GENERAL sketch of the life and musical accomplishments of Beethoven has already appeared in the companion to this work, ” The Standard Operas.” In this connection, however, it seems eminently fitting that some attention should be paid to the religious sentiments of the great composer and the sacred works which he produced. He was a formal member of the Roman Church, but at the same time an ardent admirer of some of the Protestant doctrines. His religious observances, however, were peculiarly his own. His creed had little in common with any of the ordinary forms of Christianity. A writer in Macmillan’s Magazine ” some years ago very clearly defined his religious position in the statement that his faith rested on a pantheistic abstraction which he called “Love.” He interpreted everything by the light of this sentiment, which took the form of an endless longing, sometimes deeply sad, at others rising to the highest exaltation. An illustration of this in its widest sense may be found in the choral part of the Ninth Symphony.
He at times attempted to give verbal expression to this ecstatic faith which filled him, and at such times he reminds us of the Mystics. The following passages, which he took from the inscription on the temple of the Egyptian goddess Neith at Sais, and called his creed, explain this : “I am that which is. I am all that is, that was, and that shall be. No mortal man hath lifted my veil.. He is alone by Himself, and to Him alone do all things owe their being.” With all this mysticism his theology was practical, as is shown by his criticism of the words which Moscheles appended to his arrangement of Tidelio.” The latter wrote at the close of his work : ” Fine, with God’s help.” Beethoven added : O man I help thyself.” That he was deeply religious by nature, however, is constantly shown in his letters. Wandering alone at evening among the mountains, he sketched a hymn to the words, “God alone is our Lord.” In the extraordinary letter which he wrote to his brothers, Carl and Johann, he says : “God looks into my heart. He searches it, and knows that love for man and feelings of benevolence have their abode there.” In a letter to Bettina von Arnim, he writes: ” If I am spared for some years to-come, I will thank the Omniscient, the Omnipotent, for the boon, as. I do for all other weal and woe.” In Spohr’s album his inscription is a musical setting of the words, “Short is the pain, eternal is the joy.” In a letter to the Archduke Rudolph, written in 18177, he gives no uncertain expression to his divine trust. He says: My confidence is placed in Providence, who will vouch-safe to hear my prayer, and one day set me free from all my troubles; for I have served him faith-fully from my childhood, and done good whenever it was in my power. So my trust is in him alone, and I feel that the Almighty will not allow me to be utterly crushed by all my manifold trials.” Even in a business letter he says: ” I assure you on my honorwhich, next to God, is what I prize most that I authorized no one to accept commissions from me, His letters indeed abound in references to his constant reliance upon a higher Power. The oratorio, ” Christ on the Mount of Olives,” six sacred songs set to poems of Gellert, the Mass in C written for Prince Esterhazy, and the Grand Mass in D written for the Archduke Rudolph, one of the grandest and most impressive works in the entire realm of sacred music, attest the depth and fervency of his religious nature.
The Mount of Olives
Beethoven wrote but one oratorio, “Christus am Oelberg” (” Christ on the Mount of Olives “) That he had others in contemplation, however, at different periods of his life is shown by his letters. In 1809 he wrote to Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall, a famous Oriental scholar, appointing an interview for the discussion of the latter’s poem on the subject of the deluge, with reference to its fitness for treatment as an oratorio. Again, in 1824, he writes to Vincenz Hauschka, of Vienna, that he has decided to write an oratorio on the text furnished by Bernard, the subject being “The Victory of the Cross.” This work, however, owing to his extreme physical sufferings at that period, was never begun, and the world thereby has suffered a great musical loss ; for, judging from his great Mass in D, no one can doubt how majestic and impressive the ” Victory of the Cross ” would have been, as compared with the ” Mount of Olives,” written in his earlier period, and before any of his masterpieces had appeared.
The “Mount of Olives was begun in r800, and finished during the following year. Beethoven never remained in Vienna during the summer. The discomforts of the city and his intense love for Nature urged him out into the pleasantly wooded suburbs of the city, where he could live and work in seclusion. Upon this occasion he selected the little village of Hetzendorf, adjoining the gardens of the imperial palace of Schonbrunn, where the Elector, his old patron, was living in retirement. Trees were his delight. In a letter to Madame von Dross-dick, he says ” Woods, trees, and rocks give the response which man requires. Every tree seems to say, ‘ Holy, Holy ! ‘ ” In the midst of these delightful surroundings he found his favorite tree, at whose base he composed the larger part of the oratorio, as well as his opera ” Fidelio.” Schindler says ;
“A circumstance connected with both these great works, and of which Beethoven many years afterwards still retained a lively recollection, was, that he composed them in the thickest part of the wood in the park of Schônbrunn, seated between the two stems of an oak, which shot out from the main trunk at the height of about two feet from the ground. This remarkable tree, in that part of the park to the left of the Gloriett, I found with Beethoven in 1823, and the sight of it called forth interesting reminiscences of the former period. The words of the oratorio were by Huber, the author- of Winter’s ” Unterbrochene Opferfest,” and were written, with Beethoven’s assistance, in fourteen days. That more time and attention were not given to the text was probably regretted by both poet and composer many times afterwards. The first performance of the work in its entirety took place at Vienna, April 5, 1803, at the Theater an der Wien, upon which occasion the programme also included the Symphony in D (second) and the Piano Concerto in C minor, the latter executed by himself. The oratorio was received with enthusiasm, and was repeated three times during that year.
