Programme Notes – The Seven Last Words

By Donald Judge Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): The Seven Last Words on the Cross

Performed at Bollington Arts Centre on Saturday 8th May, by the Gildas String Quartet accompanied by readings from Michael Symmons Roberts.

Christ’s Seven Last Words have been realised in music in every century: in early Latin Motets; and by Schütz, Pergolesi, Gounod, Franck, Gubaidulina and MacMillan among others. Most chamber music lovers will immediately think of Haydn and the work to be heard tonight, but it’s actually the second of four versions made or approved by the composer. The original was for full orchestra and first performed on Good Friday 1786 in the Holy Cave Oratory in Cádiz, Spain. It was quite a coup for a Spanish cathedral canon to commission it from the Austrian widely regarded as the greatest living composer, despite his status as a court servant. A valued and distinguished servant, but still an employee who had to wear livery in public, and stay put until 1790 in Esterházy, while pining for Vienna and the wider world – an isolation, the composer claimed, that “forced him to become original.”

The orchestral work was published the following year, 1787, but Haydn also adapted it for string quartet, and approved an arrangement for solo piano. As well as enabling the piece to be used in less opulent churches, such arrangements were a way for composers to enhance their income and spread their fame. Until the invention of sound recording and wireless, it was often the only way many people could experience new music for large forces, including symphonies and even operas.

Seven Last Words might have stuck at those three instrumental versions, but in the mid-1790s, Haydn visited Passau in Bavaria, where the local Kapellmeister had added choral parts setting his own German texts to the orchestral version. Haydn liked the idea, but thought he could improve on it: he enlisted the help of poet Gottfried van Swieten, who was later to provide the words of The Seasons and The Creation. Haydn’s Seven Last Words – the oratorio – was first performed in 1797, ten years after the other versions. It was eventually published in England by Novello, but performances and recordings are now very rare. 

Hoboken gives the string quartet version two catalogue numbers: HOB XX/1B (1A and 1C being the orchestral original and piano arrangement, while the oratorio is HOB XX/2) and HOB III/50-56. It’s also Haydn’s Opus 51. In all versions, it consists of an introduction, and a finale depicting the earthquake that struck at the moment of Christ’s death, that frame seven sonatasinspired by His final words. As these were intended to punctuate sermons and Bible readings in a church service, the use of the word sonata in its archaic sense is interesting. 

Initially, sonata denoted any music that was sounded rather than sung (a cantata) as in Gabrieli’s Sonata pian’ e forte. In the 17th century there was a distinction that gradually blurred between a church sonata (sonata da chiesa) and a secular chamber sonata (sonata da camera). In the Baroque era, Domenico Scarlatti wrote around 600 single-movement keyboard sonatas, but the term (often preceded by trio) came to mean a solo or chamber piece in three or four movements. By Haydn’s time, string quartets and symphonies were their formal equivalent but weren’t called sonatas, while the trio sonata had become a more egalitarian work for violin, cello and piano, at which Haydn excelled. The term sonata was reserved either for a work for solo instrument (or one with piano accompaniment) or for the form in which especially first movements of major instrumental and orchestral works should be written. This set a standard for aspiring composers to live up to, and great ones to modify. Sonata form (exposition, development and recapitulation) is present in every sonata in Seven Last Words

Throughout history, “sounding” as well as “sung” music – think of J S Bach’s chorale preludes or the organ works of Messiaen have reflected on Biblical themes, and has often been used in a liturgical context. Within the span of a century that preceded Haydn’s Seven Last Words, c 1685-1785, Heinrich Biber wrote 15 Rosary Sonatas and Mozart 17 Church Sonatas. Biber’s (focussing on Mary and including one depicting the crucifixion) are for violin and keyboard and feature dazzling word-painting and daunting virtuosity, including scordatura (re-tuning the violin’s strings). Mozart’s, single movements designed to be played in Salzburg Cathedral between the Epistle and the Gospel, are mostly for 2 violins, cello, bass and organ (the same rather antique orchestra he used in his two Vespers settings), though three of them feature woodwind, brass or timpani. Thus, Haydn’s Seven Last Words are one pinnacle at the centre of a centuries-long tradition.

cytotec in Canada The Seven Last Words on the Cross – Introduction: Maestoso ed adagio 

The substantial introduction – a movement comparable in scale to the seven sonatas that follow – is in D minor, a key Mozart chose for some of his darkest music: K466 Piano Concerto, Don Giovanni’s demise, and much of his Requiem. A composer’s choice of key is often crucially significant, including to Haydn. It affects the type of music they write, the sound produced by most instruments, especially stringed ones, and by extension the emotional response of listeners, however unaware they may be of the technicalities. Haydn’s D minor is no less dark than Mozart’s as he sets the scene of the Crucifixion with anguished harmonies, spiky rhythms, and pregnant pauses. More tender music in the relative major, F, is short-lived, soon to be dispelled by the even darker F minor. After much development, the movement concludes with a recapitulation of the opening bars.

