In the words of Sir Simon Rattle, Beethoven is ‘absolutely inescapable’, especially as music-lovers around the world celebrate 250 years since his birth. Who can claim not to recognise the stirring chorus of ‘Ode to Joy’ or the melancholy second movement of his Symphony No 7, which has amassed a substantial number of references in popular culture? Yet even the most ardent Beethoven fans may find themselves scratching their heads at the mention of Christ on the Mount of Olives…
Composed in 1802, one year before his ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Christ on the Mount of Olives is Beethoven’s only oratorio, scored for a full symphony orchestra, SATB choir, and soprano, tenor and bass soloists. It is a dramatic retelling of the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: immediately following the Last Supper, Jesus retires to a quiet place, Gethsemane, accompanied by three of his disciples. While the disciples sleep, despite being asked to stay awake, Jesus prays in anguish, troubled by the knowledge of events soon to unfold. It is on this night that he will be betrayed by Judas, who will bring a group of guards to arrest Jesus, ultimately leading to the Crucifixion. Countless artists across all mediums have seen fit to depict this short final period of Jesus’ life, commonly known as the Passion.
Unlike other more commonly known musical settings of this story, Beethoven’s oratorio is a much more humanistic portrayal. There is an intense sadness to it, as Rattle puts it, a ‘dark night of the soul’. It was at this time that Beethoven’s hearing began to deteriorate, gradually worsening until he became completely deaf around 1811, and as we hear Christ reflect on the situation to come, so too can we hear a tormented and vulnerable Beethoven lamenting his own lot; the torture as a musician of losing this most fundamental ability.
The composition of Christ on the Mount of Olives sits within a period of mental fragility for Beethoven. Just one year earlier he had written a letter to his siblings, the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he revealed that his increasing deafness, causing him great difficulty and sadness both in his social life and as a performer, had prompted him to have suicidal thoughts. Nevertheless, he also wrote in his Testament of his resolution to live for and through his art. There is a similar sense of naïve optimism at work in Christ on the Mount of Olives, which ends with a celebratory ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.
So what does all this sound like?
Sir Simon Rattle and Choral Director Simon Halsey reveal just how much there is to listen out for in this piece. Rattle compares Christ on the Mount of Olives to the music Beethoven was writing around the time of his Third Symphony, the ‘Eroica’, with its vast expressive range covering everything from jovial to lyrical, tragic to heroic. The Third is not the only Symphony to get a mention: ‘Olives sounds like Beethoven from around the time of the Fourth Symphony’, explains Rattle, that is, a composer capable of combining tender and searching melodies with characteristic brashness and strength, in a work all the while propelled by some unstoppable momentum.
It is an intriguing kaleidoscope of musical ideas, revealing Beethoven’s own growth as a composer, and acting as a treasure chest of ideas foreshadowing what he was yet to create. Not only that, it reveals influences from other now household musical names: there are moments reminiscent of Haydn’s The Creation and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A soprano line for the angel is again akin to Mozart and his concert arias, while the grand concluding ‘Hallelujah’ chorus calls to mind the harmonic progressions of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. For composers to come, Halsey explains that it ‘laid the groundwork for Schubert’s late masses, oratorios by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – they didn’t come out of nowhere!’.
Christ on the Mount of Olives is a fitting piece to draw attention to as we celebrate 250 years since Beethoven’s birth, offering the chance to discover more about a musical titan at work. Sir Simon Rattle sums up his own thoughts on the oratorio perfectly: ‘I think people will feel as I do – ‘why don’t we know this piece?’. It’s complete heaven, something to wake up in the morning for, and I can’t wait to share it.’
Sir Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives on Sunday 19 January and Thursday 13 February, joined by soloists Elsa Dreisig, Pavol Breslik and David Soar, and the London Symphony Chorus. Click to find out more or to book tickets.