The general label “sacred music” covers a variety of different genres, and, as a consequence, of different styles. We may imagine a continuum, at one end of which are the strictest form of liturgical music: a kind of music whose primary and only purpose is its function in the service of worship, and whose exquisitely musical and artistic/aesthetical values are always subordinated to the needs of liturgy. At the other end of the spectrum are works with only a superficial patina of sacredness, and where the roles are reversed: there are, in fact, works nominally belonging in the sphere of “sacred” music but whose raison d’être is entirely found in the aesthetical domain. In these cases, the sacred words or contexts are reduced to mere pretexts for the creation of music. This end of the spectrum, moreover, also comprises works whose vague religious inspiration assigns them to the “sacred” sphere, but which would hardly find acceptance within the framework of official worship, by one or another religious confession.
Between these two poles, the entire world of sacred music unfolds. Franz Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words occupy a very special place along this continuum. On the one hand, they were officially commissioned by a Church authority of some weight, and were destined for a particular kind of worship. On the other, neither do they belong properly in the field of liturgical music, nor was their success limited within the framework of Church activities. They constitute therefore a unique example of how a religious prompting could generate a small galaxy of pieces, whose musical substance is similar, but whose “social” destination is very varied.
The stimulus for composing this work came to Haydn from a specific commission, which he received in 1785 or 1786. A prebendary from the Cathedral of Cadiz, in Spain, wrote to him requesting a piece scored for a classical symphony orchestra. The work had to be suited for Lenten time, and specifically for Good Friday and the week preceding it. While, in fact, liturgical music “proper” was subject to heavy restrictions during the penitential time of Lent, and especially during Passion Week, the habit had arisen to create and perform solemn musical works for occasions outside liturgy. Therefore, if the ideal style for penitential music was the bare essentiality of Gregorian chant, this did not prevent symphonic or choral works from being created and performed in those same penitential days.
Following the Baroque experiment of the French “concerts spirituels”, other similar initiatives had burgeoned throughout Europe, in the belief that music could foster an experience of the sacred and of the transcendent, and contribute to the spiritual edification of the listeners.
Haydn’s music had therefore to be conceived so as to constitute a parallel to a devotion which was very widespread in contemporaneous Europe.
The use of collecting the last sentences of the crucified Jesus, which are reported in the four Gospels, dates back to the tendency, often found in the spiritual literature of Christianity, to “harmonize” the Gospels. While the Church has always retained the diversity of the four Gospel narratives, and never tried to flatten this diversity into uniformity, she has also attempted to consider the Gospels as “one” Gospel, as the one “good news” about the history of salvation. Thus, starting from the Patristic era, authors such as Eusebius created written works in which the four narratives (and particularly the three which are indicated by the collective name of synoptics, literally “seen together”) could be read together and compared with each other.
If this is relevant for any Gospel episode, it becomes foundational when the narrative of Jesus’ last hours is at stake. Here, every word acquires an immense value – not least because, as we now know, the last hours of a crucified persons were marked by excruciating pain and by an increasing difficulty in speaking. The last words of a man on the cross are therefore full of meaning and significance, since uttering even the shortest sentences was nearly impossible.
The sentences pronounced by Jesus on the cross, when gathered from all four Gospels, reach the biblically and symbolically important number of seven. These were called “the Seven Last Words”, even though they are more appropriately indicated as sentences rather than words.
The order in which they appear in the devotion of the Seven Last Words is partly arbitrary; partly, because when two sentences are reported by one and the same Gospel, of course the order in which they appear is respected; but also arbitrary, since the combination of different sources makes it difficult to order the sentences. In spite of this, the solution eventually reached builds up a meaningful and consistent itinerary, which many faithful were eager to contemplate.
