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A passionate and sensitive performance—in its string quartet version—of Haydn's famous orchestral work 'The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross' which original title in German is 'Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze'.
It is about fifteen years since I was asked by a clergyman in Cádiz to provide instrumental music for the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross. It was then the custom, every year at Easter, to perform an oratorio in the cathedral of Cádiz, and the following arrangements must have contributed in no small measure to the effectiveness of the performance. The walls, windows, and columns of the cathedral were draped in black cloth, and only one large lamp, hanging in the centre, lighted the solemn darkness. At noon all the doors were closed; then the ceremony began. After a suitable prelude the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced one of the Seven Words, and followed it with his comments. When he had finished, he descended from the pulpit and fell on his knees before the altar. This pause was filled by music. The bishop ascended and descended a second time, a third, and so on, and each time the orchestra resumed at the conclusion of his discourse.
My composition must be judged in the light of these circumstances. The task of producing a succession of seven Adagios, each of which was to last about ten minutes, without wearying the listener, was no easy one; and I soon found that I could not keep to the prescribed duration.
The music was originally without text, and in that form it has been printed…
Thus wrote Haydn in his preface to the score of the 1801 version of The Seven Last Words. The work has a quite extraordinary history, in that he left us with no fewer than four different versions. The original commission from Cadiz, dating from around 1785, was for an orchestral work to provide the musical interludes depicting each of Christ’s final statements and the Priest’s meditations thereon; indeed it was described as such when first published (by Artaria) in July 1787:
Musica Instrumentale sopra le sette ultima Parole del nostro Rendentore in croce o sieno sette Sonate con un Introduzione ed al fine un terremote, per due Violini, Viola, Violoncello, Flauti, Oboe, Corni, Clarini, Timpani, Fagotti e Contrabasso composte dal Sig. Giuseppe Haydn.
Presumably to afford greater circulation to what was obviously a somewhat obscure and bizarre form of musical work, Haydn then made a version for string quartet, and oversaw a further reduction for solo fortepiano. Some time later, returning from London to Vienna, he happened to hear an arrangement for voices and orchestra by Joseph Frieberth, the cathedral choirmaster in Passau, who had even gone so far as to compose his own recitatives for the occasion. Haydn kept a copy of Frieberth’s work, and in 1795 set to work to produce his own oratorio setting. Although the main fruits of his collaboration with Gottfried van Swieten (Die Schöpfung and Die Jahreszeiten) were yet to be borne, he now called on his future librettist to make improvements to the Passau text; in doing so he may well have fired up both his own and van Swieten’s imagination for their greater tasks to come: Die sieben Worte is in itself a magnificent prelude to Haydn’s two glorious musical summits, particularly in its resourceful use of an orchestra far larger than the norm in his symphonies and contemporaneous masses—not to mention the pre-Leonore Beethoven. To the original orchestra for Cadiz he added clarinets and trombones throughout, with a contrabassoon for the newly composed Introduzione for wind band, which is placed between the fourth and fifth Words.
Needless to say, the two smaller-scale revisions cannot begin to compete with such magnificence, but they do provide special insight into the inner sanctum of the work: to play it alone on the piano, for example, enables one to experience a profoundly private communing with the composer, and with his thoughts on this immense topic at their most distilled. It is perhaps less effective as performing material, better to be played than to be listened to; but, despite Robbins Landon’s reservations, the quartet version has proven time and again to be no less valid for the public than the original or the oratorio. Its publisher, Artaria, claimed that “…since the author himself has taken the trouble to do the arrangement, everyone may imagine how perfect it will be”. It has to be conceded that this is pure salesmanship, since all those familiar with the unrivalled skill and sensitivity of Haydn’s quartet writing will find that his scoring here falls somewhat below his usual standards, and rather short of being ‘perfect’. Comparison with the orchestral scores will quickly reveal that his reduction consisted mainly of the original string parts, with necessary wind solos transferred to the appropriate quartet line. His method is uncovered when one encounters the doubling of string lines which were a characteristic aspect of the orchestration in his later symphonies, where he took such care to achieve the exact balance he desired. This is both unnecessary and ineffective in a string quartet, resulting at times in awkward double stopping which can actually inhibit the resonance of Haydn’s normally resourceful quartet scoring (witness the opening of Sonata VII, for example). In preparing our performances we have occasionally presumed to make an adjustment when it would seem that to bring the part-writing more in line with his customary scrupulousness might enable his intentions to be realised more faithfully. We have also found it essential to study the other versions, particularly the oratorio, where the word-setting has often influenced our decisions with regard to phrasing and articulation—not to mention the extra insight the text inevitably offers. It goes without saying that an awareness of the original orchestration is an invaluable aid to projecting the array of colours implicit in the music—an obvious example being the horns near the beginning of Sonata VII.
