Arts & Events

Alexander Quartet Performs Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 06, 2018 - 02:32:00 PM

In 1785-86, Joseph Haydn received a commission from the Cathedral of Cadiz in Spain to compose music to accompany the reading – on Good Friday, 1787 – of the seven last words of Christ on the cross. Haydn completed an orchestral score that was performed on Good Friday, 1787, in the grotto Chapel of Santa Cueva beneath the Cathedral of Cadiz. Haydn’s score was also performed almost simultaneously in Vienna and Bonn. Shortly thereafter, wishing to give his score expanded accessibility, Haydn transcribed it for string quartet; and this version is the one most frequently heard today. On Good Friday, March 30, the Alexander Quartet performed Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. The Alexander Quartet is comprised of Zakarias Grafilo, violin, Frederick Lifsitz, violin, Paul Yarborough, viola, and Sandy Wilson, cello.  

Haydn’s music includes an introduction, seven slow movements, and a fast finale representing the earthquake that shook Calgary immediately after Christ’s crucifixion. Each of the seven movements is preceded by a brief commentary read by a church cleric. At Grace Cathedral, the reader was the Very Reverend Alan Jones, who presented a surprisingly eclectic and offbeat group of texts. Haydn’s Introduction opens dramatically, then proceeds majestically. The first movement, set to the words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” is lyrical but dramatically accented. The second movement, evoking Paradise, features ascending passages. The third, set to the words “Mother, behold your son,” is tender, though there is sudden drama in the cello. 

The fourth movement, set to “My God, Why have you forsaken me?,” is quite agitated, with disturbing appoggiaturas. No. 5, “I thirst,” features soft, almost ponderous playing from the Alexander Quartet. The sixth movement, “It is finished,” features pizzicato tenderness mixed with forceful drama. The seventh movement is rendered by the Alexander Quartet with a pervading sense of fulfillment and calm, and the concluding Earthquake music, unlike the seven slow movements, is taken at a very fast pace and is full of agitated drama that is almost Beethovenesque. Throughout the Alexander Quartet’s rendition of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ the writing for cello stood out, and cellist Sandy Wilson’s playing was particularly expressive.