The Seven Last Words of Christ

The Seven Last Words of Christ
Charles Bridge, Prague

The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross (German: Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze) is an orchestral work by Joseph Haydn, commissioned in 1785 or 1786 for the Good Friday service at Cádiz Cathedral in Spain. The composer adapted it in 1787 for string quartet and in 1796 as an oratorio (with both solo and choral vocal forces), and he approved a version for solo piano.

The seven main meditative sections — labelled "sonatas" and all slow — are framed by an Introduction and a speedy "Earthquake" conclusion, for a total of nine movements. Haydn himself explained the origin and difficulty of writing the work when the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel issued (in 1801) a new edition and requested a preface:

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.[1]


Original Version

The original 1786 work, for full classical orchestra, is as follows:[2]

  1. Introduzione in D minor — Maestoso ed Adagio
  2. Sonata I ("Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt") in B-flat major — Largo
  3. Sonata II ("Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso") in C minor, ending in C major — Grave e cantabile
  4. Sonata III ("Mulier, ecce filius tuus") in E major — Grave
  5. Sonata IV ("Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me") in F minor — Largo
  6. Sonata V ("Sitio") in A major — Adagio
  7. Sonata VI ("Consummatum est") in G minor, ending in G major — Lento
  8. Sonata VII ("In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum") in E-flat major — Largo
  9. Il terremoto (Earthquake) in C minor — Presto e con tutta la forza

The seven meditations on the Last Words are excerpted from all four gospels. The "Earthquake" movement derives from Matthew 27:51ff. Much of the work is consolatory, but the "Earthquake" brings a contrasting element of supernatural intervention — the orchestra is asked to play presto e con tutta la forza — and closes with the only fortississimo (triple forte) in the piece.

String Quartet Version

At the request of his publisher, Artaria, the composer in 1787 produced a reduced version for string quartet. Haydn's Opus 51, this is the form in which the music is most often heard today: a group of seven works (Hoboken-Verzeichnis III/50–56), with the Introduction abutting Sonata I and Sonata VII joined by the Earthquake. The first violin part includes the Latin text directly under the notes, which "speak" the words musically.

This version has come under suspicion of authenticity due to an occasionally careless manner of transcription, with crucial wind passages left out and only the accompanimental figures in the strings retained. As a result, some quartets make their own adaptation, working from the orchestral original.[citation needed] The Brentano String Quartet, for instance, commissioned Mark Strand to supply a series of readings to replace the "words"; the result was "Poem After the Seven Last Words" (included in the volume Man and Camel). In another recorded example, by the Aeolian Quartet in 1976, poetic readings were substituted for the "words", read by Peter Pears; these readings were from John Donne (Introduction), George Herbert (Adagio), Robert Herrick (Grave e cantabile), Anon (15th century) (Grave), Edith Sitwell (Largo), Edwin Muir (Adagio) and David Gascoyne (Lento), and the final Largo and Earthquake completed the performance.[3]

Choral Version

In the course of his second journey to London (1794–1795),[4] in Passau, Haydn had heard a revised version of his work, amplified to include a chorus, prepared by the Passau Kapellmeister Joseph Friebert. The words were not the original Latin but pietist poetry, written in German. Haydn was impressed with the new work and decided to improve on it, preparing his own choral version. He had the assistance of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who revised the lyrics used by Friebert.[5] This was the first work in a serial collaboration with van Swieten as librettist that continued with the later oratorios The Creation and The Seasons.[6] The choral version was privately premiered in Vienna on 26 March 1796 before an audience of the nobility, under the sponsorship of the Gesellschaft der Associierten. The public premiere was on 1 April 1798, sponsored by the Tonkünstler-Societät, a Viennese benefit society for musicians. The work was published in 1801.[7]

Piano Version

Haydn's publisher had a piano version made, which Haydn personally approved. This version is not recorded very often. A score for this version is listed in the External Links below.


  1. ^ Text cited from Townsend (1884, 73-74)
  2. ^ HC Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, 5 vols, (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1976-) v. 2, Haydn at Eszterhaza, 1766-1790
  3. ^ Argo (Decca), Haydn String Quartets Volume Eleven, HDNV 82-84.
  4. ^ Sources differ in whether this occurred on the outbound or return journey; Larsen and Feder (1997, 67).
  5. ^ Webster (2005, 150)
  6. ^ See Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, article "Gottfried van Swieten".
  7. ^ Source for this paragraph: Temperley (1991, 7)


  • Temperley, Nicholas (1991) Haydn, The Creation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521378656.
  • Townsend, Pauline (1884) Joseph Haydn. S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington (online at Google Books).

External links

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