The Seven Last Words of Christ

In a few weeks time it will be Easter, always a time of the year that I get in the mood to listen to Passion music. See for example my posts St Matthew Passion and Stabat Mater . In this post I will write about another masterpiece of religious music, the Seven Last Words of Christ, written in 1786 by Joseph Haydn.

For those readers who are not familiar with the Christian religion, some information. Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he came to Earth to save mankind by carrying the burden of their sins. His sufferings culminated in his crucifixion and his death. On the third day he resurrected from his grave and fourty days later he ascended to heaven.

The resurrection is celebrated on Easter Sunday (this year on 21 April). On the Friday before in some churches a devotion is held from noon till 3 o’clock , the Three Hours’ Agony, commemorating the three hours of Christ’s hanging at the cross. This devotion was devised in the 17th century in Peru by Jesuit missionaries and soon became popular in Europe. It consisted of sermons and meditation about the seven “words” uttered by Jesus when he was hanging at the cross.

In 1786 Joseph Haydn was requested by the clergy of the Cádiz Cathedral to compose seven instrumental adagios, to be played after each of the “words” and meditations. Not an easy job, as Haydn wrote himself: ” …. it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners ..“. Haydn added an Introduction and a Finale.

The work became a success immediately and the next year Haydn wrote a version for string quartet. It is this version which is usually performed nowadays. In 1801 he published a choral version.

For this blog I have used the orchestral version, recorded in 1965 in Barcelona.

I decided that it would be interesting to split the work into its separate pieces and combine them with the corresponding utterances by Jesus.
The seven last words come from different gospels. Here is the introduction.

Introduzione in D minor


Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

While Jesus is hanging at the cross, he is being mocked by the Jewish rulers, the soldiers and many of the spectators.

Sonata I in B-flat major


Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Two criminals are crucified at the same time, one at Jesus’ left side, one at his right side. One of them also mocks Jesus, but the other one rebukes him, saying: we are punished for our crimes, but this man didn’t do anything wrong. And he says to Jesus: Lord, remember me when you arrive in your kingdom.

Sonata II in C minor, ending in C major


John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother

Of course Jesus’ followers are also there, among them John, the writer of this gospel. Jesus says this when he sees his mother Mary, and the “disciple whom he loved” (i.e John) standing nearby.

Sonata III in E major


Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus says this in the Aramaic language: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani and the crowd thinks that he is calling the prophet Elijah.When somebody wants to give Jesus something to drink, they say, don’t, let’s see if Elijah will come

Sonata IV in F minor


John 19:28: I thirst

As John explains in his gospel, Jesus says this because he knows that everything has now been fulfilled.

Sonata V in A major


John 19:30: It is finished

In Bach’s St John Passion, this is one of the emotional peak moments, listen to Es ist vollbracht

Sonata VI in G minor, ending in G major


Luke 23:46: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.

After Jesus calls this with loud voice, he breathes his last.

Sonata VII in in E-flat major


Matthew 27:51: And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent

This is the description given by the gospel of St Matthew. Haydn uses it for the finale, no adagio for this part, but “Presto e con tutta la forza”!

Il terremoto (Earthquake) in C minor


When you listen to this masterwork, put the volume on loud! And when you are interested, search YouTube for The Seven Last Words of Christ. You will find many recordings.

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