Friday, April 3, 2015

Christus am Ölberge

No. 192 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at



This week's Friday Podcast takes a break from our ongoing concerto series, and considers musical settings of aspects of the Passion.

Christus am Ölberge (Christ at the Mount of Olives) is Beethoven's only sacred oratorio and represents a third of his sacred output. This oratorio, along with two masses (his Mass in C and the Missa Solemnis) form the complete set.

Christus am Ölberge, is all about the anguish and despair felt by Christ on the eve of his crucifixion, as he reflects in the Mount of Olives during a sleepless night. The oratorio ends with Christ accepting his fate, choosing his sacrifice of his own free will.

The work was written over a very short time (based on which story you believe, from a few days to a couple of weeks), at or around the time of Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament, an unsent letter where Beethoven reveals he is going deaf, and goers through his own battle with anguish and despair.

Interestingly, Beethoven does not consider a complete setting of the Passion (as others have done), rather focusing on one specific episode. In doing so, Beethoven creates a work of human proportions (rather than a two-hour magnum opus), allowing for a focus on the human aspects rather than a continuous narrative of the biblical story. The libretto for this oratorio is from poet Franz Xaver Huber, and the work was likely created in the lenten season of 1803 (April 5th) in a concert that also premiered his second symphony. The work is later revised in 1811, explaining its later Hess number (op. 85) compared to that of its contemporary symphony (op. 36). The work was published near the time of the MasS in C (op. 86).

Beethoven, we note, was not kind to the libretto, writing “Putting aside the value of such poetry (…) I rather would have set Homer, Klopstock or Schiller to music. If they have their share of difficulties, such immortals are worth it.“

To complete the podcast, I chose a suite of selectons from Ibert's mudic for the 1935 French film Golgotha by Julien Duvivier. featuring stars of the era such as Harry Baur, Jean Gabin, Edwige Feuillère and Juliette Verneuil. Robert Le Vigan was to give a remarkable interpretation of Christ.

Ibert’s score is very demanding and dramatic. It plays an important part in a picture containing long sequences almost without dialogue. The version featured today is a suite assembled by Ibert himself, using various unaltered cues, but played by a larger ensemble. The original wind section which consisted of solo instruments, in accordance with the standard concession film composers had to make towards the primitive sound possibilities of the thirties, was therefore doubled when necessary, and the part of the second martenot re-arranged into sections for bass-clarinet, tuba and vibraphone.

The original ad libitum wind effects played by the ondes martenot in the last movement were reduced to a few specific interventions. An eight-minute cut, containing some of the most exciting music, and the crossing-out of the final quotation of the opening fanfare, following the lovely funeral procession à la Satie, were restored, in order to give the suite a cyclic unity.

I think you will love this music too.

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