The oratorio Christus am Ölberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives) is the earliest of Beethoven's three major choral works. Beethoven likely began work on the piece in late 1802 or early 1803, not long after he described the personal crisis brought on by his encroaching deafness in the Heiligenstadt Testament; indeed, many have observed a parallel between Christ's suffering, as depicted in Franz Xaver Huber's text, and his condition. Christus also falls within Beethoven's ongoing series of ruminations on "the death of the hero," which first emerged in the Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87 (1790), and, along with the oratorio, continued with the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major ("Eroica," 1803), and the opera Fidelio (1805). Because Christus was Beethoven's first major work on a religious subject, some have asserted that it represents the awakening of religious impulses in the composer. This view, however, must be tempered by the fact that a composition of this type fit well with Beethoven's plans to hold a Holy Week concert for his own benefit.
Christus received its first performance at Beethoven's "Akademie" concert of April 5, in the Theater-an-der-Wien. Reviews were mixed, possibly prompting the revisions that followed in 1804. While in Teplitz in August 1811, Beethoven revised the work a second time, in anticipation of its publication by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig later that year. Although the work received frequent performances throughout the nineteenth century, modern performances are rare.
The work is scored for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists (Seraph, Christ, and Peter, respectively), a four-part chorus representing soldiers and disciples, and a large orchestra. The three episodes in Huber's text -- Christ's prayer on the Mount of Olives, arrest, and glorification -- naturally suggested to Beethoven a three-part structure while providing room for a variety of expressive devices.
Horns open the Grave introduction, set in the minor mode. In the following recitative, Christ describes his readiness to be judged in place of humanity. He goes on to describe the torment of his soul in an aria, set to a pulsing accompaniment, that exhibits traits of the operatic da capo form. In the opening recitative of the second section, Seraph, the intermediary between Christ and God, announces to the world that Christ will die so they may live. In her aria, Seraph tries to increase humanity's guilt when she informs the world that Christ will die out of love for them. Tension increases after this gentle beginning, when the chorus of angels participates in what is essentially the second half of Seraph's aria. The addition of trombones builds the dramatic effect, reaching a climax as the choir explains what will happen to those who do not honor the blood of Christ: "Verdammung ist ihr Los!" ("Damnation is their lot!).
Musically, the most interesting segment of Christus is the final section, which features Christ and the choruses of soldiers and disciples in combination, followed by the chorus of angels. As the soldiers announce firmly that Christ must be taken away for judgment, the disciples sing timidly, fearing for their lives. They are repeatedly interrupted by outbursts from the soldiers before both choruses give way to Christ, who looks forward to the end of the affair. After much of the section is repeated, Christ finally proclaims his victory over Hell. The triumph is confirmed by the ensuing chorus of angels, who exclaim, "Worlds sing of thanks and honor" in the major mode, providing a fitting contrast to the somber atmosphere of the introduction and opening recitative.