At the beginning of this year, we were blessed with a generous gift to support instrumentalists in worship at GPPC. “Have you thought about performing the Haydn Seven Last Words?” I hadn’t. I mean, I had heard of the piece, but Haydn had never struck me as the most interesting composer. Truth be told, I had dozed off in many a Haydn performance in college and graduate school. But, this request came from a great musician, so I figured I would give the piece a listen.
I was blown away. Honestly, I didn’t know that Haydn had anything this beautiful in him. Given the seriousness of the text, one would expect the music to be pretty grim. But, music of the Classical period is notoriously light-filled, and Haydn responds to Jesus’ final words with the most beautiful music he could create. My ears hear little bits of Beethoven symphonies and Mozart operas and Schubert songs, as well as the very best of Haydn’s symphonic and chamber music styles.
The piece has an unusual story. Haydn was commissioned to compose seven orchestral adagios to follow the reading of Jesus’ words at the Cathedral of Cadíz. In Haydn’s own words: “it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners.” Perhaps Haydn knew that guys like me would slip into slumber during performances of his sacred music.
Haydn also knew that there would be a need for a choral oratorio version of the piece. In fact, he happened to hear a performance of another composer’s choral version of HIS piece in 1794. He felt that he could create something better. Why does any of this matter? Haydn’s other choral works sometimes seem hemmed in by conventions of the time; the Creation is deeply Handelian, and his mass settings don’t always stand up well when separated from their liturgical function. The Seven Last Words is based in what Haydn did best; choral music rooted in Haydn’s mature orchestral style is an exceptional gift to the genre.
Tackling an hour-long piece of music is a lot for any church choir. Great works are rewarding to take on, however; they reveal new bits of beauty or delight or poignancy each week. The gift for the piece was generous, so we can go all out for this. An orchestra of twenty is a very rare gift for us, and I’m thrilled with the lineup of musicians that we have. Hearing a lavish string section in our sanctuary is an experience that you won’t want to miss. We’ll also have horns and winds, including the rare monster of the orchestra: the contrabassoon. There will be short readings as well, and we’ll end the service by singing “Were You There”, accompanied by the orchestra.
Our Good Friday service is April 7 at 7:00 P.M. I hope you’ll be there to listen and hear these words in a new way. It never ceases to amaze me how music can surprise us.
Doug Brown is our Director of Music. During approximately 735 Sundays of directing our choir, he has never dozed off.