About this Recording
8.573852 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Christus am Ölberge / Elegischer Gesang (Haapamäki, Myllys, Spångberg, Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)
English 

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Christus am Ölberge, Op. 85 • Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118

 

Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.

Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa, and there were introductions to leading members of society in the Imperial capital. Here Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.

News of Beethoven’s new oratorio Christus am Ölberge aroused great interest in Vienna in 1803. Beethoven had been appointed to Schikaneder’s Theater an der Wien and, taking advantage of this, was able to present a concert of his own compositions. The final rehearsal for the concert began at eight o’clock on the morning of the concert, on Tuesday 5 April. Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries had been summoned by Beethoven early in the morning and found him, in bed, writing trombone parts for the oratorio, perhaps as an afterthought. The composition had taken Beethoven only a few weeks, working with the librettist Franz Xaver Huber, whose skills had generally seemed to lie in opera, attested by his appointment to the Theater an der Wien. The rehearsal was exhausting and the musicians dissatisfied, until they were pacified by the provision of refreshments by Prince Karl Lichnowsky, who also requested another run-through of the oratorio, to make sure all would go well at the concert.

The original programme for Beethoven’s concert was a long one, and some items were apparently left unperformed. The works actually played were the First and Second Symphonies, the Third Piano Concerto—the soloist’s part only sketched in, a nightmare for the page-turner—and the oratorio. There were probably other vocal works, following the custom of the time, but these had to be omitted. The oratorio had a mixed critical reception, but the event, its ticket prices raised for the occasion, brought Beethoven a satisfactory sum. The oratorio was repeated under the direction of other conductors, but not published until 1811, after Beethoven had made various revisions and changes, while his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel had sought a revision of the text from Christian Scheiber, without the composer’s prior approval. Beethoven accepted Scheiber’s corrections only if he thought these really were improvements. Beethoven himself had some doubts about the Italianate form he had adopted for the work, with its pattern of recitative and aria, interspersed with choruses. Others have taken exception to the divergence of the text from the biblical narrative. Christ, in fact, appears as a very human figure, a precursor of the suffering Florestan of Fidelio, which would have been in Beethoven’s mind at this time, as would the discovery of his own increasing deafness.

The orchestral Introduction leads to Christ’s first recitative and aria, in which he prays God for mercy and for this cup of suffering be taken from him. The second of the six movements of the work opens with the Seraph’s accompanied recitative, the opening words of which have been compared with the entry of Mozart’s Queen of the Night—O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (‘Tremble not, my dear son’)—but here, Erzitt’re, Erde! (‘Shudder, earth!’), with an aria that makes use of elements of coloratura that again suggest the Queen of the Night. The Seraph is joined by a choir of angels. In a fourth section Christ seeks to know God’s will, answered by the Seraph, with a following duet. In a recitative Christ welcomes death, as the soldiers, in a chorus, draw near. In a recitative Christ submits to the will of the Father, while the soldiers seize him, to the alarm of the Disciples. Christ tells Peter to lay aside his sword. A terzetto follows, introduced by Peter, who seeks revenge, while Christ and the Seraph urge forgiveness. A chorus of angels sings praise to God and the work ends with a triumphant fugal chorus.

Beethoven’s short Elegischer Gesang (‘Elegiac Song’) was written in about 1814, when he was concerned with a revision of his only opera, now under the title Fidelio, which was to be revived. Originally scored for four voices and string quartet, the elegy is a setting of words by Ignaz Franz von Castelli, and was dedicated to Beethoven’s friend and supporter, Baron Johann Baptist von Pasqualati, in memory of the latter’s young wife, who had died three years earlier. It was published in 1896.

Keith Anderson


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