Franz Joseph Haydn

Die Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross), for string quartet, H. 3/50-56

    Description by James Reel

    In 1785 a Spanish canon commissioned Haydn to write an orchestral work that would stimulate a congregation to religious meditation during Lenten services at a particular church in Cadiz. This, the church of Santa Cueva, occupied a cave, and for the season every wall, window, and pillar was draped in black, with a single lantern providing scant illumination. The service would begin with an overture, then the bishop would give a sermon on one of the seven last utterances of Christ on the cross. The orchestra would play a slow movement inspired by the subject, then the bishop would deliver a sermon on another of Christ's last utterances, and so forth. With the liturgical inserts stripped away, the score-translated as "The Seven Last Words of Christ," although each "word" is actually a full sentence-consists of a slow introduction; seven slow, meditative movements, and a brief finale. Haydn later arranged this music as an oratorio, and in 1787 he prepared a string quartet version easy enough for amateur performances in small towns and private homes.

    In the quartet version, Haydn begins each movement by having the Latin text printed under the leading instrumental part as if it were a lyric to be sung, and indeed the text fits the notes exactly. Haydn also devised a symmetry of time signatures; Sonatas 1, 4, and 7, in which Christ speaks directly to God, are 3/4 largos, while 2, 3, 5, and 6 are in alla breve time marked Grave, Adagio, or Lento. And each of the "sonatas," as well as the introduction, does indeed obey sonata form. The primary subject "sings" the Biblical quotation, and this and its answering subjects are elaborated rhetorically, much in the manner of the bishop's sermons. The recapitulations tend to be free rephrasings rather than literal repeats of the expositions, and the codas each pull toward peace and reconciliation, no matter the original subject of the musical "sermon."

    The Introduzione, Maestoso ed adagio, is a stern call to attention with a soft, mournful answering phrase and a throbbing preview of the drama to come. Sonata 1, Largo, sets the phrase "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," and the main melody carries more pity than anguish. Sonata 2, Grave e cantabile, revolves around the phrase "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." The music has a lugubrious sort of peace about it, and at the end brightens into a C-major vision of Heaven. Sonata 3, Grave, gives us "Woman, behold thy son!" Jesus addresses his mother in E major, a key associated with love duets in secular operas of the time. A dramatic contrast comes with Sonata 4, Largo: "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It is not a sudden outburst of anguish, as might be expected, but it does cry out in F minor, the key with the most flats.

    Sonata 5, Adagio, is inspired by the utterance "I thirst," the idea initially conveyed by the melody's desiccated pizzicato accompaniment, which in the development becomes staccato, tensely repeated bowed notes. Sonata 6, Lento, offers "It is finished," with a heartbreaking, downward-drifting phrase. Sonata 7, Largo, is "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," a movement of noble resignation. Concluding the work is an extremely brief movement, "Il terremoto," depicting the shuddering of the earth upon Christ's death with jagged thematic elements, tremolos, and slides.


    1. Introduzione. Maestoso ed Adagio
    2. Sonata 1. Largo. Pater Pater dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt
    3. Sonata 2. Grave e Cantabile. Hodie mecum hodie mecum eris in Paradiso
    4. Sonata 3. Grave. Mulier ecce filius tuus
    5. Sonata 4. Largo. Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me?
    6. Sonata 5. Adagio. Sitio
    7. Sonata 6. Lento. Consumatum est?
    8. Sonata 7. Largo. In Manus tuas Domine, commendo Spiritum meum
    9. Presto e con tutta la forza. Il Terremoto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 Capriccio Records C 8008
    2017 Coro COR 16152
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4795982
    2014 Urania LVD 14012
    2014 Campanella / Solo Musica C 130199
    2014 La Dolce Volta LDV 258
    2014 Music & Arts MACD 1281
    2013 Smekkleysa SMC 13
    2012 Talanton TAL 90009
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2012 Challenge Classics CC 72546
    2012 Praga DSD 250291
    2010 Ars Produktion / Ars Produktion 38044
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 4778116
    2009 Brilliant Classics 93889
    2009 Ricercar 281
    2009 Naïve 8803
    2009 Naïve 8923
    2009 MDG 9071550
    2009 Hungaroton 41009
    2009 Brilliant Classics 93807
    2008 Berlin Classics 0016312
    2008 Naxos 8502400
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93138
    2006 Ysaye 7
    2006 Berlin Classics 0013702
    2004 Deutsche Grammophon
    2004 Deutsche Grammophon 000344802
    2004 Deutsche Grammophon
    2004 Deutsche Grammophon 000205302
    2004 Dutton Laboratories 9739
    2004 Deutsche Grammophon 474730
    2003 CCn'C CC 02532
    2001 ECM 461780
    2000 Naxos 8502301
    1999 Preiser Records 90909
    1999 Cascavelle 5002
    1998 Preiser Records 93071
    1998 Hungaroton 41001
    1997 London 455261
    1997 Calliope 9250
    1997 Biddulph Recordings LAB052-53
    1995 Hungaroton 12036
    1994 Capriccio Records 10465
    1994 Harmonia Mundi 1903043
    1994 Naxos 550346
    1994 Teldec 4509-92373-2
    1993 ASV 853
    1993 Hyperion 66337
    1992 Astree 8742
    1990 CBS Records 44914
    Alden Productions 23042
    Supraphon 111484
    Melodiya 1000057
    Linn Records 153
    RCA Red Seal 6254
    Denon Records 78973
    Cascavelle 1058
    Melodiya 171
    Brilliant Classics 93807/1
    Eroica Distribution