Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives - Alternative Concert Experience
As we can’t perform this concert live for you, we thought we’d try and provide you with an alternative concert experience to enjoy.
Listen to each piece in our playlist and have a read of the programme notes below.
BACH Ricercar a 6 from 'The Musical Offering'
The music-loving Prussian monarch Frederick the Great was overjoyed to learn that the ‘Old Bach’, as he called Johann Sebastian, was visiting Potsdam in the spring of 1747 and eagerly summoned the composer to one of his soirées in Berlin at which the king’s flute-playing was usually featured.
But on this occasion Frederick put his flute aside and invited Bach to try his hand at several of his new pianofortes, the king first introducing a theme to which he invited the composer to improvise in the fashion of a three-voice fugue.
Frederick was impressed by what the maestro’s fingers drew forth and then, somewhat ambitiously, challenged Bach to improvise a six-voice fugue on the same theme.
Bach told the king he would need a little time to work on such a score and on his return to Leipzig began to compose a series of canons, ricercars, and a trio sonata based on the monarch’s theme – the Thema Regium, as Bach termed it – which was dispatched in various sections two months later under the title Musicalïsches opfer – ‘The Musical Offering’ – to the royal court for Frederick’s delectation.
Bach included two ricercars, the first for three voices opening his presentation and the other, for six voices, concluding it with impressive grandeur.
The ricercar, from the Italian for ‘to search and research’, was a late Renaissance form of canonic exploration that would soon be more fully realised as a fugue.
Bach originally used an acrostic of ricercar as the title for his gift to Frederick – Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta – which roughly translates as ‘At the King’s demand, the song and the remainder resolved with canonic art’.
The Ricercar a 6 in its keyboard form was described by American musicologist Charles Rosen as ‘the most significant piano composition in history’.
There is no record that Bach received any payment or token of appreciation for his ‘Offering’ to Frederick, but the composer was able to get one hundred copies of the collection printed – some of which he gave as presents to friends, but with the remainder selling out fast.
© Richard C Yates
MENDELSSOHN Psalm 42 'As Pants the Hart'
The spring of 1837 could not have been happier for Felix Mendelssohn. In March he’d married his young sweetheart Cécile Jeanrenaud and, while still on honeymoon, found time to work on a choral setting of a psalm that filled him with pride.
The piece, for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra, drew upon Psalm 42 in Martin Luther’s German translation from the Book of Psalms. It was published that same year with Felix declaring it to be ‘my best sacred piece … the best thing I have composed in this manner’, a work ‘I hold in greater regard than most of my other compositions’.
That’s self-praise indeed from the young composer who, when barely out of his teens, had rediscovered for the world Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion, producing a Berlin performance of a masterpiece forgotten for a century and following it up with an oratorio of his own, St Paul, in 1836.
Many of his contemporaries were also impressed – not least Robert Schumann, who hailed Mendelssohn’s realisation of the psalm as the highest point the 28-year-old had achieved as a composer for the church – ‘indeed the highest point recent church music has reached at all’.
The psalm was first performed on New Year’s Day 1838 with Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he was resident musical director. The piece, subject to some revision later that year, was clearly influenced by Mendelssohn’s respect for Bach as much as his enthusiasm for Luther’s hymns.
After a reverent orchestral passage Mendelssohn presents us with an intricate tapestry of overlapping vocal lines in the opening section. An oboe introduces, and accompanies, the first soprano aria. This evolves into a declamatory recitative section for soprano supported by a three-part women’s choir.
The soul’s desolation is questioned in the fanfare-like fourth section for full choir with repeated cries of ‘Harre auf Gott!’ (Hope thou in God!). The soprano leads the next recitative, overwhelmed by doubt and with nature itself, the waterspouts, wind and waves, seemingly against her.
Mendelssohn regarded the fifth section, a quintet for the soprano and four solo male voices, as the work’s pivotal point. The soprano’s misgivings are countered by the male voices’ steadfast reassurances.
Mendelssohn completes his melodic setting of the psalm with a display of rich counterpoint for full choir. Its triumphant rendition is very much in the spirit of George Frideric Handel, who had been such an inspiration when composing his St Paul oratorio of the year before.
BEETHOVEN Christ on the Mount of Olives
The unfolding story could hardly be more dramatic – Christ seeking solace in the garden of Gethsemane, burdened by self-doubt and the prospect of sacrifice, and pleading with God for strength as his enemies draw near.
Incredibly, Ludwig van Beethoven’s sole attempt through an oratorio to portray Christ’s emotional turmoil is only now beginning to find its rightful place in the pantheon of his greatest works.
In 1803 he had been allowed lodgings at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien by its director, Emanuel Schikaneder, in anticipation of him helping to produce an opera. With an orchestra and chorus now at hand, Beethoven saw this as an opportunity to present his 1802 oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, which he claimed to have written within a fortnight.
Typically for Beethoven, it was to be featured in a crowded programme, sharing the billing with two other premieres – of his second symphony and third piano concerto – along with a performance of his first symphony.
Up until now his only choral works of any scale were a pair of cantatas in 1790, and unsurprisingly he had no knowledge of J S Bach’s achievements through the St Matthew and St John Passions that were little heard of and yet to be published.
The oratorio, which offers a humanistic portrayal of Christ’s predicament, had a mixed reception. It was performed a number of times during the composer’s lifetime, but was never rated highly among his works. Beethoven acknowledged he may have rushed things, and made it plain he disliked the libretto supplied by Franz Xaver Huber, who’d been happier working on Viennese operas.
There would be another ten years, and a number of revisions by Beethoven, and to the text by Christian Schreiber, before the oratorio was published. Even so,
Christ on the Mount of Olives offered its composer valuable lessons in working with a chorus and developing the style of alternating recitatives, arias and ensembles that would prove so useful two years later for the first version of his only opera, Fidelio.
There’s an ominous opening to the orchestral introduction on unison brass and the sombre mood is unrelenting, leading into Jesus’s first recitative and aria, calling on God for strength and reassurance while conceding ‘my soul trembles at the suffering that is near me’.
A Seraph appears and offers her angelic supplication through the aria Praise the Redeemder’s Goodness, to be met with a jubilant chorus. An elaborate duet follows through which Jesus is resolved to his fate: So rest then with all its weight on me, my Father, thy judgement.
In a short recitative Jesus welcomes death on the Cross for mankind’s salvation before the powerful section in which the Soldiers, through the Chorus, arrive at march pace ready to make an arrest. There are cries from those demanding death for Jesus, interspersed with lamentations from the Disciples.
In the confusion Peter attempts to intervene by drawing his sword, but calm is restored through the trio section between Jesus, the Seraph and Peter reminding him of the commandment ‘to love those that hate you. Only this is pleasing to our God’.
For the closing sequence Beethoven offers a stroke of genius, the angelic chorus, Worlds sing thanks and praise to the heroic Son of God and a burst of Halllelujah!, finally resolved through a stirring fugue with the Chorus in full voice declaring: Praise him, choirs of angels, laud him in holy jubilation!