The moving music of Good Friday
By the mid-1780s, Joseph Haydn was the most in-demand composer in Europe. Though he remained a loyal, if increasingly independent, employee of the Esterházy princes he had served since 1761, his symphonies, quartets and other works were published as fast as he could write them, and snapped up by amateurs and connoisseurs alike across the continent. Even in Spain, which had yet to develop its own music publishing industry, Haydn's music circulated widely in manuscripts, some prepared by Haydn exclusively for the Spanish market. This is how Haydn came to be commissioned to write the extraordinary work that was to become one of his best sellers. We'll let Haydn himself tell the story, as he did in the preface to the 1801 edition:
"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 (slow movements) 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."
Haydn was not the first great composer to write a musical works based on Christ's final utterances, having been preceded by about 140 years by the immortal German baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Neither is Haydn's the only purely instrumental reflection* on these sacred texts (see a fairly comprehensive list here). But Haydn's nine movements — Introduction, Sonatas on each of the Seven Words, and "Terremoto" ("Earthquake") — stand as one of the foremost examples of a composer making transcendent music despite, or because of, stringent limitations. I dare say that despite its somber and contemplative purpose, this is music that can be savored, even enjoyed. So please tune in during the 11:00 hour on Good Friday morning for a new recording by conductor Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century of Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross."
*Among the subsequent arrangements of the "Seven Last Words" prepared by Haydn and others is an oratorio version with vocal soloists and choir. The version we'll broadcast today is the original, for orchestra alone.