High Notes

This week at the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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

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