During Holy Week, many Christians meditate on the seven last words of Christ, a tradition that began in the 17th century, probably popularized by a Jesuit from Peru. A century or so later, a Spanish priest who administered the Cadiz cathedral wrote to Franz Joseph Haydn, asking him to compose a work based on those seven last words. The words—really sentences—were chosen from the Gospels as follows:
To God: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” To the “good thief”: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” To His mother: “Woman, behold your son,’ and to John: “Behold your mother.” To God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To everyone: “I thirst.” To the world: “It is finished.” To God: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
The seven sayings are gathered from the four gospels. Matthew and Mark both documented Christ’s despairing cry out to God. Luke records Him forgiving His killers, reassuring the penitent thief, and commending His spirit to His Father. His words to His mother, His request for water and His acknowledgement of death come from John.
The request from the Spanish priest was not a routine sort of request for Haydn, who spent his working life as a hired musician in the courts of Austrian and Hungarian nobility, writes Rachel Yonan in her program notes for the “Marinus in the Vineyard” production of Haydn’s work, performed by a string quartet at King Family Vineyards in late March. Yonan said Haydn wrote the words in Latin under the first line of the first violin part.
Haydn wrote that his instructions were to compose an introduction and seven adagios lasting 10 minutes each (“No easy task,” he said.) with a break for the Cadiz celebrant to speak each of the seven words, from an introduction through the final words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Yonan said Haydn originally wrote his work for a full orchestra, but he quickly adapted it for a string quartet, an adaptation that lost some of the interplay from the woodwinds, but created a more intimate experience. We’re accustomed to hearing string quartets (two violins, a cello and a viola) in chamber music as melodious and uplifting, but Haydn’s master work is dark, ominous and at times as emotionally charged as the background music of a murder drama. There are several breaks that offer relief and hope with a lighter, sweeter touch.
The words chosen from Christ’s passion by that long-ago Jesuit are spoken to the world, to God, to the “good” thief, to Mary, and to John the Baptist. Some of Christ’s words remind us of the evils still haunting the world thousands of years later: people are tortured; world actors perform horrible deeds in the service of a political ideology; millions suffer from hunger, thirst and despair.
On the other hand, said Fr. Blake Johnson, rector of Crozet’s Church of the Holy Cross, which co-sponsored the event, there are other moments signifying hope. He singled out Christ’s words to the thief beside him on Calvary: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Just for believing, the thief was rewarded with an eternity in paradise. When Christ addressed His heartbroken mother, he also instructed John to take His own place in Mary’s life, encouraging the formation of a new family after his death.
Johnson mentioned the passages earlier in the New Testament that foreshadowed some of the key moments of the passion, such as His request that a Samaritan woman give Him a drink from Jacob’s well. He reminded the audience of Mary’s role in encouraging the transformation or water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, a miracle that Jesus at first resisted, saying it was not His hour as yet.
The fourth lamentation: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Johnson described as a desperate cry, “the lowest and most despairing moment in Christ’s journey towards death.” As a balance, he reminded the audience of St. Paul’s words five or 10 years later. Speaking as if to death, Paul wrote, “Death where is thy sting?” “Jesus and Paul teach us that death does not have the last word,” Johnson said.
In commenting on Christ’s final words, Johnson exhorted the audience to consider their own spiritual legacy. “We will all have last words,” he asked. “What will your last words be?”
The March performance was the third local appearance of the Marinus Ensemble, a non-profit chamber music collective that invites emerging international performances to bring music alive in intimate, accessible settings. Yonan is one of the founders of the group, and her pandemic move to Albemarle County and affiliation with the Church of the Holy Cross has enabled citizens of the Crozet area to hear world-class musicians here at home. For more information about the Marinus Esemble, to donate, and to find its performance schedule, go to MarinusEnsemble.com.