The libretto of the work- is unquestionably defective in the most salient qualities which should characterize the text of an oratorio, even to the degree of extravagance and sensationalism. It fails to reflect the sorrowful character of the scene it depicts, and the dramatic requirements which it imposes are often strained, and sometimes border on the grotesque. The theatrical style of the narrative was deplored by Beethoven himself at a subsequent period. Marx, one of the keenest of critics, says of the work :–
” The poet had no other aim but that of making verses for a composer; the latter, no other motive than the ordinary creative impulse prompting him to try his powers in a different and important sphere. The result on both sides could not there-fore be other than phrases, although the better of the two proceeded from the composer, and that composer was Beethoven. To conceal or palliate this would be derogatory to the reverence which we all owe to Beethoven ; he stands too high to be in need of extenuation.”
This is Marx’s judgment; and yet it must be said that the world for the most part has found more in the ” Mount of Olives ” than he has.
The oratorio is written for three solo voices (Jesus, Peter, and a Seraph), chorus, and orchestra. The narrative opens with the agony in the garden, followed by the chant of a Seraph reciting the divine goodness and foretelling the salvation of the righteous. In the next scene Jesus learns his fate from the Seraph, yields himself to approaching death, and welcomes it. The Soldiers enter in pursuit, and a tumult ensues as the Apostles find them-selves surrounded. Peter draws his sword and gives vent to his indignation ; but is rebuked both by Jesus and the Seraph, and together they conjure him to be silent and endure whatever may happen. The Soldiers, discovering Jesus, rush upon him and bind him. The Disciples express their apprehension that they too will suffer ; but Jesus uncomplainingly surrenders himself, and a chorus of rejoicing completes the work. From this brief sketch the artificial and distorted manner of treating the solemn subject will be evident.
The score opens with an adagio introduction for instruments which is of a very dramatic character, and, unlike nearly all of the sacred music of that time, is noticeable for the absence of the fugue. Barbedette, the great French critic, pronounces it the chef-d’oeuvre of introductions, and a masterpiece in the serious style. The first number is a recitative and aria for tenor, sung by Jesus (” All my Soul within me shudders “), which, notwithstanding the anomaly of such a scene in such surroundings, is simple and touching in expression. The Seraph follows with a scene and aria (“Praise the Redeemer’s Goodness”), concluding with a brilliant and jubilant obligato with chorus (” 0 triumph, all ye Ransomed “). The next number is an elaborate duet between Jesus and the Seraph (” On me then fall Thy heavy Judgment “), which is still more anomalous than the scene and aria with which Jesus opens the work. In a short recitative passage, Jesus welcomes death ; and then ensues one of the most powerful numbers in the work, the chorus of Soldiers in march time (” We surely here shall find Him “), interspersed with the cries of the People demanding his death, and the lamentations of the Apostles. At the conclusion of the tumult a dialogue ensues between Jesus and Peter (” Not unchastised shall this audacious Band”), which leads up to the crowning anomaly of the work, a trio between Jesus, Peter, and the Seraph, with chorus (” O, Sons of Men, with Gladness “). The closing number, a chorus of angels (” Hallelujah, God’s Almighty Son “), is introduced with a short but massive symphony lead = ing to a jubilant burst of Hallelujah, which finally resolves itself into a glorious fugue, accompanied. with all that wealth of instrumentation of which Beethoven .was the consummate master. In all sacred music it is difficult to find a choral num ber which can surpass it in majesty or power.
The English versions of the ” Mount of Olives ” differ materially from the German in the text. Numerous efforts have been made to avoid the incongruity of the original narrative, but with poor success. It was first produced in England in 1814 by Sir George Smart during the Lenten oratorios at Drury Lane, the English version of which was made by Arnold, at that time manager of the King’s Theatre. Still later it was produced again, and the adapter compromised by using the third person, as ” ` Jehovah, Thou, O Father,’ saith the Lord our Saviour.” Two other versions were made by Thomas Oliphant and Mr. Bartholomew, but these were not successful. At last the aversion to the personal part of Jesus led to an entirely new text, called” Engedi,” the words of which were written by Dr. Henry Hudson, of Dublin, and founded upon the persecution of.
David by Saul in the wilderness, as described in parts of chapters xxiii,, xxiv., and xxvi. of the first book of Samuel. The characters introduced are David, Abishai, and the Prophetess, the latter corresponding to the Seraph in the original. The compiler himself in his preface says :
” So far as was possible, the author has availed him-self of Scripture language, and David’s words have been taken (almost wholly) from the Psalms generally attributed to him, though of course not in regular order, as it has invariably throughout been the writer’s first object to select words adapting themselves to the original music in its continually varying expression, which could not have been done had he taken any one psalm as his text. How far the author has succeeded, he must leave to others to determine.”
The substituted story has not proved successful, principally because the music, which was written for an entirely different one, is not adapted to it. The latest version is that of the Rev. J. Troutbeck, prepared for the Leeds festivals, in which the Saviour is again introduced.