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Composed: 1786-1787
Length: c. 60 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

By the 1780s, Haydn was a celebrity throughout Europe, with commissions from far beyond Esterházy – and even Viennese – bounds. Perhaps the most unusual of these came in a letter in Latin from a cleric at the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz, Spain, in 1786, requesting an orchestral piece for use in Good Friday services.

The plan was for the contemporary equivalent of a dramatic multi-media work, based on the seven phrases Christ spoke from the cross as recorded in The Bible. The darkened church would be draped in black throughout, with only a single central lamp. Haydn’s music would introduce the proceedings, and then the presiding priest would pronounce the first words, with a brief meditation, followed by a piece by Haydn expressing the text musically. The other six words, with corresponding music, followed in sequence, with a concluding piece depicting the earthquake that occurred at Christ’s death.

The potential for a profoundly moving spiritual experience was obvious to the composer, but even he was surprised by the popularity his music quickly achieved. The first public performance was on Good Friday, April 6, 1787, in Cádiz, but Haydn had arranged private previews in Vienna and Bonn. The publisher Artaria snapped up the work immediately, and also issued a string quartet arrangement by Haydn for amateur performances, plus a piano reduction approved by the composer. (Haydn also later arranged it as an oratorio, adding chorus and vocal soloists to sing a libretto created from the scriptural texts by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who later supplied the librettos for Haydn’s oratorios The Creation and The Seasons. This had its premiere in Vienna on March 29, 1796.)

The D-minor Introduction is starkly dramatic and obsessed with dotted rhythms, whether in music of majestic portent or in little sighing motives. The scoring is somber – no flutes or trumpets – and the manner almost Handelian, though the voice is pure Haydn.

Haydn labeled each of the seven pieces depicting the seven words or scenes as “Sonata.” “Each Sonata, or each setting of the text, is expressed only by instrumental music, but in such a way that it creates the most profound impression on even the most inexperienced listener,” Haydn wrote to the English publisher William Forster two days after the Cádiz premiere. Each of these slow movements is in the tonally-defined Classical sonata form as well, often in Haydn’s characteristic monothematic approach.

Sonata No. 1 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) begins lyrically in B-flat major but soon dives into chromatically turbulent waters. The gravely, then tenderly, consoling second (“Today you will be with me in Paradise”) is a full-fledged sonata form with two themes and even a repeated exposition. The flute makes its first appearance in the Sonata No. 3 (“Woman, behold your son”), another richly developed full sonata form, its prevailing serenity subtly shaken with harmonic and metrical displacements. The rhetorical despair of the Sonata No. 4 in F minor (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) gives way to emotionally exhausted silences and lonely solo lines. The opening charm of the Fifth Sonata (“I thirst”), with its falling two-note motive over pizzicatos, is subverted by the thirsting insistence of the constant eighth-note motion and vehement contrasts. The sternly fated, contrapuntally motivated Sixth Sonata (“It is finished”) finds acceptance with the closing change to major mode. The highly symphonic Sonata No. 8 (“Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit”) fades away before the convulsion of the earthquake, which arrives with trumpets and drums and much shaking – “con tutta la forza” – to release the accumulated tension.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.