While the devotion to the Seven Last Words could be practised in isolation by any pious Christian (not just Catholics), it could also be realized by a congregation, and thus receive a mark of officiality. This was the case with the first performance of Haydn’s work, which received a very solemn premiere, whose articulation determined the piece’s internal articulation and its requirements. On Good Friday, the crypt of the Cathedral of Cadiz, dedicated to Santa Cueva, was immersed in darkness, with virtually no lighting. Each one of the seven Words was proclaimed, in Latin, while the archbishop kneeled in contemplation. Then, music and words were employed in order to foster the participants’ meditation: a sermon was given on each of the Words, and an instrumental “sonata” (i.e. a movement from Haydn’s composition) was played. When, at a later time, Haydn prefaced his publication of the score for Breitkopf, he admitted that writing music for such a destination had been rather challenging: “It was not an easy task to compose seven Adagios, each of them lasting roughly ten minutes, without tiring the listeners”. Of course, he fully succeeded, since the Sonatas are by no means dull. Indeed, they perfectly fulfill the task for which they had been created: i.e. to provide a space of contemplation in which the meaning of the Gospel Words and of the bishop’s words could be absorbed, meditated, and reflected upon.
This musical “space” created by Haydn was not neutral, though. He adopted several strategies in order to make meditation easier and more profitable for the listeners. Firstly, every Sonata is inspired by the general atmosphere of the chosen Word. There are, therefore, more serene pieces, and others which are darker and inclined to melancholy. In general, though, Haydn’s style and personality normally seek and fully realize every minimal hint toward joy and hope, since his character found it difficult to linger for too long a time on sad thoughts.
Secondly, when possible, a certain amount of word-painting was employed. This is particularly evident, for instance, in Sitio, where the orchestra’s pizzicatos immediately evoke waterdrops, and, at the same time, the biting reality of thirst. But, for instance, the depiction of the Virgin Mary’s exquisitely feminine grace is another evocation of visual imagination through music.
Thirdly, and most importantly, all seven themes of the seven Sonatas are directly derived from the verbal intonation of the corresponding Word. One could very easily sing the sentences’ words over the melodic lines found at the very beginning of each piece; and, in conformity with coeval compositional practice, this musical material remained ubiquitous throughout the piece. After having listened to the Word’s verbal proclamation, therefore, the audience was invited to re-hear it wordlessly, in the form of an instrumental intonation, which repeated itself several times. It was as if the Words were given a space for resonating, for being amplified and embrace the listener.
The work was received extremely well. It was performed also in Vienna, on March 26, 1787, and in Bonn, four days later. From then, it ran through Europe like wildfire, and its run continues until now. The composer himself realised a version for string quartet, which was given opus number 48, and which would actually become the most performed arrangement in absolute terms. A third version, which is recorded here, was issued by Artaria as op. 49; in this case, however, it was not directly written by the composer. While we might be tempted to dismiss it as a mere, spurious transcription, however, this is far from the case: Haydn knew it, approved of it, corrected and checked the proofs, and was very satisfied with it, as he wrote to the publisher: “I am sending the corrections of all three version of the Seven Words. Among other things, I am full of praise for the keyboard reduction, which is very well written and with special diligence”. The level of refinement found in this arrangement is testified by its comparison with the beautiful and intense Adagio in F major Hob. XVII: 9 recorded here: the extreme similarity between the scoring of Haydn’s original work and of the keyboard transcription is striking.
Some years later, in 1795, Haydn came across one fourth version, realized by Joseph Frieber, a former colleague of his at the Esterhazy orchestra. This transcription was in the form of an oratorio – with sung parts, soloists, added texts etc. Haydn was intrigued by this version, and so decided to adopt the idea and to follow personally its realization: this version eventually came to include one further movement, an “Introduzione II”, beyond the seven Sonatas, the Introduction and the Earthquake.
All these versions have different destinations: the keyboard version recorded here is certainly intended primarily for private devotion and delight, conceived for a limited audience or for solitary performance. The string quartet version has a slightly more public dimension, while that for orchestra and the oratorio are definitely conceived for public performance. This also impacts on the kind of spirituality they invite the performers and audience to live – from a silent and recollected meditation to a solemn communal worship.
