How a church in Cadiz staged a Haydn world premiere
The Oratorio Santa Cueva (Holy Cave) in Cadiz, with paintings by Goya, is a Baroque gem, unchanged since it was built in 1783. A sacred string quartet by Joseph Haydn, based on a piece commissioned for this church, plays on a continuous loop.
The Oratorio consists of two chapels: the low chapel dedicated to the Passion and the high one to the Holy Sacrament. It is considered to be one of the finest monuments of Spanish art, and the high point of the neo-classical style in Cadiz.
As for Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross”, written for this church for Holy Week, the composer himself considered it one of his most successful scores.
The work’s origins were in earthquakes in Peru in 1687. A Jesuit priest there introduced, as a response to the disaster, a Good Friday devotion based on the seven utterances that the Gospels say Jesus made from the cross.
This new devotional service was picked up from colonial Peru and taken to Spain, originally in the seaport of Cádiz. In 1786 city clergy commissioned Haydn to write music based on the words of Jesus.
The original commission to Haydn was for an orchestral piece, interspersed with readings from the Bible and priestly meditations. It was performed, in 1786, at the Good Friday service at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva.
Haydn later explained the challenge he faced as a composer.
“It was customary [in Cádiz] to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness.
“At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners….”
The priest who commissioned the work, Don José Sáenz de Santa María, is said to have paid Haydn by sending the composer a cake. Haydn discovered it was filled with gold coins.
This original orchestral version remains the least known of all. It was published in 1787 and then performed in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. In 1787 Haydn adapted it for string quartet (the version you will hear on a continuous loop in the church today, and the one performed most widely these days) and in 1796 as an oratorio (with soloists and a choir). This version of the Seven Last Words was a favourite among Victorian and Edwardian choral societies. It has been described as the composer’s Haydn’s most neglected choral masterpiece. Haydn also approved a version for solo piano.
The work has nine movements. Seven “sonatas”— slow meditative sections, some of them very bleak —are bookended by a slow introduction and the piece’s conclusion, which depicts the earthquake that the Gospels describe as marking the death of Jesus. (Might it also be a nod to the Peruvian earthquake?) This makes a spectacular effect in some recorded versions. (The seven sections are: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Surely, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” “Woman, behold your son! Behold your mother!” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “I thirst.” “It is finished!” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”)
In the 19th century, the Good Friday Three Hours Devotion was taken up in Protestant churches. The “Last Words” entered the concert repertory.
Today it may commonly be heard during Holy Week not as a straight concert performance, but interspersed with speakers delivering meditations on each of Jesus’ utterances.
My article on Cadiz.