Aspect Chamber Music concerts typically include a speaker who provides an illustrated mini-lecture contextualizing the theme of that evening’s concert program. At this week’s concert, for example, musicologist Nicholas Chong will illuminate music by Sergei Rachmaninoff and César Franck, two composers who were considered, well, uncool and old-fashioned in their time, but whose music has stood the test of time and remains celebrated today.
The following concert in the series, on April 27, will be a little different. Instead of a scholar with facts and slides, joining the Brentano String Quartet as they play Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” (Op. 51) will be poet Ruth Padel reading her poetry on the same theme.
That theme: the final words attributed to Jesus by the four Gospels of the New Testament.
Music and Poetry
In Haydn’s day, sermons during Holy Week often focused on that theme, as Padel has noted.
Her poems and Haydn’s music come from two commissions, made more than two centuries apart.
In 1785 or 1786 Haydn was commissioned by a canon of Cadiz to write orchestral movements to go between such sermons. Later he reworked the music for string quartet.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Padel’s commission was to write poems (instead of sermons) to go between the movements.
In fact, the poet points out, it’s difficult to play these pieces by Haydn without buffers of some kind between them, because “Haydn wrote [all] slow movements, so you could really think about what is happening in this holy week.”
And what was happening? Well, Padel concentrated on what was going on specifically with the body. “Since the 18th century,” she said, “doctors have been obsessed with ‘what exactly did Christ die of?'”
She reviewed these discussions as she considered what she would write. “But most of all I listened to Haydn. And I thought I would let what is happening in the body stand for all this spiritual convulsion that is going on in the arc of these things.”
The composer, Padel suggests, also had on his mind the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which caused tremors of faith as well as of earth – “a huge shock of faith striking on All Saints’ Day, and everyone remembered it.”
Painting Pictures with Music
As she listened to his music, she realized that “Haydn is also giving us [musical] images for all these different words that Christ is said to [have spoken].”
An example is the pizzicato strings that suggest “little drops of water that [Jesus] is craving…and as I worked I felt there’s almost a kind of psychoanalytic arc, or maybe just a sort of movement of accepting loss and need which allows you to move on to the real relationship and reunion [with God].”
However, in the end, it’s only after worrying about other people that Jesus can “attend and feel the pain and acknowledge the pain in himself.”
This is by no means the Brentano Quartet’s first encounter with Haydn’s “Seven Last Words.”
The Brentano Quartet and Ruth Padel: Partners for an Evening
Years ago violinist Mark Steinberg described the music this way:
“Mostly homophonic, with melodic lines supported by simple accompanying figures, the piece explores and reveals within this elemental texture the emotional resonances inherent in the story of the crucifixion. The music is often stark, barren and painful, but always overwhelmingly human…the arrangement for string quartet has a particular purity and intimacy in which the flexibility and subtlety of the string instruments’ sound serves to enhance the vulnerability of the expression. It is a dark and deeply moving work inspiring searching contemplation.”
The Brentano String Quartet celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Currently Artists-in-Residence at the Yale School of Music, the quartet has been hailed for its “luxuriously warm sound [and] yearning lyricism” (The New York Times) and its “wonderful, selfless music-making” (The Times of London).
Its recent recordings have ranged from Mozart to contemporary composer Martin Bresnick.
The musicians of the Brentano have presented a number of other conceptual programs; their performance projects have included “Dido Reimagined” (inspired by “Dido’s Lament” from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas) and a multimedia presentation of Bach’s Art of Fugue that included readings, a sculpture, and a play.
Comprised of violinists Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee, the quartet has upcoming programs including music by Dvořák, Schumann, Golijov, William Grant-Still, George Walker and, yes, more Haydn.
Ruth Padel is a poet, novelist, and conservationist. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society of London, and Trustee for New Networks for Nature. She has published 10 poetry collections, a novel, and numerous books of non-fiction on subjects including poetry, tiger conservation, and even the influence of Greek myth on rock music.
Her sequence “Seven Words and an Earthquake” was published in her collection Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth in 2014. Hazel Press published her most recent collection, Watershed, last month.
The Aspect Chamber Music Series presents “Seven Last Words” April 27, 7:30pm, at Bohemian National Hall, 371 East 73 St. in New York City. Tickets and more information are available at the Aspect website.