When the Brentano String Quartet performed Haydn’s “Seven Last Words,” Op. 51 as part of the 2023 Aspect Chamber Music series, they gave us something unique in the classical music canon. Haydn composed these pieces not for the concert hall or the salon, but for a specific church service. They were meant to go between a series of sermons – sermons about the final words that, according to the various Gospels, Jesus spoke on the cross.
There were no sermons on the program Thursday night at Bohemian National Hall. Instead, poet Ruth Padel read her poems on the subject, a sequence called “Seven Words and an Earthquake” from her 2014 volume Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth. On stage were two violins, a viola and a cello – no oud. But the combination of the poetry and the music was magical.
As Padel, also a noted scholar, has said, “Haydn is…giving us [musical] images for all these different words that Christ is said to [have spoken].” And, whether performed by an orchestra or in the string quartet version, the movements are all slow (save one) – so that, Padel says, “you could really think about what is happening in this Holy Week,” when churchgoers would hear those sermons.
Haydn and Poetry
The tempos may have been slow, but there was nothing leisurely in the energy. The Brentano Quartet’s warm, wiry performances, combined with Padel’s graphic, compellingly read imagery of Jesus’ physical suffering, added up to a concert infused with emotional force, and greater than the sum of its parts.
The long opening poem, “Forgiveness,” concludes: “There’s more where that came from, the whole human brew / of jealousy and spite. So you displace. You think of the others.” These poems depict a cycle of suffering, despair, concern for others, and forgiveness that speaks to us all – and indeed to our better natures. They reflect how the mythical yet very human story of Jesus’ suffering – like poetry, like music – can be for all, not just for believing Christians.
In the first of the seven sonatas the musicians drew a solemn sweetness from their instruments and established an easy and precise sense of space. Maybe it was the physicality of the poetic imagery, but their efforts emanated a muscular aura too – in the plucked quarter-note accompaniment to the delicate melody in the second sonata, for example. And as they dug into the gorgeous harmonies of the third, I thought of Beethoven’s middle quartets.
In Padel’s fourth and fifth poems, Jesus finally asks why God has forsaken him and gasps “I thirst.” In the music’s dynamics and consistently resonant tone, I could hear the yearning in the fourth sonata, and the awful shrieks of pain in the fifth. In “Abandonment,” the poem that accompanies the fourth sonata, Padel glosses: “This is the ocean floor of all you’ve been – // that you’re alone with pain, that’s what you’re for. / No angels around now…”
Done, Not Done
The remarkable poem that goes with the sixth sonata bears the title “Fulfilment” and includes the lines: “We’re all here, in our own sequences, the body / in sepsis and collapse. But a white bird comes / like quartz through coal-dark sky.” After describing some of the horrors of crucifixion, the lyric ends: “you’re nearly there / and you whisper, Done. It’s done. Raw lines, and ones that match well with the stark unisons of the sixth sonata.
Of course we’re not “done.” The seventh and final sonata arrives with sighing, peaceful harmonies. And Haydn added a short and striking piece as a closure, where he is said to be evoking the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake, still of recent memory at that time. Here the music’s energy, channeled with assurance by the Brentano Quartet, went fully kinetic.
Music and poetry are natural bedfellows. Yet we rarely experience contemporary verse with classical music. Maybe more poets should take inspiration from the music of centuries past. Kudos to the Aspect Chamber Music series for presenting a remarkable amalgamation of words and music. The final Aspect concert of the season takes place May 18, with music of Paganini, Beethoven and Mozart.