DEVOTIONAL MUSIC FOR LENT – Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross

– Maria Kwak*

Haydn’s The Seven Last Words from the Cross is perhaps the most well-known music that reflects the spirit of Holy Week. The Seven Last Words from the Cross are seven expressions biblically attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion, which has been the inspiration for many composers throughout the ages.

This Lenten season, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 impacting our daily lives, we have been conditioned to practice social distancing. This work was born in the midst of self-isolation,  just as we are experiencing now. Haydn said, “There was no one near to confuse me, I was forced to become original,” away from the distractions that worldly affairs may bring.

As we are journeying through Lent to the cross at Calvary, I hope that we take this opportunity to contemplate, through music, Jesus’s sacrifice for our sins. The Catholic composer Haydn commented that the work, “is expressed in such a way that even the most uninitiated listener will be moved to the very depths of this soul.”

Commission by the Church

The three-hour Good Friday rituals have been observed by Christians since the 4th century. By the 19th century, this devotion was also followed in Protestant churches. The instrumental oratorio work was intended for the Good Friday service at an Oratory in Cádiz. The work was commissioned by José Marcos Sáenz de Santa María (1738–1804), from a noble family of La Rioja origin who had settled in Cádiz.

In 1771, he assumed the position as the administrator of the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva, forming a group of men who gathered for meditation called the Brotherhood of the Santa Cueva. Subsequently, he amplified the old church of Rosario and inaugurated the Holy Cave Oratory in 1783, also known as theChapel of Passion. He was a clergy dedicated to spiritual function within the church. The work was performed at the Oratory on Good Friday in 1787 for the first time.

At the end of the 18th century, Cádiz was a vibrant city with wealth connected to the trading routes with the Americas. Cádiz’s Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral de Santa Cruz de Cádiz sobre las Aguas de Cádiz) was known as The Cathedral of The Americas gives us a clue to its origins.

Haydn records that it was customary for the cathedral to produce an oratorio for Lent every year. A Good Friday devotion based on the seven utterances was a new devotional service in response to the earthquakes which destroyed Peru in 1687. This devotion migrated from colonial Peru to Spain, the Atlantic seaport of Cádiz. The Devotion of the three hours of the agony of Christ Our Father (1737) written by Peruvian Jesuit priest, Alonso Messia Bedoya (1655-1732) was published in most of the European languages by the 19th century.

Catholic Composer Haydn

By the time he made this composition, he distanced himself from publicity despite his success. Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) was one of the most celebrated musicians of the Classical era, which earned him the title “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet.”

Haydn was a faithful Catholic who found his inner sanctuary with the Rosary whenever he experienced trouble in composition. His manuscripts are testimony to faith in God. He often initiated with “in nomine Domini” (in the name of the Lord) and wrote “Laus Deo” (praise to God) at the end.

The Seven Last Words was the last work in which Haydn appeared as a conductor before the public on 26 December, 1803.

About The Seven Last Words

The work comprises an introduction, seven slow movements corresponding to the seven utterances from the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John. The circumstances on how the devotional service was performed are recorded in the preface. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words and delivered a discourse thereon.The oratorio of just over one hour concludes with its only fast movement “Il terremoto,” a finale depicting the earthquake that the Gospels describe as marking the death of Jesus.

I. And they took Jesus, and led him away. And, bearing his cross, he went to a place called the place of skulls, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha, where they crucified him / and the criminals, one on the right hand, and one on the left. Then Jesus said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (“Pater, dimitte illis; quia nesciunt, quid faciunt”) (John 19:16-18, Luke 23:34)

II. One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, seeing you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” And Jesus said to him, “Verily; I say unto you today you will be with me in paradise.” (“Hodie mecum eris in paradise”) (Luke, 23: 39-43)

III. But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” (“Mulier, ecce filius tuus”) (John, 19: 25-27)

IV. Now, from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani”, which renders: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (“Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me?”) (Matthew, 27: 45, 46)

V. After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said, in fulfillment of the scripture, “I thirst.” (“Sitio”) (John, 19: 28)

VI. A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished.” (“Consumatum est!”) (John, 19: 29, 30)

VII. And there was darkness over the whole land, and the sun’s light failed. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, and Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!” (”In manus tuas, Domine, commendo Spiritum meum “) (Luke, 23: 44-46)

*MA Candidate in History at USJ