From the 16th century to the present, at least 20 composers have created settings of The Seven Last Words of Christ — the seven short phrases uttered by Jesus on the cross, according to the four gospels in the New Testament. Easily the best known of these is a version by Franz Joseph Haydn that was commissioned in 1783 for the Good Friday service at the Holy Cave Oratory in Cádiz, Spain, titled The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross.

Few conductors have been more ardent champions of this highly unusual work than Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who has performed it with the Berlin Philharmonic, La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. In a special pre-Lenten concert Feb. 17 at Holy Name Cathedral, 735 N. State, he will lead the CSO in just its second performance of the piece since 1979. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, will offer reflections between the work’s nine movements.

Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, will offer reflections between the nine movements of Haydn's Seven Last Words.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, will offer reflections between the nine movements of Haydn’s Seven Last Words.

Cupich’s participation is in keeping with the spirit of the original commission, which called on Haydn to write music for the intervals between the bishop’s Good Friday pronouncements of the sacred text and accompanying discourse in a darkened church. Figuring out how to accommodate this distinctive liturgical set-up was challenging, as the composer recounted in a preface he wrote for the work’s 1801 edition: “My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting 10 minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.”

There are several versions of the work, which begins with an introduction, continues with seven sonata-form reflections on the words and concludes with Haydn’s boisterous evocation of the earthquake that is said to have occurred at the time of Christ’s death. After creating the original composition for orchestra (which will be heard Feb. 19), Haydn adapted it for string quartet in 1787 (probably the most frequently heard permutation), transformed it into an oratorio in 1796 with vocal soloists and chorus, and approved a version for solo piano.

In whatever form it is heard, Seven Last Words has the potential to be a deeply moving experience. “This is the meditation of a man who hears Christ crying,” said Muti in a 2000 interview ahead of a performance of the piece at La Scala. “In it is the panic of death, but in the introduction one hears heaven: free, infinite and full of peace. God was there. And He came down to earth to die as a man like this. Is it ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ to see this and be moved by these events? It seems to me that one is seized simply because he is a man.”

In conducting this piece, Muti said in that same interview, he tries to move around as little as possible and seeks essentially to disappear on the podium. “The audience should not look at us, but at the crucifix, and read those pages or else look inside themselves,” he said. “It is always the case, but on this occasion it is inevitable, that one pours into the performance all the feelings that have accumulated in one’s life, the happy experiences and those that are not so happy. There is the earthquake at the end of everything, so abrupt, unadorned, and I should say, tremendous. Death. Our experience is the name that we give to our errors. I know this well. A man with a great deal of experience is a man who has made a great deal of mistakes. And in the end that earthquake dissolves once again in heaven, in a foretaste of peace.”

Muti’s long history with this infrequently programmed piece includes a 1982 live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, which remains available on the EMI Classics label, and one from 1993 on the Philips label with the Berlin Philharmonic. “A full measure of drama and atmosphere” can be heard in the latter take, wrote New York Times music critic James Ostreich in 1995.

The 1982 performance occurred at the world-renowned Salzburg Festival as a counterpart to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and it was a daring repertoire choice, as a critic for the Vienna Kurier made clear in a review titled “Courageous and with Charisma”: “If the German word mutig [courageous] did not already exist, it would have to be invented to characterize the Italian maestro.  . . . Here is a man on the rostrum who is wary of the traditions as they have been handed down to us; instead, he will rummage in manuscripts in order to discover composers’ true intentions. And when choosing a program of works, he does not shy away from difficult pieces, either.”

More praise came from a critic for the Salzburger Nachrichten, who wrote, “Muti allowed no moment of boredom to creep in, re-creating Haydn’s work as deeply appreciated piece of confessional music.”

And a critic for the Tiroler Tageszeitung observed that as a Neapolitan, Muti has an innate feel for the religious in music. “Despite the secular location, Muti succeeded in bringing to a relatively worldly audience an aesthetic and spiritual sense of the religious, sublimated into a higher level of spirituality. It goes without saying, of course, that such a feat is only possible with an orchestra of caliber of the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra which can reduce its volume to the whispered pianissimo of a chamber ensemble and then increase it to the mighty sound required in the Terremoto, a musical earthquake which resounds at Christ’s words, ‘Into they hands I commit my spirit.’”

After a wait of nearly 40 years, Chicago audiences will have a chance to hear this singular work that has meant so much to Muti during his distinguished career.

Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.

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