Christus am Ölberge (in English, Christ on the Mount of Olives), Op. 85, is an oratorio by Ludwig van Beethoven portraying the emotional turmoil of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his crucifixion. It was begun in the fall of 1802, after his completion of the Heiligenstadt Testament, as indicated by evidence in the Wielhorsky sketchbook. The libretto in German is by the poet Franz Xaver Huber, editor of the Wiener Zeitung, with whom Beethoven worked closely. It was quickly completed early the following year, and was first heard on April 5, 1803, and revised by Beethoven in 1811 for publication by Breitkopf & Härtel.
The work is a dramatic oratorio rather than a religious choral mass or a dramatic opera, and is a much more humanistic portrayal of the Christ passion than other settings, such as those by Bach. It concludes at the point of Jesus personally accepting his fate, placing the emphasis on his own decision rather than the later Crucifixion or Resurrection.
The oratorio is scored for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, with standard SATB chorus and symphony orchestra. The tenor sings as Jesus, with the soprano as a seraph (angel) and the bass as Peter. A complete performance runs for nearly 50 minutes.
Beethoven was quite critical of the piece — his only oratorio — thinking it too dramatic in nature, and the orchestra and chorus too under-rehearsed in its premiere performance. He also panned Huber's libretto, saying, "I would rather set Homer, Klopstock, Schiller to music. If they offer difficulties to overcome, these immortal poets are worthy of it." The publisher agreed, and Christian Schreiber was enlisted to make massive changes to the libretto. However, upon reviewing the changes, Beethoven still was not happy, saying, "I know that the text is extremely bad, but if even a bad text is conceived as a whole entity, it is very difficult to avoid disrupting it by individual corrections". Ultimately, he waited almost ten years to publish the piece (which explains the relatively late Opus number). Beethoven eventually did set Schiller to music in his monumental Ninth Symphony, nearly twenty years later.
Although the work enjoyed immediate public success following its premiere, it has since drifted into obscurity, and is now rarely performed, being commonly regarded as falling below Beethoven's usual standards of excellence. However, the "Welten singen..." finale chorus has enjoyed some popularity on its own, usually being rendered as an "Hallelujah".
(Jesus, Seraph, Peter)
Orchestra and Chorus
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Vienna Academy Chorus
Victor van Halem
Orchestre National de Lyon, with chorus
Stuttgart Liederhalle, Gadinger Kantorei, Stuttgart,
Deutsche Symphonie Orchester,
L. Orgonasova Rundfunkchor, Berlin