I was first introduced to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in string quartet form, during my years in England. We would meet at each others’ homes, and sight-read through chamber music scores. I learnt a lot of repertoire in this way.
The title Seven Last Words intrigued me, but I soon realised it actually referred to the seven last utterances of Jesus Christ during the crucifixion, taken from the four Canonical Gospels. Three of the sayings appear exclusively in the Gospel of Luke, three exclusively in the Gospel of John, and the other both in the Gospels of Mark and of Matthew.
The order of the sayings is:
1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Theme: Forgiveness)
2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Theme: Salvation)
3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son Behold your mother. (Theme: Relationship)
4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, have you forsaken me? (Theme: Abandonment)
5. John 19:28: I thirst. (Theme: Distress)
6. John 19:29-30: It is finished. (Theme: Triumph)
7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Theme: Reunion).
They are of huge theological significance, and used as the basis of sermons for Good Friday.
Haydn’s string quartet is a condensed version of his original orchestral work which I heard performed several times during Holy Week in England, and which many of us were privileged to hear and be a part of (although adapted just for strings) during the Indo-German confluence concerts at the Bom Jesus Basilica Old Goa and the church of Our Lady of Health, Cuncolim last year. For me it was the highlight of all the repertoire we played for many reasons: although I had some familiarity with the music through the string quartet, the orchestral version is much more elaborate; moreover my earlier acquaintance with the music was through the violin parts, and now revisiting the score through the viola was a further revelation of Haydn’s genius.
This work was commissioned from Haydn in 1783 for the Good Friday service at Oratorio de la Santa Cueva (Holy Cave Oratory) in Cádiz, Spain, and received the rather unusual payment of a cake filled with gold coins for his trouble!
In his preface to the published edition by Breitkopf and Härtel (1801), Haydn writes: “Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.”
When one listens to the work, one understands Haydn’s dilemma, and appreciates his resourcefulness even more. Each of the seven utterances has a separate sonata devoted to it, and they are book-ended by an Introduction and a Finale (Il terromoto or The Earthquake, a reference to Matthew 27:51 “Then behold, the veil of the temple was torn to two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked and the rocks were split”).
The Introduction is in the key of D minor, the same key that Mozart would use for his Requiem in 1791 and that Haydn himself used for his ‘Lamentation’ Symphony (1768-9), also written for the Holy Week. And the Earthquake is in C minor, not only a significantly ‘tragic’ tonality, but a whole step below D minor. The musical ground has shifted as well. This is perhaps the only composition by Haydn where he ends in a different key to its beginning “home key”. The drama of the Earthquake has to be heard to be believed. It begins suddenly, with no break from the last sonata (a Largo in E flat major), with an abrupt shift in rhythmic energy, tempo (Presto), volume (not just fortissimo, but Haydn writes “with all possible force”, the first fff or fortississimo in music history, in contrast to the muted pianissimo before it), melodic style, gesture, dynamics and affect. It is short but relentless, and the irregular rhythms, accents (sforzandi) and phrasing make the listener reel to find an aural ‘footing’.
The central seven sonatas for the Seven Last Words are broad and expansive (variously Maestoso, Adagio, Largo, Grave, Lento) and each in a different key (B flat major; C minor ending in C major; E major; F minor; A major; G minor ending in G major; and E flat major). Except for the fourth sonata which stays in F minor (“Why have You forsaken Me?”), the key of ‘funereal lament’, the others that begin in a minor key resolve to their major eventually. The key signature of the last sonata (“Father, Into Your Hands I commend My Spirit”), E flat major, is significant, regarded as it is as one of love, and of “intimate conversation with God”. Each of these sonatas is more beautiful than the next.
Haydn also wrote a choral version and a piano version of this sublime, deeply spiritual, contemplative great work.
(An edited version of this article was published on 5 April 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)