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JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)

The Seven Last Words of Christ for string quartet

February 17, 2018: Chiara String Quartet


Haydn himself described the history of this unique work in the preface to his vocal version, published in 1801:

About fifteen years ago [1785] I was asked by a canon in Cádiz to write instrumental music on the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross.

It was then customary every year, during Lent, to perform an oratorio in the main church at Cádiz, to the increased effect of which the following arrangements contributed a great deal. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were covered with black cloth, and only one large lamp, hanging in the center, illuminated the sacred darkness. At noon all the doors were closed, and the music began. After a spoken prelude, suited to the occasion, the bishop ascended the pulpit and pronounced one of the Seven Words, and delivered a reflection upon it. When it was finished, he descended from the pulpit and knelt down before the altar. This interval was filled by music. The bishop ascended and descended the pulpit a second, a third time, and so on; and each time the orchestra filled in at the end of the discourse.

My composition had to be appropriate to these circumstances. The task of writing seven Adagios, each of which was to last about ten minutes, to follow one another without wearying the hearers, was not the easiest; and I soon found that I could not confine myself to the prescribed time limits.

The music was originally without text, and it was printed in that form [1787]. It was only at a later period that I was induced to add the text. . . . The partiality with which this work has been received by discerning connoisseurs leads me to hope that it will not fail to make an impression on the public at large.

Haydn did not travel to Spain for the first performance on Good Friday, April 6, 1787, so it is perhaps understandable that he made one salient error in a remarkably detailed description, which he presumably dictated to Georg August Griesinger, handler of his dealings with publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. (It is also possible that Griesinger crafted the preface after Haydn showed him the original commissioning letter, which has since disappeared.) The term “main church” (Hauptkirche) does not properly signify where the performance took place, not only because there are and were many “main churches” in Cádiz, but it is misleading even within the complex of buildings that comprise the Church of the Rosario. Scholars have assumed that Haydn was simply trying to make the place of the first performance sound more imposing, but we need to follow a bit of history before his description can be appreciated for what it is—the scenario that inspired one his most remarkable and successful compositions.

The original Santa Cueva (Holy Cave), underground and adjacent to Cádiz’s Church of the Rosario, began to be used in 1756 by a fraternal group for their weekly meditations on the Passion of Christ. In 1771 Jesuit priest José Sáenz de Santa María became director of the brotherhood and began conducting these meetings. Two years later, in a tangential but related connection, he helped Italian cellist Carlo Moro obtain a position in the Cádiz Cathedral orchestra and provided him with an entree to the chamber music salons of the aristocracy. (The research of cellist Carlos Prieto, who plays the Stradivari cello “ex-Piartti” once played by Moro, has helped to establish a number of pertinent facts.) Father Santa Maria invited Moro to the Good Friday ceremonies at the Santa Cueva in 1774, which took place just as described much later by Haydn and deeply impressed the cellist.

In 1778 Father Santa Maria inherited his father’s vast fortune and title, Marquis de Valde-Iñigo, and immediately decided to enlarge and refurbish the Santa Cueva. He hired architect Torcuato Cayón, whom he knew from Cayón’s work on the Cádiz Cathedral, and the renovation, begun in 1781, was completed in time for Good Friday services in 1783. Cáyon had just died in January that year, so his disciple Torcuato Benjumeda continued Cáyon’s and Father Santa Maria’s much grander plans—constructing the more luxurious upper chapel of the Santa Cueva between 1793 and 1796 and refurbishing the Church of the Rosario, also in 1793.

Before those later projects were carried out, however, Father Santa Maria determined that his Passion ceremonies in the Santa Cueva would be greatly enhanced by the addition of music. The tradition of a noon to three o’clock meditation on the Seven Last Words is said to have originated in Peru with Jesuit priest Francisco del Castillo, and Father Santa Maria may have gotten the idea of adding music from the 1757 posthumous publication in Seville of another Peruvian Jesuit, Alonso Messia Bedoya.

