The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross, Op 51 by Joseph Haydn

Rubens' Cruxifixion

Rubens’ Cruxifixion


Last Sunday the RTE Contempo Quartet came to Wexford. The talented foursome – Bogdan Sofei and Ingrid Nicola on violin, Andreea Banciu on viola and Adrian Mantu on Cello – were in town, at the invitation of Music for Wexford, to perform Haydn’s The Last Seven Words of our Saviour on the Cross (Op. 51) by Haydn. The venue was, as it is for most of the Music for Wexford concerts, St Iberius Church on Main Street.

In Sarah M. Burn’s excellent notes, prepared for the performance of the piece, we read that Haydn was commissioned to write the work “as an aid to meditation during the religious services on Good Friday”. She goes on to say that the title page bears the following words in the inscription ‘Instrumental music on the last seven words of our Redeemer on the cross – or Seven sonatas with an introduction and at the end an Earthquake’. While the Introduction sets the scene, the finale depicts “the earthquake and rending of the Veil of the Temple that followed Christ’s death”.

Given the subject matter, and that this, on the surface, has the look of liturgical music of the most demanding kind, what materialises is something altogether more melodious, lyrical and uncomplicated. This uncluttered approach suited Haydn purposes as he set about telling the story with, as the work progresses, an ever heightening sense of emotional intensity. Ms Burn mentions that “A Viennese reviewer … wrote that ‘Anyone with even a moderate degree of feeling will be able to guess at almost every note what the composer meant it to express'”. This is done so simply and so beautifully.

Undoubtedly, the superlative playing of the quartet helped, in no small way, to convey the emotional power of the work. They nailed the ebbs and flows of the work wonderfully. I found the sad beauty of their playing of the pizzicato in Sonata V (‘Sitio” – ‘I am thirsty’) to be particularly affecting, something built on, even further, in the sonata that follows.

The words of Alan George, in reviewing another quartet’s playing of the piece, eloquently describe how the music unfolds:
“After the tremendous drama of the Introduzione, its moments of extreme tenderness continue into the flowing Sonata I: the concept of “forgiving” could be no more imploringly expressed. Sonata II is characterised by a march-like tread, whose gravity must be balanced with enough movement to enable the lonely melodic lines to give of their poignancy—and truly to reveal a glimpse of Paradise in the final transformation into the tonic major key. The sheer “maternal” warmth and humanity of Sonata III similarly requires a gently flowing tempo, and the anguished desperation and sense of betrayal in Sonata IV can only be inhibited by drawing out the music unduly. Sonata V is notated with two minim beats per bar, and in observing this it is possible to achieve the most eerily spacious stillness in the pizzicato before the cries of anger and “thirst” burst upon us. There is also a strangely upbeat quality in this piece, which sits uneasily with its title, and yet which, after the monumental severity of Sonata VI’s opening unisons, develops further into what can only be comprehended as sheer joy—underlined by Haydn’s “joyful” key of G major at the end. Thereafter, the profound sense of reconciliation and acceptance in Sonata VII may be realised with a genuinely broad and spacious tempo, such that in attempting to portray the fury of the succeeding “earthquake” the inadequacies of four solo stringed instruments are slightly eased: inevitably it is impossible for a string quartet to recreate the sonic splendours of a full orchestra, but this awesome moment is not necessarily dependant on decibels alone.

Between the sonatas reader Owen Brady read the seven verses of Mark Strand’s Poem After the Last Words. This is wonderful stuff with each verse a perfect primer for the music that follows. ‘”It is finished,” he said. You could hear him say it, the words almost a whisper, then not even that, but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come from him, but from elsewhere.’

Strand’s final verse ends with: ‘And beyond, as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart. To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.’ Sublime.

This concert was recorded by RTÉ Lyric FM and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday, 20 March, 2016 at 8pm.
If you wish to read the words of Mark Strand’s Poem After the Seven Last Words as younlisten you will find them at http://jacketmagazine.com/19/stra.html.

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