Haydn’s Last Words from organist Richard Apperley at St Paul’s

Great Music 2011: Organ recital series

Haydn’s Seven last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze)

Richard Apperley (Assistant organist, Cathedral of St Paul)

Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 15 April 12.45

The great days of a flourishing market for transcriptions of symphonies and opera chunks for the organ, or the piano, might have passed, but there remains a lingering suspicion of the practice, and an almost automatic disposition to find them improper and tasteless.

But famous successful cases must make it dangerous and silly to denigrate them as a species.

Certainly, this was an example that called for open ears and a readiness to be delighted; for that is what I was.

There are several versions of the work that was written in 1786 to a commission from the Bishop of Cadiz for performance in the Grotto Santa Cueva near Cádiz. The original was for orchestra, and Haydn later arranged it as an oratorio with both solo and choral vocal forces, and there are reduced versions for string quartet and solo piano. There is some doubt about the authenticity of the string quartet version, which is the most commonly played. Incidentally there is a version on CD from Jordi Savall’s Le Concert des Nations recorded in 2006 at the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz.

I don’t know which source Apperley used for his arrangement. It was not the longest version as the entire performance lasted only about 45 minutes; it can otherwise take over an hour.

It’s a work comprising an introduction and seven ‘sonatas’, plus (for the orchestral version) a postlude depicting an earthquake

The introduction and seven sonatas are as follows:

Introduzione, D minor, Maestoso ed Adagio 

Sonata I (‘Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt’; Father forgive them for they know not what they do), B flat, Largo  

Sonata II (‘Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso’; Today you will be with me in Paradise), C minor, Grave e cantabile, ending in C major

Sonata III (‘Mulier, ecce filius tuus’; Behold your son, behold your mother), E major, Grave

Sonata IV (‘Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me’; My God, my God, why have you forsaken me), F minor, Largo

Sonata V (‘Sitio’; I thirst), A major, Adagio

Sonata VI (‘Consummatum est’; It is foinished’), G minor, Lento, ending in G major

Sonata VII (‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum’; Father into your hands I commit my spirit), E flat, Largo

And the original orchestral version had a final movement – an earthquake, not inappropriate after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 30 years earlier.

Il terremoto, C minor, Presto e con tutta la forza

(For which I am indebted to Wikipedia)

Wikipedia also contains interesting material on the sources of the seven ‘Words’ under ‘Sayings of Jesus on the Cross’ and much other related scholarship, via links.

I have only been familiar with the string quartet version. This arrangement came as a surprise on account of the variety of colours that are available on a large organ and which Apperley applied with great skill and taste. The Introduction was immediately arresting, shifting from bold diapason pronouncements to lightly articulated passage in high registers. There was a clear Bachian quality, but that was always coloured by sounds possible only on a post-19th century organ distinctly influenced by Franck and Vierne and Reger and so on.

The first sonata was lit with beautiful high-lying melody in delicate, sensitive arrangement. The second is more serious in tone, yet there is light in the depiction of Paradise in thoughtful little phrases on celestial flute stops.

The surprising thing about the piece is the absence of any particularly tragic or gloomy episodes. Haydn’s view of the Crucifixion seems to be of an event that should have brought a new era of enlightenment and improvement in the behaviour of men and nations. And Haydn, for the sake of the music, could forget that nothing of the sort had happened.

The third sonata, ‘Mother, behold your son’ (misnamed in the programme leaflet) is depicted through soft, sustained chords, interrupted by short phrases, and underpinned by a beautiful melody. A far cry from the expression of this episode in the multiple settings of the Stabat Mater.

Even in the most heart-rending words, in the fourth sonata, the writing is dominated by ascending scales and arpeggios, suggesting hope. The fifth sonata displayed the most imaginative range of registrations, for which the cathedral organ seemed ideally designed. Though not regarded by the experts as the finest organ in the city, its clarity, brilliance and variety are always a source of delight, to me at least.

Most impressive was the way the organ captured the quite beautiful, subsiding, moving phrases with which the last sonata ends.

As if to denigrate the work, the fact that it is a series of adagios and largos is sometimes used against it, but tempo is only one of many elements in music, and the over-riding feeling of humanity, hope and sanguinity that infuse the whole work give it an emotional depth as well as a lightening of the spirit.

And this organ arrangement and Apperley’s playing really surprised me by the way all of that was so brilliantly and musically captured. The recital was simply a great delight. How sad that so few were there!

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