The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross

WHEN HE COMPOSED THE SEVEN LAST WORDS OF OUR SAVIOR ON THE CROSS, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was at the height of his career. Commissioned in 1786 by the canons of the Cathedral of Cádiz, these sonatas were destined to accompany the periods of inner silence that punctuate meditation on the seven last words of Christ, read by the local bishop during Holy Week. As Haydn himself described it to his publisher, “The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were draped in black; one lone large lamp suspended in the center broke this sacred obscurity. At noon, all the doors were closed and the music then began. After an appropriate prelude, the bishop would go up to the pulpit, pronounce one of the seven words, and reflect upon it. He would then descend from the pulpit and bow low before the altar. This interval was filled with music.” This tradition of long meditation on the last words of Christ, though not a liturgical office as such, is still celebrated to this day in many cathedrals, in Spain and the United States for example, at noon on Good Friday, before the office of the Passion takes place around three o’clock in the afternoon. Following the success of the orchestral version performed in Cádiz, which assured the work's renown throughout Europe, the next year, with the declared intention of making this meditation available to all, Haydn produced the score for string quartet from which the setting for string orchestra, featured here, is drawn. He next produced an adaptation for piano (whose repertoire, with the recent invention of the fortepiano, was in full expansion), and then, finally, a score for choir and orchestra. INTRODUCTION TO THE MUSIC BY FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN 14