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Transforming Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge, abstract

November 30, 2010

This is the abstract of a paper presented at the third Rose Bruford College International Conference Music and Stage, 23-24 October 2010.  The paper as presented differs in emphasis from the abstract as it focuses on the issue of the reception in Victorian Britain of the  representation of Jesus in music dramas.


Title: Transforming Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge

 Author: Barry Mitchell

 Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge Op. 85 (1803) has usually been regarded as an unsatisfactory work, chiefly because of the weakness of Franz Xaber Huber’s libretto.  The oratorio, despite being Beethoven’s only through-composed dramatic work, has never been counted as among his masterpieces. Even Beethoven’s revision of 1811 could not solve the problems. In the 1830s a bold attempt was made to overcome the oratorio’s shortcomings with the aim of making the work suitable for performance in the English-speaking world.  With this aim in mind the original libretto was replaced with a completely new one.  The new text is not a translation: it has nothing in common with the original libretto and is instead based on the story from the Old Testament Book of Samuel of Saul’s persecution of David. The transformed oratorio, entitled Engedi, was published and probably commissioned by J Alfred Novello. The libretto of Engedi is by the Irish amateur musicologist Henry Hudson. The result is one of the few adaptations of a musico-dramatic work where a radically different text is superimposed on the original music. 

Engedi had a place in the repertoire from 1837 to 1901 at least.  It was published, perhaps for the first time, in 1857 and there is also an edition as late as 1894.  The performance history indicates that Engedi was accepted as a mainstream oratorio during this period with performances at the Three Choirs Festival in England and in Australia. One aspect of the significance of Engedi is what it tells us about the aims of Novello Publishing in the period c. 1837-1890. The preface to the 1854 edition (which is surprisingly strident in tone) places Engedi in the context of efforts to establish Novello as the most innovative, educational and high-minded publisher in what was a very competitive and unregulated market.


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