Father Santa Maria always aimed high and decided to commission the most famous composer of the time, Joseph Haydn, bypassing Moro’s suggestion of an Italian compatriot, Luigi Boccherini, who was living in Spain. The idea of approaching Haydn seemed daunting to Moro, but Father Santa Maria turned to fellow brotherhood member Francisco de Paula María de Micón, marquis of Méritos, and maestro di capilla of the Cádiz Cathedral, whom Moro knew from his work there and from playing at his chamber-music soirees—and with whom he especially enjoyed speaking Italian. More important, the Marquis of Méritos was a friend of Haydn’s.

In 1785 the Micón wrote a commissioning letter to Haydn full of such detail that Haydn not only accepted the commission but knew what shape it would take and what the ethos and effect of his music should be. With their correspondence lost, we can only surmise that the marquis described the ceremonies just as Haydn laid them out in his preface, and that the ceremonies took place in the same way every year, just as Moro had witnessed in 1784. Further, one of Haydn’s nephews wrote that “the composition owed more to the explanation that he had received in writing from Sr. de Micón than to his own creation because in its own unique fashion, it led him through every step of the way, to the point that, while reading the instructions from Spain, it seemed as though he was actually reading the music.”

It might be added, however, that Haydn’s mention of the difficulty of the task was borne out by his friend Abbé Stadler, who was with him when he received the commission. In his autobiography, corroborated by publisher Vincent Novello and his wife, Stadler helped him over a seeming quandary about how to proceed by suggesting the he simply write melodies as if he were fitting them to the first phrase of text in his mind.

Before turning to the music itself, however, we might touch on one further possibility for Haydn’s 1801 use of the term “main church,” which has led many to suppose that the first performance took place in the beautiful upper Oratory, which had not even been built at the time of the first performance in the renovated underground Santa Cueva. Among many elaborate features—Ionic columns of jasper, ornate altar of silver and jasper, patterned marble floor—the upper Oratory boasts numerous sculptures, sculptured reliefs, and paintings, in particular, three paintings by Goya: The Last Supper, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, and The Guest at the Wedding. Because plans for the upper Oratory were already in the works by 1785, it is entirely possible that the commissioning letter to Haydn contained many details that referred to the envisioned project (although Goya had not yet been specifically commissioned) as well as giving the description of the customary Good Friday ceremonies.

The thread of the envisioned plans and how Haydn may have been influenced continues with another individual who might have played some role in Father Santa Maria’s conception of combining art and music in his Santa Cueva project. Sebastián Martínez, collector of art and literature, lived near the site and as a friend of Goya drew up the commission for his paintings for the upper oratory. Martínez owned an engraving of Poussin’s famous painting the Eucharist, which Goya would have seen while staying with him and which many commentators have described as one of the influences for Goya’s The Last Supper in the upper Oratory.

As scholar Thomas Tolley suggests, Martínez, as a member of high society who was also interested in the relationship between painting and music, would have also revered Haydn and may have helped in the selecting and commissioning process. He and the others involved in commissioning may have even known the story of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony and hence his fascination with lighting effects, which may have helped to solidify their choice. In any case, it would be easy to imagine  the commissioning letter including a copy of Poussin’s painting, which is strikingly similar to  Haydn’s description of the “sacred darkness” illuminated by “only one large lamp, hanging in the center.” It is fascinating to think that Goya may in turn have even been influenced by a Good Friday performance of Haydn’s music in the underground Santa Cueva before completing his commission in the upper Oratory. In a remarkable tradition, The Seven Last Words has been performed at the Santa Cueva every Good Friday since 1787.

Father Santa Maria made sure Haydn received the honorarium he had been promised, but in a manner almost as unusual as the work itself. One day Haydn received a small box from Cádiz, which he opened only to find a chocolate cake. Highly incensed, Haydn cut into it and found it filled with gold pieces.


