The Seven Last Words uttered by Jesus Christ on the Cross have long been the subject for meditation, theological discussion and liturgical ceremony. It was precisely for this last occasion that Joseph Haydn was asked by Don José Sáenz de Santa María from Cadiz to write a work to be performed during the Good Friday service at his Church of the Cave in 1783.
Haydn admitted that the commission was not going to be an easy task. In his words:
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.
What Haydn produced has certainly never fatigued listeners since. Indeed, it became one of his most popular works and from the original instrumental version spawned an arrangement for string quartet in 1787 and even an oratorio version in 1795. Haydn also sanctioned a popular piano arrangement.
For the second evening of the Barga Festival I was privileged to hear the string quartet version played by members of Le Musiche, most appropriately in the church ‘del Santissimo Crocifisso’, a building with the most exquisitely carved woodwork by Santini which I described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/
The performance was incisively dramatic – I never imagined that a succession of seven slow movements could be so intense and passionate. It was more so since we sat on the first bench directly facing the performers and were, thus, literally embraced by this music of powerful sadness.
Adding to the drama was the recitation between the movements (in Italian with no. 4 in Aramaic) of the Seven Last Words by the son of Barga Opera festival director, Nicholas Hunt.
Here is an excerpt from the performance:
What are Christ’s seven last words anyway? Actually they are phrases rather than words and are taken from the four Gospels. Seven is, of course, the perfect number: God rested on the seventh day and the Bible is saturated with reference to the number seven – for example, the opening of the seven seals in the Book of Revelation…
Here are the utterances, together with their traditional significance:
- Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Forgiveness).
- Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Salvation).
- John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother. (Relationship with family)
- Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Abandonment)
- John 19:28: I thirst. (Distress)
- John 19:30: It is finished (or accomplished). (Triumph)
- Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Reunion)
I feel that these seven sayings could so often be applied to our lives for, after all we are said to be made in the image of God. How many times do we feel abandoned or distressed, for example? I’m quite sure that Haydn’s marvellous fusion of his intense devotion to God, (he usually began composing a new work with the words “in nomine Domini” – “in the name of the Lord” – and finished it with “Laus Deo” – “praise be to God”) and his real devotion to raising the consciousness of his fellow men through music which gives both pleasure and reflection is the reason why these ‘Seven Last Words’ made such an impression on me and the rest of the audience. This included Maestro Frederico Sardelli whose talents, apart from divinely conducting many of Opera Barga’s productions, includes composition, flute-playing, author (his first novel based on Vivaldi’s lost manuscripts was published last year) graphic artists and last, but not least, cartoonist for that Italian equivalent of ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Monty Python’: ‘Il Vernacoliere.’
If you’re interested in the other arrangements of Haydn’s very affecting work here they are:
There’s a wonderfully atmospheric recording by Jordi Savall of the original orchestral version recorded in the very chapel for which it was composed at:
For the oratorio version see:
I find this version particularly effective as the actual sayings are sung a Capella before the choir and soloists come in accompanied by the orchestra.
For the piano version approved by Haydn see:
It’s also worthy of note that, like other religious texts such as the ‘Stabat Mater’ and the Mass itself, many other composers have set the Seven Last Words to music: from Lassus in the 16th century to Pergolesi in the 18th to César Franck in the 19th to James Macmillan in the 20th century.
I just wonder what our own seven last words will be…….