Readers who did not grow up in a liturgical tradition are not as likely to have experienced the seven last words of Christ in a Holy Week context. I had preached at Good Friday services but my experience Tuesday evening at Dominican University, where I heard a string quartet play Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” was a complete immersion experience in the richness of a Holy Week celebration. It is in this spirit that I encourage you to listen to the broadcast of this event tonight, at 8 p.m., on WFMT in Chicago. You can access the broadcast on the web at: https://www.wfmt.com.
Franz Joseph Haydn considered “The Seven Last Words of Christ” to be one of his greatest works. Haydn’s profound religious convictions informed this music deeply. Without a deep understanding of what Haydn actually did in this music it is hard to appreciate just how well he accomplished his purpose. Haydn wrote: “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.” Can instrumental music reach the soul in ways that words cannot? I think so but “the preaching of the gospel” is still essential. In the Haydn concert I experienced words that were clear and Christ-centered, at least on the whole. Haydn’s words express what I felt upon hearing this presentation of his work on Tuesday evening. It is a deeply intense presentation. If you can gain a better understanding of the music itself you will likely experience it more personally when you hear it. Before the symphony was played I heard a one-hour lecture on the entire piece given by viola player Richard Young, himself of the Vermeer String Quartet. Young explained each section and the deep mysteries that Haydn sought to express with his amazing music. I wish you could hear this lecture but so far as I know it is not available.
To hear the music itself is magnificent, even without the Richard Young lecture that preceded it. But without hearing these introductory words you are not likely to fully appreciate what the artist “said” with his music. When the (verbally spoken) seven last words of Christ are included in the program you will “feel” a great deal of the composer’s inspiration. I hope those who listen will be able to enter into the mysteries of holy faith in a fully human way.
Richard Young has written, “Though its message is decidedly Christian, it transcends the focus of any particular faith.” While I understand his point I do not agree. How can I appreciate the culture and richness of this great symphony without the context of the original, an original so admittedly rooted in holy mysteries of Christian faith? The music may transcend religious lines, as Young suggests, but the entire symphony is clearly meant to inspire and thrill Christians who know the Christ who died for their salvation.
Martin Marty wrote, in a postlude for the Haydn symphony published in the program for Tuesday’s presentation by the Vermeer String Quartet:
Ages have passed, and Jesus’ seven last words resound not as mere words but as “cries;” as announcements, as it were; declarations of his perfect love that still reshapes an imperfect world and many lives within it. Reinforced by Haydn’s music, or reinforcing the music, the remembered cries and the silence that surrounds this love still haunt many and lure more.
Christ’s death, and the words he spoke from the cross, “are declarations of his perfect love.” These declarations, as Marty notes, are still powerful enough to reshape the world by changing lives.
Remember, you can hear the Haydn symphony tonight at 8:00 p.m. (CDT) at: https://www.wfmt.com.