Composed in 1786 and possibly completed in early 1787, the work originally bore the title Musica instrumentale sopra le 7 ultime parole del nostro Redentore in croce, ossiano 7 sonate con un’introduzione ed al fine un terremoto (Instrumental music on the 7 last words of our Redeemer on the cross, 7 sonatas with an introduction and at the end an earthquake), scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. We know from a later article, published around the time of a 1791 London performance, that at the time Haydn corresponded with the Bishop of Cádiz asking if he could exceed the ten-minute limit occasionally, to which the Bishop responded that he should do as he wished and he (the bishop) would shorten his sermons accordingly. (That correspondence is also unfortunately lost.)

As soon as the work was completed, Haydn was already pleased with it and had it performed in Vienna on March 26 and Bonn on March 30, 1787, which performances actually predate the Cádiz performance by a few days. Haydn was taken to task by some but praised by others for his daring in expressing the Seven Last Words by purely instrumental music. He had also arranged the work in the present version for string quartet by February 14, 1787, and authorized a keyboard reduction. Then in 1794 he attended a performance in Passau for which his music had been fit with words by Joseph Friebert based on Christ’s last words from the four Gospels. Though Haydn complimented Friebert, he told a student that “could have written the vocal parts better,” and, with the help of Baron Gottfried van Swieten who adapted Freibert’s text, Haydn produced his own vocal version in 1795–96, inserting a new number for winds between the fourth and fifth sonatas, and adding clarinets, contrabassoon, and two trombones to the orchestra while subtracting two horns. This version, Die Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze, was first perfromed in Vienna on March 26 and 27, 1796.

Haydn’s instrumental original unfolds as follows, each movement, including the introduction and the earthquake, in sonata form:

Introduzione, D minor, Maestoso ed Adagio: Haydn makes the most of the contrast between dramatic angular motives in dotted rhythm and contrasting tender passages with pulsing repeated notes.

Sonata I: “Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt” (Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do), B-flat major, Largo: Sounding sweetly contrasting to the minor-mode introduction, this movement incorporates the distinct pulsing first heard there, and does switch to the minor mode for expressive purposes. Especially striking is the chromatic treatment for Haydn’s at that time imagined words “the blood of the lamb.”

Sonata II: “Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso” (Today you will be with me in paradise), C minor ending in C major, Grave e cantabile: After the pensive opening and in the reprise, the switch to a singing melody in major over arpeggiated accompaniment represents the reward of paradise. Listeners may catch a foreshadow of the hymn (slow movement) of Haydn’s Emperor Quartet.

Sonata III: “Mulier, ecce filius tuus” (Woman, behold your son), E major, Grave: Beginning with three simple repeated chords, Haydn’s simple seraphic setting represents the text, “Woman, behold thy son.” Scholar Daniel Heartz points out that Haydn had used similar music for his Salve regina in the same key of 1756.

Sonata IV: “Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me?” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), F minor, Largo: Solemnity and lamenting begins to predominate with Haydn’s setting for the words “My God, why have you forsaken me?” in the far removed key of F minor. Haydn had also used this dark key for his Symphony nicknamed “La Passione” in 1768.

Sonata V: “Sitio” (I thirst), A major, Adagio: This movement begins with an innocent-sounding melody over “dry” pizzicato accompaniment, which makes the entrance of the raging music for the imagined text, “I thirst,” so striking for its expression of torment.

Sonata VI: “Consummatum est” (It is finished), G minor, ending G major, Lento: Haydn was particularly proud of this movement, in which he represents Jesus crying to God “In a loud voice”—five fortissimo chords—“It is finished.” Haydn later uses the motive for a bass line accompaniment to a lovely violin melody in the major.

Sonata VII: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into your hands, Father, I commit my spirit), E-flat major, Largo: Haydn represents Christ’s yielding his spirit to God’s hand in with a noble first theme. The use of mutes gives the impression of quiet acceptance and the quiet ending suggests Christ’s earthly life being over.

Il terremoto, C minor, Presto e con tutta la forza: Without pause Haydn unleashes the fury of the earthquake following Christ’s crucifixion, described in Matthew 27:51: “And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.” Haydn’s depiction in raging unisons, darting gestures, and unsettling cross rhythms provides supreme if brief contrast to all the contemplation that has gone before.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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