By listening to Haydn’s Seven Last Words in their keyboard arrangement, therefore, we are led to a very special human and spiritual experience. The heart-rending drama of Christ’s Passion is evoked in bright colours, with the full palette of contrasting emotions it suggests; Haydn’s music accompanies us in this contemplation of the Gospel narrative embracing all feelings of the human soul. At the same time, the possibility of finding a quiet space, filled by music and beauty, where to meditate and contemplate, is a very welcome gift in our busy days; Haydn tirelessly invites us to this experience, providing us with all the necessary for fully enjoying it.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Enrico Maria Polimanti enjoys playing a wide range of solo and chamber music repertoire spanning from Lodovico Giustini to Caroline Shaw.
Enrico Maria Polimanti has performed throughout Europe and in the United States and he has worked with Adrian McDonnel, James Lockhart, Massimo Pradella, Flavio Emilio Scogna, Trio Ludwig, Monesis Ensemble, Francesco Dillon, Andrea Noferini, Giulio Plotino, Claudio Cavalletti, Luciano Giuliani, Mark Kroll, Costantino Mastroprimiano, Marcello Nardis, Lydia Easley, Anna Clementi, Ermanno Veglianti, Sandro Cappelletto.
He has recorded to critical acclaim (Fanfare, Fono Forum, American Record Guide, Klavier.de, Musica) for the labels Naxos, Brilliant Classics and Tactus and his performances have been recorded and broadcasted in Italy (Radio Tre, Radio Vaticana, Radio Classica, Radio Cemat), France, England, USA, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, Romania and Austria. Enrico is the first italian musician to have released a recording on Exit Live.
Deeply engaged in the diffusion of musical culture, Enrico Maria Polimanti is regularly invited to give lecture-recitals in public schools, universities and music institutions like “Sapienza” University of Rome, University of Torino, University of Macerata, Italian Federation of Music Therapy, Conservatory of Santa Cecilia and Conservatory Pergolesi of Fermo. He also took part to Law and the Humanities, a cycle of international conferences organized at University of “Roma Tre”, with lesson-concerts on music and law interpretation.
He has edited and translated into Italian Charles Rosen’s Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and John Daverio’s Robert Schumann and translated Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin vu par ses élèves.
Enrico Maria Polimanti studied at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia with Carla Giudici and, as a recipient of the Foundation Scholarship, at the Royal College of Music in London under the tutelage of Yonty Solomon. He also participated in masterclasses given by András Schiff, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Irwin Gage, Trio di Trieste, Andrea Coen, Steven Isserlis, Riccardo Brengola, Giuseppe Scotese, Kenneth Gilbert.
Franz Joseph Haydn (b Rohrau, Lower Austria, 31 March 1732; d Vienna, 31 May 1809). Austrian composer, brother of Michael Haydn. Neither he nor his contemporaries used the name Franz, and there is no reason to do so today. He began his career in the traditional patronage system of the late Austrian Baroque, and ended as a ‘free’ artist within the burgeoning Romanticism of the early 19th century. Famous as early as the mid-1760s, by the 1780s he had become the most celebrated composer of his time, and from the 1790s until his death was a culture-hero throughout Europe. Since the early 19th century he has been venerated as the first of the three ‘Viennese Classics’ (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven). He excelled in every musical genre; during the first half of his career his vocal works were as famous as his instrumental ones, although after his death the reception of his music focussed on the latter (except for The Creation). He is familiarly known as the ‘father of the symphony’ and could with greater justice be thus regarded for the string quartet; no other composer approaches his combination of productivity, quality and historical importance in these genres. In the 20th century he was understood primarily as an ‘absolute’ musician (exhibiting wit, originality of form, motivic saturation and a ‘modernist’ tendency to problematize music rather than merely to compose it), but earnestness, depth of feeling and referential tendencies are equally important to his art.