Haydn considered The Seven Last Words Of Christ to be one of his greatest works, and thought it superior to either of his later oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. It was very popular during his lifetime, and it was the oratorio version of this work that he conducted in his last concert appearance on December 26, 1803. The fact that he conducted this piece, so inextricably associated with Passion Week, the day after Christmas is very telling as to the evolving relationship between liturgical and concert works, which had evidently come a long way since the controversy surrounding Handel's Messiah a half a century before. What's particularly remarkable is that this work exists in versions with and without voices, and it's the version with voices, the version that makes the religious content explicit, that's the concert version. The purely instrumental versions are meant for use as part of the Good Friday service.
I'll let Haydn tell the story of the origins of the piece, from the preface to the 1801 Breitkopf & Hartel edition:
Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the seven last words of Our Savior 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 center 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.
Haydn did indeed rise to this daunting challenge, and in a very unique way. The initial melody of each one of these adagios is a setting of the Latin version of each one of the words, not meant to be sung or heard by the audience directly, but to be felt by the performers (who see the text underlay in their parts) and transmitted subliminally to the listener. He also made the stamina issue even more challenging by composing an introduction, raising the number of adagios to eight. While he certainly used his masterful orchestration to full effect in this work, creating sonorities unique even in Haydn's wildly varied and prolific output, the proof that he did not rely on dazzling tone color to keep from "fatiguing the listeners" is the overwhelming popularity of the arrangement for string quartet that was published at the same time as the orchestral version.
It must be said, however, that the main reason for the quartet version's dominance is that string quartets love playing this piece. Colin Hampton, the cellist of the Griller Quartet, likened it to Bach's St. Matthew Passion; it's unique in the quartet repertoire, a large-scale classical work with spiritual overtones that can be adapted to a variety of performance situations. Many quartets find some way to create a simulacrum of a church service by having speakers say a few words pertaining to the particular word before each movement.
I have seen and heard several performances of this sort. The Vermeer Quartet won a Grammy for their 1988 recording of the work, which included recorded sermons by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham, and an introduction by Jason Robards. A couple of particularly memorable moments during live performances I've seen include hearing a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission speak to "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" and hearing a graphic description of how waterboarding works before "My God why hast thou forsaken me?"
I myself have taken part in such a performance, and I have included the text I wrote for it below.
But the piece doesn't really need to have extra-musical elements to make it work. The Vienna Philharmonic came to New York in early 2002 and performed it for free, without a conductor, as a memorial concert for the victims of 9/11; no one spoke and no one needed to. Haydn took care of everything.
The orchestral version is the only one that is 100% Haydn. The versions for quartet and for solo piano were done in collaboration with anonymous arrangers. The quartet version is almost literally taken from the orchestral string parts, which mean that many melodic details are missing. The piano version is actually more complete, and in my opinion more interesting, and earned special praise by Haydn himself, but because we know that Haydn himself did not do the arranging it has never been published in a modern edition and has been rarely performed.
This leaves the oratorio version. While traveling in 1794 Haydn stopped in Passau, where he heard an oratorio version of the work arranged by Joseph Frieberth. This inspired Haydn to do his own version, but he used Frieberth's arrangement as a starting point, so it could really be considered to be something of a collaboration. As the conductor Laurence Equilbey points out, the relationship of the voices to the instruments in this work is the reverse of the colla parte technique common in the eighteenth century, in which instruments double and reinforce the vocal lines; here the voices double and reinforce the instrumental lines. As a result, they neither get in the way nor add much of interest, the exceptions being the deliberately archaic, early-Baroque style a capella introductions to each movement, and the completely independent (and mostly unison!) choral part in the final movement, the earthquake, creating a rhythmic and dramatic tension that seems to makes the work complete, as we hear the voices cry out in anguish (the first instance of the use of the triple-forte marking, or fortississimo, in musical history.)
The most remarkable additions to the score of the oratorio version are, oddly enough, in the orchestra, not the voices. Haydn expands the orchestra to include clarinets, trombones, and, for the first time in any of his work, a contrabassoon. Near the end of his life Haydn said “Only in my old age have I learned how to use the wind-instruments.” He certainly knows how to use them in this work. In the oratorio version, Haydn is audacious enough to add yet another adagio, between the fourth and fifth words, effectively dividing the work into two parts. This piece, which during his lifetime was called "among the most accomplished things Haydn has ever produced," is a solemn prelude for twelve wind instruments that is positively other-wordly, an amazing piece that always comes as a revelation to those who only know the work in its version for quartet.
The quartet version is neither the ideal representation of this work nor of Haydn's writing for string quartet, which usually has an interplay amongst the instruments that is missing here. But the version fills a need, not only for quartets wanting to take on a work of this depth, but for listeners who want a more intimate connection with this material. Therefore, it seems that the only solution is to get a taste of all four versions, which you can hear on Sunday morning.
