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ClassicsOnline Home » HAYDN: String Quartets Opp. 103 and 51, '7 Last Words of Jesus Christ'
BBC Music Magazine
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ/Die sieben letzten Worte Jesu Christi
(Musica instrumentale sopra le 7 ultime parole del nostro Redentore in croce) Hob. III: 50-56, Op. 51
String Quartet in D Minor, Hob. III: 83, Op. 103
Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau in 1732, the son of a wheelwright. Trained at the choir-school of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, he spent some years living as best he could from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to learn from the old musician Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn's first appointment was in 1759 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count von Morzin. This was followed in 1761 by employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest men in the Empire, Prince Esterházy. On the death of the elderly Kapellmeister, Gregor Werner, in 1766 Haydn succeeded to his position, to remain in the same employment for the rest of his life.
On the completion of the magnificent palace at Esterháza, in the Hungarian plains under Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn assumed command of an increased musical establishment. Here he had responsibility for the musical activities of the palace, which included the provision and direction of instrumental music, opera and theatre music, and music for the church. For his patron he provided a quantity of chamber music of all kinds, particularly for the Prince's own peculiar instrument, the baryton, a bowed string instrument with sympathetic strings that could also be plucked.
On the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790, Haydn was able to accept an invitation to visit London, where he provided music for the concert season organized by the violinist-impresario Salomon. A second successful visit to London in 1794 and 1795 was followed by a return to duty with the Esterházy family, the new head of which had settled principally at the family property in Eisenstadt, where Haydn had started his career. Much of the year, however, was to be spent in Vienna, where Haydn passed his final years, dying in 1809, as the French armies of Napoleon approached the city yet again.
In 1786 Haydn had been invited by a canon of Cádiz to provide music for a Lenten devotion in a grotto church. During the course of this the bishop would announce each of the seven last words of Christ, following each with a brief sermon. After each short discourse the bishop would descend from the pulpit and prostrate himself before the altar, while music was played. The original version of Haydn's remarkably varied slow movements was scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets and drums, with four horns and strings. The work had wide currency throughout Europe and was instrumental in establishing Haydn's international reputation. In 1796 he devised a choral version, having overheard a similar arrangement which he did not find entirely satisfactory. Haydn made the version for string quartet three days after completing the fuller orchestral version in February 1787.
The Seven Last Words opens with a solemn introduction, in impressive dotted rhythm. The first Sonata illustrates the words "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" and is followed by a meditation on the words "Verily, I say unto you: this day you shall be with me in Paradise". The E major third Sonata follows the words "Woman, behold thy son: son, behold thy mother". The desolate cry "Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?", set in F minor, leads to the A major "I thirst". A solemn G minor moves to G major for "It is accomplished", proceeding to the E flat "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit", played muted. Mutes are then quickly removed for the final earthquake, as the veil of the Temple is rent asunder.
In 1803 Haydn directed a public performance in Vienna for the last time. The work he chose was the Seven Last Words. In the same year, now increasingly frail, he wrote the second and third movements of what was to be the last of his 83 string quartets, a work he never completed. When the two movements were published in 1806, Haydn suggested the addition of a sad postscript, a canon to the words: “Hin ist alle meine Kraft, alt und schwach bin ich” (Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I). The new century was, in any case, in the hands of a new generation, represented by the uncouth young Beethoven, once Haydn's pupil, and an ungrateful one at that. The last quartet had been intended for Prince Lobkowitz, but it was to this nobleman that Beethoven had already dedicated his six Opus 18 quartets in 1801. A new age had already begun.
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HAYDN: String Quartets Opp. 103 and 51, '7 Last Wo...