Haydn’s Unusual Commission

Christopher Cartlidge, violist of the Australian String Quartet, provides insights into a most unusual commission for Joseph Haydn—The Seven Last Words of Christ. Composing this work pushed Haydn out of his comfort zone, however, in the end, the composer regarded it amongst his greatest musical achievements.

Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ is a powerful yet unusual work for string quartet. It was commissioned by padre Jose, a Spanish priest, in 1786 as a set of seven musical meditations for chamber orchestra on the seven last words of Christ on the cross. Intended for an Easter service, the priest was to utter the words before each corresponding movement, then present a sermon on their meaning before prostrating himself in prayer as the movement was played.

Joseph Haydn by artist Thomas Hardy

Haydn, himself quite a devout Catholic, clearly felt the weight of this commission. Each movement is littered with what an old high school music teacher of mine referred to as “magical music moments”. A good example of this is the incredible range of human emotions he employs throughout the work spanning hope and despair, longing and loss, and glints of incredible optimism and overwhelming beauty.

In the version for string quartet (an arrangement suggested by his publisher in 1787) the structure remains unchanged. Masterfully distilled by Haydn himself from the original version for chamber orchestra, the string quartet reduction has a raw and lyrical quality that in many ways amplifies the impact on the listener.

This is one of my absolute favourite works to perform and to experience as a listener. For me, music is all about storytelling and Haydn achieves this beautifully in this arrangement. Although there is no libretto to this work, there is a lyricism in the writing—especially in the first violin part—that positions us, at times, more as vocalists than as string players.

Interesting fact: Haydn was paid in a rather surprising way for his services. Don José Sáenz de Santa María, the priest who commissioned the work, sent the composer a cake which he discovered was filled with gold coins.

By Christopher Cartlidge

HEAR THIS WORK

We perform Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in a special presentation at the incredible St Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide, on Thu 4 August 2022—more information and tickets.

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