most vivid way possible.
Christ on the Mount of Olives remained popular throughout the 19th century and met with particular success in the United States (it was one of the first Beethoven scores performed here, in New York in 1809). In more recent times it has fallen into relative obscurity, rarely performed and generally deemed one of Beethoven’s lesser works. A close listen to the fine recording on the Harmonia Mundi label led by conductor Kent Nagano puts the lie to that notion. Tenor Placido Domingo sings with intense ardor as Jesus, and Nagano leads a taut, powerful performance that puts Beethoven’s oratorio in the best possible light.
Perhaps what gives Christ on the Mount of Olives its special force is Beethoven’s personal connection to the subject. While many artists and composers have depicted the Passion of Christ, Beethoven carried an especially weighty cross in the form of his privation of hearing, which isolated him from society and forced him to compose music from his “inner ear.” Like Christ in the Garden, he found himself alone and forsaken, wrestling with a tribulation seemingly unlike that faced by any other human being. So great was his inner turmoil, as the Heiligenstadt Testament reveals, that he briefly contemplated taking his own life. What made him go on living was his love of virtue and his desire to share his art with the world, and he entrusted himself to “Providence” and the “Divine One.”
It’s very conceivable that Beethoven also found strength and solace in the Passion, and that his oratorio itself gave him the renewed energy to rise above his circumstances and compose his later works—many of them composed in total deafness.
This poignance alone makes Christ on the Mount of Olives a significant work in Beethoven’s output and in the whole Passion genre. Even more, the quality and intensity of the music, Beethoven’s personal response to Good Friday, make an eloquent plea for a fair hearing.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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The featured image is “Christ on the Mount of Olives” by Matthias Stom, uploaded by Joyofmuseums, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.