Haydn’s Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross) was performed for the first time in Cádiz on Good Friday 1787. The music gained widespread popularity over the years, in the way that great religious paintings, widely disseminated in copies and reproductions, are often known and treasured throughout the world.
In 1687, earthquakes shook Peru. As a way of responding, a Jesuit priest, Alonso Messia Bedoya, created a Good Friday devotion based on the seven last utterances that Jesus is said to have made from the cross. This kind of service eventually migrated from Peru to Spain. In 1786, the great Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn received a letter, in Latin, from a cleric at the church of Santa Cueva in the Spanish seaport town of Cádiz, requesting orchestral music for its Holy Week services.
“In those days,” Haydn later recalled, “it was the custom each year in Lent to perform an oratorio in the principal church in Cádiz. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were covered with black cloth, and one single great lamp hanging in the middle illuminated the sacred darkness. At noon all the doors were closed: Now the music began. After an appropriate prelude, the bishop mounted the pulpit, pronounced one of the Seven Words, and offered a meditation upon it. As soon as it was over, he descended from the pulpit and fell on his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop ascended and descended from the pulpit a second, a third time, etcetera, and each time the orchestra entered at the conclusion of his words.”
Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross was performed for the first time in Cádiz on Good Friday 1787. The music Haydn wrote for Cádiz is a sequence of seven sonatas with an introduction, each of them a slow movement, and to conclude, a furious outburst of music to represent the earthquake mentioned in Saint Matthew, 27: 51. An expanse of eight slow movements in a row is unprecedented in the history of music, and even a composer as creative and ingenious as Haydn would never have devised such a scheme had he not known that the music would be interspersed with spoken reflections—that is, with music and words alternating throughout.
The movements themselves, despite all of them being in a slow tempo, are remarkably varied in terms of key, rhythm, instrumentation, and general expression. (Haydn even varies the pace of each sonata ever so slightly, as a fresco painter, working in one of the great cathedrals, would use various shades of a single color.) “Each of the texts is represented and expressed purely by instrumental music,” Haydn said at the time, “but in such a way as to awaken the deepest feelings within the soul even of the most inexperienced.”
Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross is one of the great monuments of sacred music. Haydn himself was so devoted to it that, after originally writing the score for full orchestra, he immediately made a version for string quartet. And then, after he heard an unauthorized choral arrangement, he decided to rewrite the score himself for four-part chorus. (He also approved a version for piano that his publisher commissioned.) In these various forms, his music gained widespread popularity over the years, in the way that great religious paintings, widely disseminated in copies and reproductions, are often known and treasured throughout the world.
written by Philip Huscher, program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra © www.cso.org