This Good Friday afternoon, we at TAI have found ourselves gravitating to some of the powerful classical music produced to mark this darkest and most triumphant day for Christians.
This year, we’re listening to Joseph Haydn’s setting of The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross (1787), the German composer’s masterful setting of the seven last “words”, or short phrases, that the canonical Gospels record Jesus saying while crucified:
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
- “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
- “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” (John 19:26–27)
- “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)
- “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
- “It is finished.” (John 19:29-30)
- “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
(Translation: English Standard Version via Wikipedia)
Many great artists have set these phrases to music, but Haydn’s is almost certainly the pinnacle of such attempts. Originally written as orchestral music to be played in between the priest’s reading of the verses, Haydn later expanded it to a choral setting in which each is followed by a selection of German pietist poetry.
From the opening instrumental introduction, the piece is suffused with sorrow of what is going on. Good Friday offers a lot of musical inspiration. If you want high drama that evokes injustice and guilt (in Christian thought, our own sins are the reason Jesus had to suffer and die) there is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; for contemplation of atonement there are various settings of the Penitential Psalms, particularly the Orlando de Lassus complete version and Allegri’s haunting “Miserere mei.” But for sorrow at the judicial murder of an innocent man and God, you cannot beat Haydn.
A few moments stand out: the music for “Vater, vergib ihnen” (“Father, forgive them”) swells plaintively upward on both “Father” and “forgive”, and really does sound like a man slowly suffocating summoning strength to say something vital; it’s gut-wrenching. The goodbye to Mary and John is tragic and tender. And then there’s the “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is finished”). This phrase bears multiple meanings that don’t always come through in English—they have to bear the sense of “I’ve done it!” as well as of “my life is over.” (Our classically inclined readers may recognize both senses in the Latin completus est or the Greek tetelestai; those of a literary bent might think of what it means for an author to say “I’ve finished a book.”) To get at all angles, Haydn starts with a beaten, broken es ist vollbracht, then repeats it in a more triumphant tone, and finally, a short while later, forte and backed with brass, emphatically, underscoring the momentousness of the close of Christ’s life.
The excellent recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien is available on Spotify and YouTube:
If you stick with it until the end, you’ll hear one of the most abrupt endings in classical music (Haydn’s recreation of an earthquake); Good Friday does not resolve but simply ends, the grimness hanging in the air until the resurrection and Easter.
Contemplation isn’t something that comes easily nowadays, but music like this can help us transition from worldly bustle and digital chatter to meditation on matters of deeper importance. (If Haydn’s music moves you to pick up a book, a fitting companion is Richard John Neuhaus’s Death on a Friday Afternoon (2000), one of the more impactful modern considerations of the same subject.) Other recommendations from members of our staff included Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s stunning Stabat Mater (1736), Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah (1560), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (1791). Insofar as one can say it, happy Good Friday, everyone.