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PREVIEW: The Still Days – SPCO’s The Last Seven Words of Christ

A page from an 1801 printing of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.

The Triduum – the three days before Easter – are one of the holiest parts of the Christian calendar. In many parts of Europe, the Triduum were observed with silence in churches and at home: no music was played or sung, not speaking was encouraged at home, and the church bells themselves would not ring until Easter itself had arrived. As such, even today observant Christians sometimes refer to Triduum as “the still days”.

Many traditions evolve with time, however, and by the Enlightenment period church audiences had become more interested in diverse musical explorations – wordless and otherwise – of this profound religious event. From this aesthetic shift came many of the great Passion settings by J.S. Bach – and Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, which will be performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra during this year’s Triduum.

The Seven Last Words of Christ was commissioned by the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Cadiz, Spain – an underground church that had recently been restored and expanded. Santa Cueva (the name literally translates as “The Oratorio of the Holy Cave”)’s energetic pastor wanted to deliver the most profound musical experience imaginable for the 1786 Good Friday service, and commissioned arguably the most famous and pre-eminent composer in the Western world for the task. That Haydn was living in Austria was no barrier; the pastor of Santa Cueva spared no expense, commissioning a work for full orchestra. According to legend, the composer received his payment in cake form; upon cutting, the pastry turned out to be stuffed with gold coins.

The Seven Last Words and Their Derivation

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (“Forgiveness”)
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (“Salvation”)
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother. (“Relationship”)
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (“Abandonment”)
  5. John 19:28: I thirst. (“Distress”)
  6. John 19:30: It is finished. (“Triumph”)
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. (“Reunion”)

The Structure of The Seven Last Words of Christ

  1. Introduction
  2. Sonata I – Forgiveness
  3. Sonata II – Salvation
  4. Sonata III – Relationship
  5. Sonata IV – Abandonment
  6. Sonata V – Distress
  7. Sonata VI – Triumph
  8. Sonata VII – Reunion
  9. Earthquake

Word of the premiere spread rapidly, and within a year the work had been performed in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. The full score was published – an expensive undertaking for that time, which publishers did not undertake lightly – in 1787, and before the year’s end Haydn had also prepared a version of The Seven Last Words of Christ for string quartet, which was also published. This latter version is what will be performed by SPCO, with Francisco Fullana and Kyu-Young Kim on violin, Maiya Papach on viola, and Jonathan Cohen on cello.

At its premiere, the individual movements of The Seven Last Words of Christ were interspersed with the Biblical readings, sermonizing, and other elements of the traditional Mass. For concert hall performances, music aficionados at first replaced these interpolations with poetry readings; eventually, a Viennese ensemble inserted choral music by other composers. Haydn, hearing of the performance, went to see it and decided to make his own oratorio version. (This oratorio version was the first version to be performed in the United States, in 1797.) SPCO’s performance strips back these added textual layers to focus on the music. The musicians will specifically use the new Henle edition, a so-called Urtext created as part of a complete edition of Haydn’s music. The result is a compact concert clocking in at 57 minutes – shorter than many sermons in Haydn’s time.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will perform The Last Seven Words of Christ on Friday, March 30 at 11:00 am; Friday, March 30 at 8:00 pm; and Saturday, March 31 at 8:00 pm at the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, MN.

Basil Considine