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.