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Rare performance of ’Seven Last Words of Christ’ by Brooklyn Symphony quartet

for The Brooklyn Paper
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It seems like such an obvious choice during Holy Week, but Franz Josef Haydn’s "The Seven Last Words of Christ" is not performed as often as, say, Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion," the latter usually considered the absolute peak of religious music.

But for its final concert of the 2002-2003 season, Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music presents Haydn’s "Seven Last Words," appropriately enough, on Palm Sunday, April 13, at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Performing the weighty, hour-long sole piece on the program are members of the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Nick Armstrong, and the Rev. David Dyson of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Haydn composed "Seven Last Words" in 1786, on a commission from the Cadiz Cathedral in Spain. Of course, by that time, the 54-year-old composer had already distinguished himself as one of the most respected and venerable musicians of his day, prompting no less a personage than Mozart - who was 24 years younger - to dedicate a group of six string quartets to Haydn.

Written specifically for believers to help with their Holy Week meditations, "Seven Last Words" is divided into seven adagios, or slow movements, each of which are inspired by the final utterances of Jesus Christ while on the cross at Calvary - from the first, "Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do," to the final words spoken before he died, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit."

Although "Seven Last Words" is a purely instrumental work, performances of it usually include readings related to each section’s utterances. The Brooklyn Friends performances will be no different, with Dyson taking the role of speaker for these non-musical interludes.

Haydn’s profoundly spiritual music for "Seven Last Words" is perfectly encapsulated in the composer’s own words on the subject: "Each sonata (or movement) is expressed by purely instrumental music in such a way that even the most uninitiated listener will be moved to the very depths of his soul," he wrote.

Most interesting about "Seven Last Words" is that Haydn originally scored the work for a full orchestra, which is how it was premiered in the Cadiz Cathedral. While the orchestral parts were being printed, Haydn arranged the music for a string quartet, then the music publisher - with the composer’s blessing - created another version, a piano reduction of the full orchestral score. The work is also performed in an arrangement for a choir and an orchestra.

The power of the music in its fully orchestral glory cannot hope to be matched by a mere four instrumentalists in the quartet version, but Haydn was nothing if not canny in his transposition of the work to quartet. Since the Cadiz Cathedral was a massive edifice, the orchestral sound reverberated throughout; the string quartet version would have been dwarfed in such a place.

However, the quartet version has its own strengths, most particularly in its unmatched intimacy, since each part in the score is played by a single instrument. And because Haydn’s music for this piece is a glorious example of the concision and subtlety of his compositional technique, this "slimmed-down" version may be the most affecting and emotionally involving of all the versions of this most sublime music.

Music has always been a common unifier for many people, transcending as it does all boundaries and borders, whether artistic, economic, cultural or even religious. Haydn’s "The Seven Last Words of Christ" - along with Bach’s "B-Minor Mass" and the aforementioned "St. Matthew Passion," Beethoven’s "Missa Solemnis" and Mozart’s unfinished "Requiem" - is one of the pinnacles of music that transcends religion and reaches listeners in a truly secular way.


Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music presents Haydn’s "The Seven Last Words of Christ," performed by members of the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Lafayette Avenue at South Oxford Street in Fort Greene, on April 13 at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and $5 students. For more information, visit the Web site at www.brooklynfriendsofchambermusic.org or call (718) 855-3053.

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