Religion News: String Quartet to Play Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’

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Kobi Malkin will play second violin at the performance of Hayden’s “Seven Last Words” at King Family Vineyard April 5. Submitted photo.

A joint effort by the Marinus Ensemble and Holy Cross Anglican Church will bring the solemn music of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” to Crozet April 5. The event will be presented at the Carriage House at King Family Vineyards. 

Rachel Yonan, the founder of the ensemble, moved to North Garden during the pandemic, relocating her family from Raleigh, where she remains on the Duke University music faculty. Her reasons for the move: “I just love it here,” she said. She became a parishioner of Holy Cross, and she and Blake Johnson, the rector, began to explore ways that her ensemble could enrich the religious and cultural experience of her new home.

Yonan is a violist, one of the positions that makes up a traditional string quartet. Marinus is a cohort of musicians that she assigns in various ways, depending on the occasion and their availability. She’ll be joined by two Marinus violinists and her brother (and cofounder of Marinus) Joseph Kuipers, who will play the cello. 

Haydn’s somber work was commissioned in the late 18th century for the Good Friday service at the cathedral in Cadiz, a port city in southwestern Spain. The great composer himself was impressed by the drama and solemnity that set the stage for one of his most beloved works. It was performed in the underground chapel, and Haydn reported that the windows and statuary were draped in black, as is still customary on Good Friday more than two centuries later. He had some challenging limitations in his commission, he wrote: Each of Christ’s last statements would be represented by a sonata, with meditations in between led by the priest, who would remain prostrate before the altar during the music that followed. There would also be music serving as an introduction at the beginning and music representing the violent earthquake that tore apart the temple’s curtain, as described in the Bible.

The seven last words the music brings to life come from all four evangelists familiar to most Christians; from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who record in a few heartbreaking sentences the words of Jesus during his long ordeal of torture and death. He petitioned God a few times, spoke to the thief dying beside him, comforted his mother, begged for water, and let the world know when he was drawing his last breath. “From condemnation to forgiveness, from physical suffering to the hope of paradise, from familial love to familial abandonment, from physical thirst to physical death, Haydn uses the music to show us Jesus’s humanity, his compassion, and his love,” Yonan writes in the program notes.

Haydn tinkered with his piece over the years, fulfilling the logistical and musical requirements of religious leaders in several European cities, where it was also presented. It was considered an ambitious and innovative work, with some of his musical experimenting noticed and copied by other composers. Yonan said Haydn studied the scripture and matched the music well with the words of Christ. For instance, she said, when musically illustrating “I thirst,” the violin is plucked in such a way as to suggest rain. 

Yonan said the Carriage House at King Family is well-suited for the piece, with excellent acoustics as well as vaulted ceilings that give it a cathedral-like air. She likes the idea of offering this event to her new community and also wants people unfamiliar with classical music to find that it’s not intimidating. “Anything we can do to reduce the barriers to enjoying this kind of music will be a good thing,” she said.

For those unfamiliar with the piece or those who’d like more insight into how Haydn conveyed the meaning of the words of Christ in music, Yonan provides extensive program notes showing the thoughtful choice of key, tempo, tone, melody and volume for each part of the program.

The concert begins at 7 p.m. For more information, see holycrosscrozet.org. Tickets are free, but limited. Reserve them at tinyurl.com/HAYDN7.

 

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