by Anno Hellenbroich

The great German tenor passed away 50 years ago. It is time to reflect upon the bearings of his works, especially with respect to the way Beethoven’s liturgical music can be listened to, and grasped for what Beethoven meant it to be; and for what he struggled it to be understood, against several oppositions and misconceptions.

Il tenore Fritz Wunderlich.


There are many entries which we can find in the social networks or in the Internet, which are often quite unbearable. People seem just blabbing away. Aside news and scandals we are confronted with banalities, with a lot of irrelevant things or intolerable hate speeches. Internet, Facebook and Twitter seduce the user to participate in a kind of constant neo-baroque chatter.

But there are also remarkable exceptions. A year ago a special CD was published in YouTube: it was the recording of the oratory Christus am Ölberge op 85, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. In this recording the tenor Fritz Wunderlich presented the part of Christ. A 27 year old Fritz Wunderlich was accompanied by the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under the conductor Henk Spruit. The taping was made in the year 1957. What is surprising: The entries written by totally enthusiastic listeners commenting the recording from that time, fully underline the immense expressiveness of the young tenor Wunderlich, who had the capacity to voice Beethoven’s composition wonderfully. Fritz Wunderlich was one of the most famous lyrical tenors in Germany. This is evidenced by many recordings of Schubert and Schumann songs with Hubert Giesen as pianist. His first appearance on stage was his role as Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute which he presented in 1954. The echo to the Wunderlich recording form the year 1957 is a vivid demonstration that the longing for this kind of authenticity is unbroken up to this day.

The oratory “Christ on the Mountain of Olives” is disputed among musicologists and theologians; it is qualified as a not so successful work by Beethoven. The oratory, whose composition was begun in 1803, was Beethoven’s first great composition about a religious subject. (In 1802 Beethoven had composed 6 songs whose texts had been written by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert; poems which were a reflection about existential subjects like About death, The love for the neighbor or God’s power and providence.) Beethoven’s main subject is the agony and death of Jesus in compliance with his redemption mission, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and his arrest. His appeal to his Father: “Oh father! ..I want to be a mediator, I alone atone for the guilt of man. How could this human race, molded out of earth, bear a judgement which throws me, your son to the floor?… I suffer very much, my Father, have mercy on me and…take this chalice of suffering away from me. These words characterize key parts of the composition. Beethoven counterposed this with the reconciliatory and admonishing words sung by the Seraph and the choir of angels “You will enjoy blessedness, if you are faithful in love, faith and hope”, which Beethoven composed in a bright A-major. Furthermore in this 6-part oratory, Peter is represented in the bass voice, aside of the tenor and soprano (Seraph); these solo voices are accompanied by the chorus of the soldiers, the disciples of Jesus, the angels and by the orchestra.

The instrumental “Introduzione” starts in the very rare key, E-flat minor. By using as tempo the Grave (very slow), this introduction focusses the listener’s attention to the moment when Jesus finds himself totally abandoned in his passion. Wilfried Kirsch (in: Beethoven- Interpretationen seiner Werke Bd I Riethmuller, Dahlhaus, Ringer 1994) correctly points to the character of the tonality as they were defined by Chr. Fr. D. Schubart (Ideen zu einer sthetik der Tonkunst, 1806) according to whom the tonality expresses “feelings of deep fear felt by the soul, of brooding despair, of the most black melancholy, of the darkest state of mind.” It is known that Beethoven knew about the Schubart’s characterization concerning the tonalities and that he appreciated it very much. Out of this almost “speaking” instrumental introduction emerges the voice of Christ, being totally alone and not accompanied (recitativo). The emotional tension between the divine redemption mission and the human death agony of the Son of God is what really touches one in this Beethoven composition, which the great tenor Fritz Wunderlich is able to so uniquely express in his singing.

The text was written by the well-known librettist Franz Xaver Huber, with whom Beethoven was able to collaborate well. Parts of the texts were taken from the gospels of Matthew, Markus and Luke partially rewritten, some verses freely invented. In the course of the years this was seen critically. The publisher Breitkopf & Haertel hesitated for quite some time before printing it. Already in 1804 Beethoven had begun to rework the composition. But it was only printed in 1811. The attempt was made at the time to improve the text by Huber which was criticized as a trivializing libretto. In reality it was difficult for the religious feeling at that time to accept Beethoven’s quite personal, subjective interpretation of the person of Jesus Christ being the Son of God and a human being. Especially in the predominantly protestant city of Leipzig it was difficult to bear the psychological reality of Christ in Beethoven’s passionate way (according to Jan Caeyers Beethoven 2012). Beethoven, when hearing about the changes in the text, defended himself in a sharply worded letter. The original libretto would be bad, he wrote, yet it should not be changed in any parts. Text and music would constitute a whole and every change, even if it was the change of one important word, would destroy the whole. At first Breitkopf & Haertel followed Beethoven’s demands but then they incorporated some of the changes which had been rejected by Beethoven. At which point totally outraged Beethoven wrote: “In the oratory choir we have seen him – despite my notes in favor of the old text, you preferred the unfortunate changes. For heaven’s sake, do people think in Saxony, that the word makes the music?”

La partitura pubblicata da Breitkopf & H?rtel.
La partitura pubblicata da Breitkopf & Hartel.


La partitura pubblicata da Breitkopf & Haertel.

Among Anglicans it seemed to have been even more difficult to accept the passionate representation of Christ as God and Human being: In 1842 an entirely new text version, written by Henry Hudson, who took instead the history out of the Old Testament (the persecution of David through Saul) was published in London (1874), without a single note being changed never the less according to Caeyers.

Beethoven’s passionate struggle for the spirituality of man

In 1807 Beethoven composed his first Missa in C-Major. In 1815 he wanted to compose another oratory The victory of the Cross, upon the request by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. However Beethoven did not fulfill this request. Only after 1823 Beethoven was able to present to the Archduke Rudolph, the dedicatee of the Missa Solemnis op 123, the score of this Grosse Messe, which Beethoven qualified as his greatest work. What this underlines, is that Beethoven during his life always was engaged in a deep struggle – beyond any confessional difference – concerning the religious dimension of man, the source of humaneness.

Thus it becomes evident why the interpretation of the figure of Christ in Beethoven’s composition, presented so magnificently by the great tenor Fritz Wunderlich (who unfortunately died too early 50 years ago at the age of 36), has such a great impact today. Despite some imbalances in Beethoven’s oratory, whether it may be found in the text or in the dramaturgy, the recording from the year 1957 reflects the desire to live through something authentic and truthful. Something which many people in our time miss so painfully: An understanding about man’s Godlike nature and the need to act accordingly.

Wiesbaden, April 2016


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here