Considered by Hadyn himself to be one of his greatest works, host Paul von Wichert will have a complete recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Tune in! 12:45 PM Easter Sunday
Even better than The Creation and The Seasons? According to Haydn---YES.
Haydn tells the story of the origins of the piece, from the preface to the 1801 Breitkopf & Hartel edition:
Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the seven last words of Our Savior on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center 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 (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.
Classical music broadcaster James David Jacobs writes that Haydn's 'Seven Last Words' was very popular during his lifetime, and it was the oratorio version of this work that he conducted in his last concert appearance on December 26, 1803. The fact that he conducted this piece, so inextricably associated with Passion Week, the day after Christmas is very telling as to the evolving relationship between liturgical and concert works, which had evidently come a long way since the controversy surrounding Handel's Messiah a half a century before. What's particularly remarkable is that this work exists in versions with and without voices, and it's the version with voices, the version that makes the religious content explicit, that's the concert version. The purely instrumental versions are meant for use as part of the Good Friday service.
The orchestral version is the only one that is 100% Haydn. The versions for quartet and for solo piano were done in collaboration with anonymous arrangers. The quartet version is almost literally taken from the orchestral string parts, which mean that many melodic details are missing. The piano version is actually more complete, and in my opinion more interesting, and earned special praise by Haydn himself, but because we know that Haydn himself did not do the arranging it has never been published in a modern edition and has been rarely performed.
This leaves the oratorio version. While traveling in 1794 Haydn stopped in Passau, where he heard an oratorio version of the work arranged by Joseph Frieberth. This inspired Haydn to do his own version, but he used Frieberth's arrangement as a starting point, so it could really be considered to be something of a collaboration. As the conductor Laurence Equilbey points out, the relationship of the voices to the instruments in this work is the reverse of the colla parte technique common in the eighteenth century, in which instruments double and reinforce the vocal lines; here the voices double and reinforce the instrumental lines. As a result, they neither get in the way nor add much of interest, the exceptions being the deliberately archaic, early-Baroque style a capella introductions to each movement, and the completely independent (and mostly unison!) choral part in the final movement, the earthquake, creating a rhythmic and dramatic tension that seems to makes the work complete, as we hear the voices cry out in anguish (the first instance of the use of the triple-forte marking, or fortississimo, in musical history.)
The most remarkable additions to the score of the oratorio version are, oddly enough, in the orchestra, not the voices. Haydn expands the orchestra to include clarinets, trombones, and, for the first time in any of his work, a contrabassoon. Near the end of his life Haydn said “Only in my old age have I learned how to use the wind-instruments.”
The seven words are:
I. Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt - Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)
II. Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso - Today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)
III. Mulier, ecce filius tuus - Mother, behold thy son (John 19:26)
IV. Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me - My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
V. Sitio - I thirst (John 19:28)
VI. Consummatum est - It is finished (John 19:30)
VII. In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum - Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46)
Tune in to Sunday Afternoon Classics with Paul von Wichert at 12:45 PM to hear the complete London Philharmonic Orchestra recording of some of Haydn’s most intense and inventive music, evoking the struggle of Christ’s final hours. Vladimir Jurowski is the conductor.