Las siete últimas palabras de Cristo en la Cruz
The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross
F. Joseph Haydn
Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla
In 1785, Franz Joseph Haydn was commissioned by Francisco de Paula María de Micón, Marquis of Mérito, in Cadiz, to compose an orchestral work based on the last seven words that, according to the Gospels, were spoken by Christ before His death. It was intended for the celebration held by the Brotherhood of the Holy Cave, to which de Micón belonged, on Good Friday in the Parish of the Holy Rosary.
At the time, Haydn, 53 years old and already famous throughout Europe, was retained in the service of Prince Esterházy. A deeply religious man, Haydn was enormously gratified by the commission, and he came to consider it one of his favourite works. The letter of commission for the piece described in such detail the ritual for which the music was being composed that Haydn himself confessed, modestly, that the work owed more to the description received in the commission from Señor Micón than to his own invention, since “it clarified in such a singular manner all of the passages that it appeared, when I read the instructions received from Spain, that I was reading just music”. According to the Cadiz nobleman’s instructions, Haydn should first compose an overture that would mark the character of the service being held. Then, the officiating priest would pronounce the first of the seven sentences and go on to read a short sermon on the subject. Whilst still kneeling at the altar, the first adagio would sound, describing Christ on the Cross, but which should not last more than ten minutes. The officiant would then enter the pulpit to pronounce the second sentence with its sermon. And so, words and music alternated during the service. After the seven parts, a final movement described the earthquake that occurred after the death of Christ. During the ceremony in the lugubrious Holy Cave, and to accentuate the funereal nature of the service, the walls, windows and columns were covered in black cloth and lighting reduced to a minimum. In accordance with the request from Cadiz, Haydn’s composition had an overture, seven sonatas (that is, and in the original sense of the word, seven instrumental pieces) and a short, quick finale (a description of the earthquake). The work gained great popularity in Europe and was published in Vienna in 1787, including, as well as the original orchestra version, a version for string quartet by the composer himself (he would also later supervise an edition for piano). The original title, in Italian, was: Musica instrumentale sopra le 7 ultime parole del nostro Redentore in croce ossiano 7 sonate con un’introduzione ed al fine un terremoto.
Years later in 1794, on the way back from his second visit to London, Haydn heard a choral version of his work in Passau (Germany) by the local choirmaster J. Friebart. Using this text as a basis, and with the help of Baron van Swieten (the author of the texts of the oratorios of Haydn’s Creation and The Seasons), the composer converted The Seven Words into an oratorio for choir, soloists and orchestra. For this work, Haydn added new instrumental numbers.
The version included here is the original, written for an orchestra of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and kettledrums. Lasting about one hour (not counting the possible spoken parts), this work is a clear reflection of the simple conception, though not without depth, that the author held of Christ’s passion. Behind the apparent simplicity, The Seven Words possesses a dramatic strength that only a very careful, expressive interpretation can reveal. Likewise, the fact that eight of the parts (all except the short final presto) are slow movements requires special concentration of the listener, who will not be disappointed if, furthermore, they contribute to reflection on the symbolic content of the work that, leaving aside all religious beliefs, invites the listener to meditate on the pain, loneliness and suffering which, like Christ in His last moments, so many human beings have suffered and continue to suffer.