Mladá Boleslav Sonata I: Largo

buy Lyrica from canada Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do)

Jesus’ words of supplication for his tormentors inspired Haydn to write a piece that gives the 1st violin in particular a songlike character and which could easily be the slow movement of a conventional quartet. The key of B flat major is some relief from the darkness of the introduction, but the music is full of chromatic appoggiaturas, while the development takes us to keys on the dark (flat) side. Haydn employs a rhythmic device he used in many guises – three quavers (often the same pitch) that lead to a change of harmony on the down beat. Here it creates a sense of pleading through anticipation, tension and release. Countless examples by Haydn must surely have been in Beethoven’s mind when he wrote the Fifth Symphony, where the rhythm he saw as Fate knocking pervades the entire work.

Sonata II: Grave e cantabile 

Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso (Today, you will be with me in Paradise)

This movement in 4/4 time begins austerely, with a long-breathed violin melody against repeated staccato crotchets: but this music is transformed into a vision of Paradise when re-invented in E flat major, with rippling semiquavers from the 2nd violin and pizzicato viola and cello reminding the listener of heavenly harps. After a development section, the opening music recapitulates, but the masterstroke is that the vision of Paradise appears in C major. The two forte chords in that key which conclude the movement are a contrast to mainly hushed conclusions, and seem to re-affirm Christ’s promise to the Good Thief – and to all who repent their sins.

Sonata III: Grave 

Mulier, ecce filius tuus (woman, behold your son)

Another movement marked Grave and in 4/4 time, but a complete change as the tonal centre moves from “flat” keys to the unusual and radiant E major with 4 sharps. It begins with three repeated tonic chords, before a melody where the falling thirds may represent Mary’s sighs or tears. This motif is passed between the players. But while there are syncopations of rhythm, anguished harmonies are few, and the music speaks of maternal tenderness and comfort before concluding with the first strain of the opening melody.

Sonata IV: Largo 

Deus meus, Deus meus, ut quid dereliquisti me? (My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?)

Haydn didn’t envisage Seven Last Words to be performed uninterrupted, but that the movements would be interspersed by Biblical readings or sermons. Even so, the wrench between serene E major and anguished F minor is painful and significant. What follows seems to suggest a range of emotions as Christ poses His question, from anguish to acceptance. There are several episodes when the 1st violin is a lone – and lonely – voice, abandoned by the other three instruments.

Sonata V: Adagio 

Sitio (I thirst)

Now in A major, the opening music could be a gentle serenade, with the 1st violin bowing falling 3rds (a constant motif in the work) while the others play pizzicato with gently rocking quavers from 2nd violin and viola. But the repose is an illusion: much of the movement is agonised, and discords abound, surely suggesting the vinegar Christ was offered. Repeated, insistent quavers are pitted against a theme in crotchets that features not just falling 3rds but 4ths and 5ths, often chromatically altered to create tension. A lot of notes are marked fz – forced – and the music moves through various keys including an extreme one for the time – C# minor. When the recapitulation of the “serenade” music occurs, it’s interrupted even more abruptly, though the movement comes to a quiet conclusion.  

Sonata VI: Lento 

Consummatum est (It is finished)

By way of introduction, descending unison minims played forte by all four players – G E flat C D – come to rest on the lower G. This motif is developed in the next few bars, along with legato quavers. After another unison pause on the note D, we move to a serene B flat major, and an ornate melody from 1st violin accompanied by sonorous repeated quavers from 2nd and viola. But the descending motif that opened the movement is there in the cello line, and all these elements are developed throughout the movement. As elsewhere, Haydn frequently moves to keys on the flat side, including D flat major, before finding his way back to the opening G minor. But then comes a moment of more than usual inspiration, reminiscent of Sonata II. The violin’s melody now appears in G major, and despite some tense moments, the movement ends quietly in that key.

Sonata VII: Largo 

In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (Into Thy hand, O Lord, I commend my spirit)

All the parts are marked con sordino (with mutes) throughout – a rare effect at this time in music historyThis movement is in the noble key of E flat major, the harmonies more serene, and the modulations less extreme, than in most of the others. Surely the sublime but muted sounds suggest a vision of Heaven that humankind can only imagine. Although Haydn, father and master of the string quartet, gives everyone interesting material, it’s the 1st violin that dominates, with a long decorated passage in the second half that includes triplet semiquavers. Just before the end, players start to pluck their strings and the final three repeated chords – a feature of other endings in this work – are delivered pizzicato and pianissimo.

Il terremoto (The earthquake): Presto e con tutta la forza

After eight slow movements, albeit full of variety and drama, and the serenity of the final sonata, the mutes are off and we’re plunged back to earth for a brief but terrifying earthquake in which the veil of the temple was rent in twain. Three unison Cs preceded by rising acciaccaturas launch a ferocious chromatic theme in lightning fast triple time. Haydn represents the ground shaking and sparks flying, disorientating the listener by syncopations that make it hard to tell where the 1st beat of the bar falls. There’s no let up or escape from the nightmare, which could easily be a vision of Hell, in stark contrast to the Heaven that preceded it. Whatever else was said or played at that Good Friday service in Cádiz in 1786, this was Haydn’s final word in all four versions of this remarkable work. 

It wasn’t to be his final word, in religious or any music. After the original version, he had 14 years left to compose, and his output was prolific. In the final six, between 1796 and 1802, when illness prevented further composition, he turned increasingly to religious subjects: the choral version of Seven Last Words, Creation, The Seasons (setting secular poetry but celebrating the work of the Creator God) and the six most substantial of his 14 mass settings.