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The composer who wants the last word

By Rumwold Leigh
Tuesday, April 6
Haydn at the German Lutheran Church, Tbilisi

On April 3, Holy Saturday, the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gorky Street, Tbilisi hosted a performance by Shavleg Shilakadze and his orchestra and chorus of the full choral version of Joseph Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross." Of course it did. This small, octagonal church did more than the Authentic Movement ever could to convey exactly what Haydn intended.

Haydn is like fish you would never recognise the live version if you only knew the processed one. Recorded Haydn is distinguished by classical smoothness and comes with the weight of historical knowledge of what came after. Sitting just in front of a chamber orchestra and full choir the urgency of this music, using its accepted forms to the full, makes a more immediate impression. Haydn spent most of his life as a court composer in Hungary, and therefore wrote for a select audience, all of whom he knew, in small auditoriums. Consequently his work is written for performance in such a hall even if it now occupies vast concert stages. The subtleties revealed by performing it in a small venue demonstrate that Haydn knew his audience, and how to impress it, and the audience knew he knew and was gratified. At the same time he strove to say what he wanted to say within the boundaries of 'good taste' sanctified as inviolable by the Age of Reason, and the limitations of an audience more interested in the occasion than the music. Like the verse of his contemporary William Cowper the music strains at the bit, suggesting that the world is not as obviously right as it thinks it is, but no one can dare say it.

This full choral version of the Seven Last Words dates from 1796, and results from Haydn hearing an adaptation of his original orchestral version, commissioned by a church in Spain in 1787. The adaptation consisted of pious German verses which replaced the sermon originally designed to be delivered as an introduction to each of the seven phrases Christ delivered as He was being crucified "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," etcetera. After the orchestral introduction which does not quite prepare you for what is to come a Georgian choir several ranks deep rises and declaims the libretto in ringing harmonies which fully express the agony and the triumph through adversity the crucifixion was. However the contrast between the full-throated choir and the somewhat complacent orchestral setting demonstrates what the real import of the piece is.

Haydn is likening himself to Christ he is a distinguished court composer, and a very wealthy one, but this places constraints on him which would sap the spirit of anyone. He can't develop as he wants, merely confirm the taste of his patrons, or leave. As the voices rise above the notes Haydn's own self-inflicted crucifixion becomes clear. He has fulfilled his purpose and as a person been sacrificed for it. It is not a coincidence that in this meticulously arranged piece a solo male voice begins the lament of "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" The piece as a whole is about the words of one individual, but all the other parts they are put in the mouths of several individuals of both genders, and backing. Good humoured as Haydn reputedly was, it is obvious who God has forsaken. 'At the end you will all say how good this was, and clap, and feel spiritually uplifted. But have you heard anything? Will you ever hear what I want you to hear, even if I am allowed to say it?' All creative people know what that is about, everyone with a family, everyone with neighbours. Thus we enter into the crucifixion and its practical application in daily life. Through this we achieve glory, but that is not often obvious in the middle of the situation.

It is always possible to read too much into pieces of music. It is also possible that there is more to them than we wish to think. The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross is not a dispassionate rendering of a biblical text, as if it is being read in church, but a demonstration of why it matters. But it needs the right setting and the right people to bring it out, and on this occasion it got them, to the merit of Georgia, the German church in Tbilisi and above all the performers, who as the time of Haydn demanded knew their purpose, fulfilled it correctly, and confirmed us all in being right but now knowing what we were right about.