The seven words are:
I. Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt - Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)
II. Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso - Today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)
III. Mulier, ecce filius tuus - Mother, behold thy son (John 19:26)
IV. Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me - My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
V. Sitio - I thirst (John 19:28)
VI. Consummatum est - It is finished (John 19:30)
VII. In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum - Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46)
The following is the spoken introduction I gave to the seventh and final word by a performance by the Momenta Quartet in Brooklyn, NY, in 2008. Obviously this was well before the recent events in Japan, but I think the thoughts about earthquakes still hold.
"Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit"
Did you notice how happy-sounding that music was just now? The word was "It is finished" and it starts out very somber and defeatist-sounding, but by the end it sounds like something out of opera buffa, as if Susanna, Figaro and Jesus are all happily living together and having a great old time. Obviously Haydn was making a statement with that major key ending--trying to tell us that maybe it isn't finished after all-- not really. Haydn was a deeply religious man, a true believer, but, far from being pious or reticent, he was a man of the world who sought pleasure and liked having fun and that is reflected in most of his music. Haydn once wrote in a letter: "When I think upon my God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap from my pen; and since God has given me a cheerful heart, it will be pardoned me that I serve him with a cheerful spirit." Of course, much of the music we have heard tonight has not sounded particularly cheerful, as Haydn endeavored to reflect the journey Jesus went through from being the enlightened minister that forgives his oppressors to the lonely mortal that feels betrayed, regressing to the most primal child-like urge of all, crying out of thirst, and finally retreating into his plight and his dying body so much that he feels that with his death is the death of all things. But we notice the ultimate irony here: that the words "it is finished" do not come at the end. Just at the real end, just before his actual death, he remembers himself, comes back to his original idea that his father is a merciful entity that will accept all souls, and that his spirit is a seperate entity from his body.
In the course of my radio career, I have often pre-recorded my shows. Frequently I'm asleep or doing something completely unrelated to radio when my voice goes out over the airwaves to thousands of listeners. I could be dead for all anybody knows, but there's my voice, making lame jokes and mispronouncing singers' names and making my pithy observations for all the world to hear, thousands of people getting a little sample of my spirit while I'm somewhere else. One day, while hearing my own voice coming out of a radio in a cab, it hit me: this is what they mean when they say that your spirit will live on after you die. I remember once playing for a memorial service for a highly beloved doctor who died in an accident and his son, who was fifteen, goes up to speak and he says that his relationship with his father will continue to grow as he, the boy, matures and gains a deeper understanding of the things his father said to him.
Another quote from Haydn: "Often when contending with obstacles of every sort that interfered with my work, often when my powers both of body and mind were failing and I felt it a hard matter to persevere on the course I had entered on, a secret feeling within me whispered: 'There are but few contented and happy men here below; grief and care prevail everywhere; perhaps your labors may one day be the source from which the weary and worn, or the man burdened with affairs, may derive a few moments' rest and refreshment.' What a powerful motive for pressing onward!" Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut put it another way when he said, "artists are the only people who leave the world better than they found it."
But of course, we're talking about people here and their effects. What about the world itself? What does nature think about any human's claim that all is finished, or even that our spirits have a power that transcends nature? As someone who grew up in California and experienced a 7.2 earthquake firsthand, I can vouch for Nature's claim that the earth will have the last word. Matthew chapter 28, verse 2: "And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it." After over an hour of these fairly serene, soft adagios including the one we're about to hear, Haydn lets loose with three minutes of the loudest, most violent music he ever composed. In the original orchestral version of this work, his dynamic marking for the final bars is fff--triple forte, fortississimo -- the first time in musical history any composer put that in a score. I think it's somewhat telling that at the very same time Haydn wrote this work, in the early months of 1787, Mozart was busy composing Don Giovanni, which ends with the most violent music HE ever composed as the statue of the Commendatore drags Don Giovanni down to hell. I'm not sure what was in the air in 1787 to inspire thoughts of apocalyptic divine retribution in Europe's two greatest composers.
I'm reminded of a quote from a survivor of Hurricane Katrina: "Gravity and water just sucked everything down into the earth and it just didn't care who or what was in its path." Nature doesn't care. Since the final image we take away is one of chaos in which the actions of humans played no role, we are left pondering the relationship between our existence, our legacy to our fellow humans, the potential of the human spirit to transform and transcend even death itself, and the cold, hard fact that even that power plays a small role in the great expanse of nature and the universe in its inexorable power towards its own goals that we will never master nor comprehend. And it is this awareness of the finite nature of human's role in the cosmos that makes us realize just how precious and special it is that, for this blink of an eye, we are given the gift of another person's spirit.
Pater! In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.