This week at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Chamber music and sacred music rarely intersect. Born respectively in the worlds of the salon and the church, they draw on distinct traditions when it comes to function and audience. It is hard to think of more than a single imposing example of “sacred chamber music,” but that piece arrives this week at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival: The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross, by Franz Joseph Haydn, which the Orion String Quartet will play on Saturday, July 21, at 5 p.m. in the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
All chamber music aficionados are familiar with Haydn’s string quartets, of which there are 68 official entries in his catalogue, including many of the genre’s earliest masterpieces. Those were all written for social or drawing-room entertainment and edification, but the Seven Last Words was penned for liturgical use. As one might expect, it was written for Holy Week, and the seven words it describes are the sentences Jesus was said to have uttered as he was dying. Haydn reported that he had been asked “by a canon of Cadiz [Spain] to prepare instrumental music to the seven words of Jesus on the Cross. It was customary then to present an oratorio every year during Lent in the cathedral of Cadiz. The following arrangements must have contributed to the dramatic effect considerably: that is to say, the walls, windows and pillars of the church were covered with black cloth, and only a large lamp hanging in the center lit the holy darkness. At noon, all doors were closed; and then the music began.” The priest would then read one of the seven words from the Bible and preach a sermon about it, and then the orchestra would play the next Haydn movement — a process that was repeated through to the end. Haydn observed: “The task to make seven adagios, each of ten minutes, follow one another without tiring the listener, was not an easy one; and I soon found myself unable to stick to the prescribed time. The music had originally no text, and was also printed without any.” The final expanse at least guaranteed contrast — the one depicting an earthquake, which is attached as a conclusion to the seventh word; Haydn set it as a Presto.
The orchestral setting proved so popular that it spawned no fewer than five transcriptions in the ensuing decade (by the composer or other parties), the first of which was his own recasting of the set for string quartet, completed during the first half of 1787. It is true that the music originally had no text, though Haydn’s friend Abbé Maximilian Stadler had suggested that Haydn set the instrumental melodies to the rhythms of the biblical words. In fact, the first Viennese edition of the score printed the corresponding words (in Latin) under the opening music of the first violin part in each section: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise,” and so on. These notations certainly provide fodder for interpreters, and someone listening to the Seven Last Words might even end up feeling that there is something inherently “vocal” even in the work’s original instrumental versions. Curiously, a later composer known strictly for vocal music was among the admirers of this meditative piece: Richard Wagner. In 1878, his wife, Cosima, wrote in her diary about a conversation that had taken place about the relationship of words and music. She mentioned several pieces that her husband cited as admirable examples, including “The Seven Words by Haydn.” “During these days, she noted, “R. spoke of them with the greatest admiration and said they are deeply moving.”
Franz Joseph Haydn