Seven Last Words Program Note

Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ has a long and convoluted history, appearing in many arrangements and guises. Originally written for full orchestra on a commission from the priest Don José Sáenz de Santa María at the Cathedral of Cadiz, Spain, the work was premiered in 1786. The premiere, an early example of a site-specific, theatricalized musical performance, was imbued with drama: the church was hung with black cloth to cut out the midday sun, and in the darkness, illuminated by a single lamp, the priest recited the sayings of Jesus on the cross, taken from the four gospels, and offered discourses on these words, alternating with movements of Haydn’s new work.

At this point in his life, Haydn was a successful and beloved composer, known for his witty and energetic music, yet with this commission Haydn produced an unusually dark and introspective work. It is transparent music that conveys profundity through a simplicity of means. Its largely homophonic textures traverse a vast range of emotions as the piece moves through a series of surprising and breathtaking transitions to distant keys. Haydn’s own string quartet version of thework, written in 1787, has a particular intimacy and fragility to it. This arrangement has become the most performed version of the piece and string quartets have approached it in various ways: performing it without text, choosing alternate, historical readings, or commissioning new poetry for it.

The Aizuri Quartet wanted to treat the Haydn not as a distant masterpiece to be revered from afar, but as a work that could be humanized and illuminated through contemporary poetry. Despite being of a different world and time, the themes of sacrifice, abandonment, community and forgiveness expressed in the Haydn are contemporary and global.

The combination of clarity and deep feeling that characterizes Haydn’s music is reflected in the directness and insight of Denice Frohman’s poetry, and the Aizuri Quartet was eager to work with her again after an earlier collaboration in Philadelphia in 2014. Denice has distilled each of the original utterances into one essential word: mercy, paradise, relationship, abandonment, need, triumph, and reunion. Written in response to each of these words, the poems draw from her recent experiences, creating a series of snapshots that capture contemporary life and trace the arc of our humanity in the context of this current political moment of resistance.

The fundamental juxtapositions that characterize Haydn’s music, the unresolved combination of tragedy and hope, find a parallel in the questions raised within Denice’s poetry. When each day feels like a new rupture, what about ourselves must be preserved? What must be resurrected?And what must be  abandoned completely? The Haydn was initially performed for a religious community. We hope that this performance can create a new sense of community and present day connection for the audience.