On one of the first drizzly Sundays in autumn, LSO Choral Director Simon Halsey rehearses Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives in a singing day at LSO St Luke’s.
'Go left! He could be over there,' said Simon, squinting like he was looking for a pair of shoes lost in the dark. He was enacting a possible staging of the soldiers' chorus in Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives.
'It's like Gilbert and Sullivan. Well actually Gilbert and Sullivan is like Beethoven.’ But music history forgets to mention that, ‘So as choral singers - as modern day musicians - we have gaps in our knowledge.' Pieces like Christ on the Mount of Olives aren't performed much today, but when Gilbert and Sullivan were penning The Pirates of Penzance in 1879, they would likely have known Beethoven’s oratorio and what kind of music he’d have written for a troop of hapless soldiers in hot pursuit of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
It was one of the first drizzly Sundays in autumn and LSO St Luke’s Jerwood Hall was packed out with 150 singers and their raincoats. I squeezed into my spot next to Michael, a young bass who sang in a community choir local to him in Aldgate. 'Take one and pass the rest along,' he told me, and handed over a stack of music.
Setting some ground rules, language coach Norbert Meyn explained that the difference between singing English and singing German is that German is sung with consonants. English consonants are tidied away, like the ‘J’ tucked into ‘Hallelujah’. But in German (and you can try this yourself), the 'J' uses the same vowel (‘Ee’), but should be aspirated like an ‘H’ just before the syllable starts, so the ‘Ah’ explodes afterwards.
‘You’ve got to start the consonants early,’ Simon agreed. ‘I know when Norbert’s been working with the London Symphony Chorus because of the consonants. They begin before the choir room door opens.’
While Simon jumped from one moment in the music to another, accompanying pianist Ben Frost span orchestral effects out of a Novello piano reduction that was last revised in the 1910s. The piece revealed itself: an experimental mosaic, a mash up, that showed how Beethoven was always growing as a composer. 'As a composition tutor, I'd have been less than satisfied with what he does on page 61,' Simon said. He was referring to the bolshy and extremely low writing for basses, who were asked to sing in a register where the original choruses would have been swamped by the din of an 1800s orchestra. 'I don't think Beethoven would have overlooked this 10 years later.'
Pieces like Christ on the Mount of Olives have fallen out of the repertoire mostly because of Beethoven's considerable success as a symphonist. It hasn't left much room for the rest of his music, which reflects the wide-ranging musical culture he was a part of. Beethoven constantly cross-referenced; in a celebratory ‘Hallelujah’ chorus that ends the piece, Beethoven uses the period drama of French Overture rhythms and the grand harmonic progressions of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. In his writing for the angel, Beethoven mimicked the kind of concert aria Mozart wrote for robust sopranos, before the spirit of Bel Canto drifted through a duet between soloist Holly Brown and tenor Florian Panzieri, singing the part of Jesus. This segued into a choral fugue, but we were so distracted by the beautiful singing we forgot to come in.
'Writing Christ on the Mount of Olives,' Simon said, 'Beethoven laid the groundwork for Schubert's late masses, oratorios by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas – They didn’t come out of nowhere!’