Culture Club: “Seven Last Words of Christ” by Franz Joseph Haydn

by ALLYSON FLECK, Executive Director, Midsummer’s Music

As the title suggests, Seven Last Words of Christ focuses on the biblical account of Christ’s crucifixion. After an introduction, it explores Christ’s seven last words on the cross through seven sonatas. The final movement is a vivid musical depiction of the earthquake mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew 27:51.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) said of his work, “Each word is expressed by purely instrumental means in such a way as to make the most profound impression on even an inexperienced listener’s soul.”

Part of the music’s impact comes from the subject matter, the circumstances surrounding the performance, and the solemn observance of the season of Lent, which blossoms into the Easter celebration.

Haydn describes the first performance in the Cathedral in Cadiz in this way: “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 obscurity. The doors were closed at midday [Good Friday], 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 short discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and prostrated himself before the altar. The pause 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.”

I find it interesting that, initially, Haydn was asked to limit his music to 10 minutes to leave plenty of time for sermons. When Haydn asked for more time for his composition, the bishop responded that he would limit his sermon to 10 minutes and that Haydn could expand his musical performance.

Shortly after the original performance, which employed a small orchestra, Haydn created a version for the string quartet. In this version, the beauty of the expertly played stringed instruments is, if anything, even more poignant in its ethereal beauty.

By providing brief meditations (fewer than 10 minutes), our ecumenical group of prominent Door County faith and community leaders – together with the Pro Arte Quartet from UW-Madison – will deliver a powerfully moving reenactment of an age-old tradition and help us relive Haydn’s experience in 1787.

When I was young, the concept of “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’” was common in discussions. Chamber music does not have a conductor, so the very nature of the performance is a true collaboration. 

Then take this small team one step further for the most prominent team I have been a part of: Door County. This performance is for everyone. Although the music and text are based on Christian faith, there is a deeper context: community collaboration. By assembling a music organization, an internationally known string quartet, a church, faith leaders, lay speakers and our Door County community audience, we are embracing the spirit of invitation, accessibility, teamwork, awe and compassion.

The performers are the Pro Arte String Quartet. Founded in Belgium, the ensemble became affiliated with UW-Madison in 1941 and reached its centennial anniversary in 2012. The current members are violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp. They are frequent performers with Midsummer’s Music.

The speakers are Amy Kohnle, executive director of United Way of Door County; Reverend Barb Sajna, an Episcopal priest; Bret Bicoy, president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation; Brian Stephens, CEO of Door County Medical Center; Pastor Dawn Volpe, who has been serving Ephraim Moravian Church since 2010; Jim Honig, pastor of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church and board president of the Door County Housing Partnership; and Reverend Thomas Farrell, pastor of Stella Maris Catholic Church.

Midsummer’s Music and Shepherd of the Bay will co-sponsor this presentation of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on Friday, March 31, 7 pm, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church, 11836 Hwy 42 in Ellison Bay. Reserve free tickets at Donations will be appreciated.

The Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.

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