Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Beethoven's Oratorio and the Heiligenstadt Testament

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Beethoven's Oratorio and the Heiligenstadt Testament

Article excerpt

THE SUBJECT MATTER OF BEETHOVEN'S ORATORIO CHRISTUS AM OELBERGE, which was first performed on April 5, 1803, is unusual in that it does not cover the whole of Christ's Passion but concentrates entirely on the scene on the Mount of Olives, just before and during his arrest. The text, by Franz Xaver Huber, places much emphasis on Christ's agony and suffering, his struggle against adversity, and his ultimate triumph through his love of mankind.

A number of scholars have commented on connections between this subject and Beethoven's personal situation at the time. Alan Tyson, for example, has pointed out that there are parallels between Christ's agony and Beethoven's sense of isolation through his deafness (and also Florestan's agony and isolation in the dungeon in Fidelio), and that the text of Christus - particularly the phrase "Nimm den Leidenskelch von mir" (take the cup of suffering from me) - was "of a sort to make the strongest possible appeal to Beethoven's imagination."1 Similarly, Maynard Solomon has drawn attention to the proximity of the oratorio to Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament, stating that Christus was clearly "created in the aftermath of the crisis."2 Theodore Albrecht has taken up this point, saying that "the libretto surely reflected Beethoven's feelings of the moment: the text to Christus am Oelberge must be almost contemporary with the signed copy of the Heiligenstadt Testament, dated October 6 and 10, 1802."3 A detailed comparison of the Testament and the oratorio, however, reveals a much stronger relationship, with the oratorio being more closely modeled on Beethoven's personal life than has been realized. This becomes still more evident if a group of his letters written a little earlier and expressing similar sentiments is taken into account. When the chronology is considered too, interesting questions arise about how the oratorio and especially its text came to be written.

The close similarity between the two texts is best illustrated by placing together short extracts from each, in pairs. Both texts contain ideas of extreme and undeserved suffering, expressions of terror, fear of imminent death, and a sense of isolation and loneliness. In the quotations below, the first of each pair is taken (except where indicated) from the Heiligenstadt Testament; the second is from Christus am Oelberge.

Yet there is a certain stoicism and resignation to fate, and a willingness to fight the fierce battles that lie ahead, even if they end in death:

Throughout the struggle and the suffering, however, there remains the desire to do good and love mankind:

And there is the anticipation of ultimate triumph over adversity, with the struggle and agony being resolved in death and eternal joy:

Some of the parallels are closer than others, and rarely are exactly the same words used in both texts. Yet, considering the differences between Christ's situation and Beethoven's, the similarities between the two sets of quotations are extraordinary. Many of the phrases would be almost equally appropriate in either context, and the oratorio text is often closer to the Heiligenstadt Testament than to the original Biblical narratives on which it is based. The sentiments are often virtually identical, and the differences lie mainly in the fact that the oratorio tends to express the ideas much more poetically and loftily than Beethoven's rather down-to-earth comments. Even individual words are occasionally identical: particularly striking is the use of the word "outcast" (Verbannte), very uncommon as a description of Christ, though not inappropriate; and Beethoven's "Menschenliebe" (love of humanity) is very close to Christ's "die Menschen alle lieben." Also notable is the idea of embracing the world, even though Christ's word (umschliessen) is different from Beethoven's (umspannen); and the curious equivocation between welcoming and fearing death is prominent in both texts.

How could Huber have produced an oratorio text incorporating so many ideas from Beethoven's private correspondence? …

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