The “Seven Last Words of Christ” is often considered to be Haydn”s darkest and most profound work. Any ensemble that tackles the piece has their work cut out for it consisting of long, solemn movements, it requires a great deal of patience on the part of the musician and the audience. But with the Brentano String Quartet and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate Mark Strand at the helm, the “Seven Last Words of Christ” has the potential to be one of the most uplifting concerts of the year. This Sunday, the audience will be treated to an ambitious fusion of music and poetry.
Challenging our views of Christ and his last hours on the cross, Strand adopted the Gospel of Thomas as a basis for his poems. This original poetry, read between the movements of Haydn”s piece, has been a two-year, labor-intensive project for Strand. Differing from the Canonical versions of Christ”s last words that appear in the New Testament, the Gospel of Thomas focuses on Christ as a wise man, rather than a divinity. “They are very poetic, they have subjectivity,” said Strand. “You get a sense of Jesus as a poet or a gifted preacher.”
For Strand, composing poems to the “Seven Last Words of Christ” was both a new and rewarding experience. Though his works have often been set to music, this was his first commission in which he interpreted a previously written orchestral piece. In doing research with the Gospels and other early Christian texts, Strand worked hard to avoid clichs in his poetry. “You can”t tell the story againyou have to do something else, otherwise you may as well stick with the original,” he said. “The piece has a biblical air about it, but at the same time, it”s a contemporary poem.”
Undertaking such a project was also challenging to the Brentano String Quartet, who in a relatively short time has risen to the pinnacle of success. Currently the Quartet-in-Residence at Princeton and NYU, the members of Brentano pride themselves on their interest in contemporary music. Always seeking to adopt new musical ideas, Brentano commissioned Strand to write poetry to Haydn”s piece. “With seven slow movements, it”s difficult to concentrate and listen to without some intervening speaking,” said Brentano violinist Mark Steinberg. “We wanted something that would be interesting and not completely religious.”
Haydn”s “Seven Last Words” actually originated as an orchestral work and has taken several forms: Whether performed by solo piano, chorus or string quartet, the piece represented a significant departure for the composer. The back-and-forth musical conversations characteristic of Haydn”s other string quartets are noticeably absent from “Seven Last Words.” “The texture is really very simple mostly melody and accompaniment,” said Steinberg. “The surface of the music is not at all complicated, but the expression of the music is very profound and deep.”
After many months of preparation, Brentano and Strand are eager to introduce this original show to Ann Arbor. Both are confident in the ability of the music and poetry to play off each other and they should be. With these artists as Haydn”s interpreters, the audience can definitely look forward to an otherworldly performance. “I think it”s going to shed a new light on the piece,” said Steinberg. “It”s going to give people a wonderful two-art experience.”