In 1785 the cathedral at Cadiz in southern Spain commissioned Franz Joseph Haydn to write a passion, intended for annual presentation during the Easter season. It would consist of seven slow "sonatas", each based on one of the "seven last words" of Jesus. Two additional movements frame these sonatas: a solemn introduction, and a fiery finale depicting the earthquake which followed Jesus' death.
Composed in 1786, The Seven Last Words of Christ was first presented on Good Friday in 1787. Heavy black draperies insured that the cathedral's vast interior was completely dark, but for the glow from the wick of a single lamp, hung from above.
The ceremony began with the bishop reciting from the pulpit the first of the Seven Last Words. This served as the basis for a short sermon. He then proceeded to the alter and kneeled before the cross, whereupon the first of Haydn sonatas was played. The remainder of the work followed the same pattern: the bishop would introduce each word (or phrase) and the appropriate music would follow.
This masterpiece was conceived in a spirit of profound religious conviction. Despite its length and emotional urgency, it is a model of simplicity and sophistication. Above all, Haydn wanted it to be accessible to everybody, regardless of one's musical or religious background. He wrote: "Each sonata, or movement, is expressed by purely instrumental music in such a way that even the most uninitiated listener will be moved to the very depths of his soul."
The work was originally scored for full orchestra. While these parts were being printed in 1787, Haydn crafted an alternate version for string quartet, later that year, under Haydn's supervision, the publisher made a piano reduction of the orchestra score. In addition, various arrangements for choir were subsequently made, including one by the composer.
In the hands of a mere four string players, this music cannot achieve the volume and tonal diversity of a symphony orchestra or choir. Nevertheless in the four-voice setting, with only one instrument on a part, it is imbued with a heightened intimacy which larger ensembles cannot possibly match. This music's emotional and psychological impact is best conveyed through the most subtle variations of timbre, voicing, rhythm, and tempo -- techniques ideally suited to a string quartet. Therefore this simplest of all versions may indeed be the most affecting. No less compelling than its more grandiose cousins, it is inherently more personal.
Haydn considered this to be one of his greatest works. But to hear the music by itself - however powerfully it stands alone -- is to experience it in only part of its glory. Reunited with the words that served as its inspiration, it takes on a spiritual dimension rarely found in even the most profound compositions. Though its message is decidedly Christian, it transcends the focus of any particular faith. This is music which cuts across religious and social lines, and speaks sincerely, eloquently, and passionately to everyone, via the common denominator that exists in the soul of all humanity. At the same time -- through the varied backgrounds of the participants, through the different religions perspectives and preaching traditions, through the use of various translations of the bible, through this eclectic mixture of voices and accents -- this recording reflects our cultural and spiritual diversity
THE SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST, Op. 51 (Hob. III:50-56)
Performed by the VERMEER QUARTET
2) Maestoso ed Adagio (6:02)
3) "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) - Father Virgil P Elizondo (1:10)
4) Largo (6:49)
5) 'Today thou shalt be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) - Evangelist Billy Graham (1:56)
6) Grave e cantabile (5:41)
7) "Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother." (John 19:26-27) - The Reverend Kelly Clem (1:52)
8) Grave (6:43)
9) "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:45-46) - Dr. Martin E. Marry (1:49)
10) Largo (5:29)
11) "I thirst." (John 19:28-29) - Elder Dallin H. Oaks (1:19)
12) Adagio (6:38)
13) "It is finished." (John 19:30) - Father Raymond E. Brown (1:36)
14) Lento (5:30)
15) "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46) - The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1:39)
16) Largo (5:26)
17) The Earthquake (Matthew 27:51-54; 28:2-7) - Pastor T.L. Barrett (1:26)
18) Presto e con tutta la forza (2:06)
Total time: 68:36
1) Introduction: Maestoso ed Adagio (5:59)
2) Largo: Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt (6:45)
3) Grave e cantabile: Hodie mecum eris in paradiso (8:09)
4) Grave: Mulier, ecce filius tuus (9:31)
5) Largo: Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me? (7:45)
6) Adagio: Sitio (9:51)
7) Lento: Consumatum est (7:41)
8) Largo: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (7:36)
9) Presto e con tutta la forza: Il Terremoto (2:11)
Total time 68:12