First version: for full Orchestra, 1786, Hob.XX/1
A full account of the origins of this work is given by Georg August Griesinger, Haydn’s earliest biographer, in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of 1809 – the year of the composer’s death:
“A canon in Cadiz requested Haydn, about the year 1785, to make an instrumental composition of the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross which was to be suited to a solemn ceremony that took place annually during Lent in Cadiz. On the appointed day the walls, windows, and pillars of the church were draped in black, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof illuminated the solemn darkness. At the appointed hour the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a suitable prelude the bishop mounted the pulpit, pronounced one of the Seven Words, and delivered a meditation upon it. As soon as it was ended he descended from the pulpit and knelt down before the altar. The music filled this pause. The bishop entered the pulpit a second, then a third time, and so on, and each time the orchestra came in again at the end of each homily.
It was indeed one of the most difficult tasks to make out of thin air, with no text, seven adagios following one another that would not weary the listener, but would stir all the feelings inherent in each of the words uttered by the dying Saviour. Haydn many times declared this work to be one of his most successful”.
Second version: for String Quartet, 1787, Hob.III/50-56
At the request of the music publisher Artaria Haydn produced a reduced version of the original work for String Quartet. Artaria also produced a keyboard arrangement in the same year, 1787, which was sanctioned by Haydn.
Third version: for Soloists, Choir & Orchestra, 1795-6, Hob.XX/2
In August 1795, on his return journey from London, Haydn visited Passau, where he heard a vocal version of this work, which had been prepared by the Kapellmeister Joseph Friebert. According to Sigismund Neukomm, a pupil of Haydn’s who prepared piano reductions of several of Haydn’s works, including The Creation and The Seasons, Haydn was pleased with the performance but felt that he could have produced better choral parts himself.
When he returned to Vienna he worked in collaboration with Gottfried van Swieten, the Prefect of the Viennese Imperial Library, to do just that. Haydn had brought a copy of Friebert’s text with him, and used that in combination with the cantata text “Der Tod Jesu” written in 1756 by Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-98). Some lines may have been the work of van Swieten himself, who was soon to assist Haydn with the text of both The Creation in 1796 and The Seasons in 1799.
Musical differences between this and the original orchestral version Hob.XX/1 are mainly slight; but Haydn prefaces six of the movements with a short, four-part a capella introduction in which the biblical words of Christ on the cross are declaimed. It was for this version that the Introduzione was added between Words 4 and 5. Unusually the instrumentation of this extra movement is for wind and brass alone. One of the reasons for the addition was to turn the work into an Oratorio divided into two parts, each prefaced by an instrumental movement.
The premiere of the final version took place on 26th March 1796 in one of the Lenten Concerts given by the Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliere at the Schwarzenberg Palace. Writing to a fellow musical director later Haydn said: ”Your eminence has up to now only half-enjoyed the Seven Last Words of Christ, for three years ago I underlaid it with a new 4-part vocal music (without changing the instrumental parts) …. The effect of this work transcends all expectations”. It was offered to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel in 1800 as “..without doubt one of my best works”.
This edition: a combination of Hob.XX/2 and Hob.III/50-56
This work can now be performed in English for the first time, and a choice can be made as to whether to use a String Quartet, String Orchestra, or a Full Orchestra of Strings, Wind and Brass.
Barn End Press provides instrumental parts for each option, and the Vocal Score will suit them all.
For instrumental hire please contact Neil Jenkins.