40 Days with One Composition

For the last few years I’ve used the forty days of Lent as an auditory discipline. I try to listen to one collection of music during the entire season. This year’s choice was Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of our Savior on the Cross.” I listened to the string arrangement performed by the Callino Quartet.

First performed in a somber setting on Good Friday 1787 in Cadiz, Spain. Years later Haydn himself was asked to write a preface to a new publication of the work and he described the first performance with these words:

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 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 considered this work his finest composition. Whenever it was performed he insisted that the words of Christ be spoken as part of the performance. In recent years that practice has, unfortunately, not been followed very often. Even the recording I used only went from song to song.

My Experience

Since the recording did not indicate which saying was being interpreted I tried to say aloud the appropriate saying during each section. That alone is quite a meditation.

Then I tried to imagine the extraordinary creativity it took to compose it. I’m not a composer so it is even harder to comprehend how such music could develop in one’s mind. Imagine taking one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospels and create music that expresses the mood, emotion, drama, and pathos of the events. But Haydn was gifted by God to do so. Two hundred and thirty one years later I was blessed by those efforts.

In Sonata Five, “I Thirst”, the music is slow and melodic in the beginning, but at the one minute mark the intensity of a painful thirst is driven home. (listen for yourself here.)

After forty or so minutes of music it ends with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” One might think the concert is finally over and time to go home. But no. Instead Haydn ends the entire piece with a short, less than two minute, explosion played fortississimo (triple forte…ƒƒƒ…or really loud). The title of the piece is “Il terremoto (Earthquake) in C minor.” After the melodic and somber sections before it, the sounds feels like an earthquake. Below is a video of an ensemble performing it beautifully (the applause at the end of the video lasts for over a minute).

Take Away

Focusing for forty days on anything is a journey of delight, boredom, distraction, understanding, and ultimately focus. A veritable smorgasbord for the soul. To be able to think, and look forward to thinking, about the Cross every time I got in the car or flew on a plane is impossible to put into words.

I can only say “He is Risen.” And because He is, I am forgiven. “He is risen indeed!”

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