We have performed the work in a wide range of venues, from Cadiz itself, through cathedrals to tiny country churches in both Britain and America, concert halls ancient and modern, even a BBC studio. Wherever and whenever, it is always our first thought to try to recreate something relating to the atmosphere described by Haydn in his own remarks about Cadiz. Darkness is a prerequisite, as is also an inner resonance to the quartet sound—especially if the ideal cathedral-like acoustic is not available. We have also collaborated with a range of speakers from a highly austere Scottish Presbyterian priest to actors (including Peter Barkworth), TV personalities (John Suchet), poets, writers, fellow musicians, all of them revealing their own valid insights into the music and what it represents; and proving too that the Passion story, and Haydn’s musical response to it, is as relevant and meaningful for non-believers as it is to Christians of whatever creed. On every single occasion we have found that what they have to say has a reciprocal effect on the musical performance itself, such that our reaction to text or spoken meditation before each “Word” profoundly influences the very way we play. Such an influence could not be so readily at work in the making of a recording, and we have tried to remember that in this medium the listener is most likely to hear a continuous span of music, unrelieved by readings or meditations. So it seemed prudent to ensure that the musical and dramatic contrast between each of the pieces is clearly delineated, and particularly that the variety of tempo the composer demands is firmly underlined. The logic of when/why he chooses Adagio or Lento or Largo is not readily apparent, yet the range and scope he displays in a succession of eight slow movements is truly astonishing. It is not unlikely that when Dmitri Shostakovich was composing the six Adagios which constitute his fifteenth and final quartet—Shostakovich’s ‘Six Last Words’, perhaps?—the influence of this work may well have enabled him to achieve a similarly extraordinary range. The listener is referred to a new book on Haydn’s quartets from the Royal Northern College of Music/Arc Publications (edited by Dr. David Young), and to the remarks therein concerning tempo in eighteenth century music:
…the greatest discrepancy which has evolved over the years concerns slower movements…a false gravity is too often applied to Haydn’s Adagios which, for the most part, contain his most profoundly lyrical outpourings: so one needs here to consider one’s capacity for singing along with so many of the doleful renditions on offer!…The lurking pitfall is to equate slowness with profundity, and this is no more ensnaring than in the remarkable series of slow meditations on Christ’s final utterances at Calvary, the Seven Last Words from the Cross, Op 51…The variety and imagination he achieves within such constraints must be heard to be believed, yet is all too rarely realised; and the same could be said about his slow movements right across the board.
After the tremendous drama of the Introduzione, its moments of extreme tenderness continue into the flowing Sonata I: the concept of “forgiving” could be no more imploringly expressed. Sonata II is characterised by a march-like tread, whose gravity must be balanced with enough movement to enable the lonely melodic lines to give of their poignancy—and truly to reveal a glimpse of Paradise in the final transformation into the tonic major key. The sheer “maternal” warmth and humanity of Sonata III similarly requires a gently flowing tempo, and the anguished desperation and sense of betrayal in Sonata IV can only be inhibited by drawing out the music unduly. Sonata V is notated with two minim beats per bar, and in observing this it is possible to achieve the most eerily spacious stillness in the pizzicato before the cries of anger and “thirst” burst upon us. There is also a strangely upbeat quality in this piece, which sits uneasily with its title, and yet which, after the monumental severity of Sonata VI’s opening unisons, develops further into what can only be comprehended as sheer joy—underlined by Haydn’s “joyful” key of G major at the end. Thereafter, the profound sense of reconciliation and acceptance in Sonata VII may be realised with a genuinely broad and spacious tempo, such that in attempting to portray the fury of the succeeding “earthquake” the inadequacies of four solo stringed instruments are slightly eased: inevitably it is impossible for a string quartet to recreate the sonic splendours of a full orchestra, but this awesome moment is not necessarily dependant on decibels alone.
Since a recorded performance would not necessarily gain from the addition of spoken prefaces, an alternative is offered by way of a series of panels by Glasgow artist Anne Devine, depicting her own visual response to the text of each “Word”. Listeners are also invited to choose their own readings—or art work—to add to the music. It should also be stressed that the performance was by no means “in isolation”: it was recorded in the inspiring solitude of Glasserton Church, in South West Scotland, at a time when the local community was mourning the loss of many of its sons in a trawler disaster off the coast of the Isle of Man. We were glad to offer our playing—and Haydn’s music—to the process of memorial, when readings were contributed by different members of the congregation. The graves of the victims of the sea’s cruelty could clearly be seen through the church window, and it is this which has added its own uniqueness to the performance offered here.
Alan George © 2001