Millions of Christians around the world will hear the “Seven Last Words of Christ” over the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours. I heard them this week and understood them in a wholly different way.
While I have participated in a number of contexts in which these words of Christ have been read, sung and even preached, this week I experienced them in word and music in one of the most moving presentations of the seven words that I’ve ever heard. The occasion was the performance on Tuesday evening of the Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) symphony, “Opus 51– The Seven Last Words of Christ.” Haydn’s work was originally composed in 1786 and first presented on Good Friday in 1787. The original setting was the austere underground grotto of Santa Cueva (Spain) which was completely dark but for the wick of a single lamp, hung from the ceiling. Following the moving Introduction the bishop recited the first of the seven words, moved to the altar and there knelt quietly during the sonata. The bishops words served as a spoken meditation for the original music. Each of the seven words was introduced by the bishop then each sonata was played.
Though the symphony was originally composed for a full orchestra Haydn crafted an alternate version for a string quartet in 1887. In the hands of a quartet the music has taken on a heightened intimacy which the larger orchestra cannot match. This music is deeply emotional and has a profound psychological impact upon the careful listener. With only four instruments – two violins, a viola and a cello – the Haydn piece uses subtle and moving variations of timbre, voicing, rhythm, and tempo. This may be why music historians believe that the simplest version of Haydn is also the most affecting.
My experience with this music last Tuesday evening allowed me to hear the famous symphony live, with amazingly good dramatic readers and some deeply personal narratives. The presentation of “The Seven Last Words of Christ” I heard was performed by the Vermeer String Quartet in the Rosary Chapel at Dominican University in Park Forest, Illinois. (Dominican has an excellent arts program and has a performing arts center that is partially funded by the Oak Park Area Arts Council in partnership with the villages of Oak Park, River Forest and Park Forest, three near western suburbs of Chicago.
The Vermeer String Quartet has performed in major cities all over the world. Decades ago the Vermeer earned a reputation as one of the greatest string quartets in the world. They have performed over 200 works. The quartet “retired” in 2007 so this week’s performance was a rare opportunity to hear them play. Sadly the Vermeer’s cellist, Marc Johnson, died earlier this week. While the quartet mourned their great loss Marc was replaced by a substitute. The group played, quite obviously, with a heavy heart. This made this memorable evening fitting to both the music and the unique occasion.
As with Haydn’s original presentation in 1787 each of the seven last words was introduced by reading the biblical text/context and through a short homily/meditation. The speakers at this year’s presentation included Martin Marty and Jeremiah Wright. (Yes, the Jeremiah Wright who was President Obama’s pastor in Chicago.) A presentation by Jean Bethke Elshtain, who passed away in August, was movingly read by her son, Eric. Elshtain was a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago for many years. She was widely known for her sharp, biblically-informed, mind and her deep Christian faith. The president of Dominican University, Dr. Donna Carroll, also spoke eloquently. The speaker who moved me the most deeply was Jeanne Bishop, a respected advocate for the rights of a fair trial and a leading public defender. Jeanne’s sister and brother-in-law were brutally shot in 1990 by a 16-year old home invader. Jeanne spoke from the text: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” She related the story of her ongoing forgiveness of the young man, now forty years of age, who killed her sister and brother-in-law in 1990. The killer shot the husband in the back of the head and the wife in the belly where she carried a young unborn child. He intentionally made sure that he brutally killed the entire family in one evening. That teen is now serving a life sentence for killing Jeanne’s family. Her story gripped me because it so powerfully underscores the words of our Lord about forgiveness. It reminded me of the great love of God, and of just how small our love really is. (Readers will know that I am writing a book currently on this subject.)
Tomorrow I will say more about the Haydn symphony: “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” I will comment further on the presentation I heard Tuesday. You can listen to the entire concert, including the mediations, on Good Friday evening at 8:00 p.m. (CDT) on WFMT in Chicago. The station can be heard on the web at https://www.wfmt.com. I believe you would find this a most moving program if you listen carefully to the entire program, which lasts about 90 minutes.