Franz Joseph Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross is seldom heard in the United States. Apparently, this miraculous work, commissioned in 1786 for a Good Friday performance at the Cádiz Cathedral in Spain, is just too long, dark and unrelentingly somber for American tastes.
Yet that didn't stop the mighty Vienna Philharmonic from programming the piece for an appearance at New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral on March 17, 2002. That concert marked the six-month anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Haydn's universal message of suffering, hope and redemption proved to be exactly what New Yorkers wanted to hear at that time, since more than 3,000 of them packed into the cathedral that Sunday evening.
The performance certainly made a lasting impression on a young concertgoer named Dean Whiteside. "The Vienna Philharmonic played the Seven Last Words without a conductor," says Whiteside. "But there was such unanimity of spirit in the orchestra's playing that I couldn't get the music out of my mind."
No wonder Whiteside — a 2010 graduate of the Blair School of Music — went on to become a conductor. This weekend, he's returning to his alma mater to conduct the Seven Last Words of Christ with the Nashville Sinfonietta, an ensemble he founded several years ago with Nashville Symphony principal English horn player Roger Wiesmeyer. The ensemble specializes in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
Haydn's masterpiece may be a rarity in America, but it's frequently performed in Europe, especially during the Lenten season. In fact, Whiteside recently heard the piece in Vienna, but he didn't care for the performance.
"The orchestra played it as a straightforward concert piece, and I found that to be unsatisfactory," says Whiteside. "I don't think you have to play Seven Last Words as a strictly religious piece, and in fact our performance will be more secular. Still, the piece does benefit from performances that suggest ritual and ceremony."
That's hardly surprising, given the work's origins. The piece was commissioned, after all, by the Roman Catholic Church, which knows a thing or two about ritual. Indeed, the Cádiz Cathedral put on quite a show at the work's premiere.
The entire church was draped in black cloth, and only the presence of a single lamp, hung from the ceiling, broke the darkness. At noon, the front door was closed, and a bishop ascended the pulpit, where he uttered the first of Christ's seven last words (or sayings), namely, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The bishop briefly discussed the saying, descended the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. An orchestra then played the first of Haydn's seven slow movements — the work also includes a short introduction and a fast and furious finale titled "Earthquake." The entire nine-movement work takes more than an hour to perform.
Haydn was the most famous and successful composer of his day (Mozart idolized him, and Beethoven became his student), so it was hardly surprising that Seven Last Words became — by the standards of the time — a huge hit. He was paid handsomely for the piece — the church presented him with a cake filled with gold coins, which gave new meaning to that old saying about having your cake and, well, you know. Different versions of the piece for string quartet, chorus and piano were also published.
For his performance this Saturday at Ingram Hall, Whiteside will conduct Haydn's original 1786 orchestral arrangement. The concert will include some lighting effects, a nod to the work's premiere in Cádiz. In lieu of a bishop, the performance will feature Blair School of Music lecturer Michael Hime as a reader. Whether Hime plans to fall to his knees is not known.
Whiteside wanted his performance to focus more on the universal themes of Seven Last Words than on its sacred message, so he approached Vanderbilt University English professor Rick Hilles to write seven original poems as a substitute for the sayings from the gospel. One suspects that Haydn would have approved, given that he was a product of the Age of Enlightenment.
Hilles says he initially set aside the gospel sayings and attempted to write poems that made no reference to the words traditionally ascribed to Christ. But some of these words eventually did find their way back into his verse. "I hope that my poetry has created an expanded idea of what the sacred is all about," says Hilles. "And I hope the poems have both a sacred and secular appeal."
That's exactly what a contemporary performance of Seven Last Words should do, Whiteside says.
"As modern people, we should be able to listen to this work in our own way," he says. "It's a work that needs to speak to our time."