Datelines: Mondsee, Austria, Schloss Mondsee, Aug. 29, 2015, 7:30 p.m., and Aug. 30, 11 a.m.
In 1785, Joseph Haydn was commissioned by a canon in Cádiz, the ancient port city in southwest Spain, to write sacred instrumental music for Holy Week illustrating the "seven last words of the Lord." Haydn composed seven slow, meditative movements for full orchestra framed by a portentous introduction and a ferocious, concluding earthquake.
230 years later, on Sunday morning, Aug. 30, 2015, the third day of the 2015 Mondsee Musiktage Festival, the Auryn String Quartet and actor Joseph Lorenz gave a powerful, humbling performance of what is now known as The Seven Last Words of Our Savior On the Cross, Hob. XX: 1, that held a large audience in the Schloss Mondsee concert hall in breathless suspension throughout its entire 90 minute length.
Haydn himself described how the music had first been performed in 1786, at the Good Friday service in the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva (Holy Cave Oratory) in Cádiz, Spain:
The walls, windows and pillars of the church were draped in black, with but a single lamp hanging in the middle to shed light into the darkness. At noon all the doors were shut. Then the music began. After a suitable prelude, the bishop mounted the pulpit, pronounced one of the seven Words and made appropriate observations. The bishop mounted and left the pulpit a second time, a third time, and so on, and at the end of each oration the orchestra started up again.
The performance under these circumstances must have been an overwhelming emotional, spiritual and musical experience, and its immediate, widespread popularity was reflected in Haydn's two subsequent adaptations of the music, in 1787 for string quartet and in 1796 as an oratorio with both solo and choral vocal forces; he later even approved a version for solo piano.
In fact, without any stage setting or commentary, the music in any of these formats, no matter its obvious beauty, carries with it only a semblance of the original impact. To recapture that impact takes either an impractical and unlikely recreation of the original all black setting, or the addition of spoken commentaries which provide relevancy to Christ's words, and relief to the succession of seven slow movements. And so the Quartet (violinists Matthias Lingenfelder and Jens Oppermann, violist Stewart Eaton and cellist Andreas Arndt) asked Lechner, whose deep resonant voice has the authentic spirituality of Ingmar Bergman's iconic actor Max von Sydow, to read before each movement one in a series of seven profound, and profoundly disturbing observations on the simple biblical verses, written to accompany Haydn's music by the German humanist Walter Jens.
The brutally frank text by Jens, president of the International PEN center from 1976 to 1982, president of Berlin's Akademie der Künste from 1989 to 1997, and chairman of the Martin-Niemöller-Foundation from 1990 to 1995, whose founder was most famous for his statement, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist," ending "And finally they came for me and there was no one left to speak out," relates the words of Christ to both past and current history in honest, eloquent words illustrated by often bleak, terrifying images.
"Father forgive them," Lorenz began, "for they know not what they do," then continued with the first of Jens's commentaries (English translation by Jenny Poole-Hardt, courtesy of Tacet Musikproduktion, from the booklet which accompanies the Auryn Quartet's recording for Tacet with Jens himself speaking the text):
This first word was a plea for the others: for the jeerers under the cross, the murderers, those who were "only obeying orders," the torturers, the guilty everywhere. The man speaking here, a thirty-year-old Jew, had been scourged, robbed of his dignity, humiliated in body and soul: soldiers, those predecessors of the overseers of Auschwitz, Wilhelm Boger and Rudolf Hoess, and of Adolf Eichmann, had not just beaten but flogged him with canes and sticks, with leather whips into which pieces of bone and lumps of lead had been worked; they had tormented him, and then when he was streaming with blood had dressed him in a robe of scarlet cloth, pressed a cane into his hand and placed a straw crown on his head! He was to be a shabby ragged king, a bloody puppet for the soldiers to poke fun at; first beaten with the bladed whips and the metal-ball straps, then derided: "Doesn't he look funny, the king of our grace, this caricature of a ruler which we can spit at, to pay it the disrespect it deserves?" Everything had been turned on its head at this carnival in the sign of torture and terror: the laurel wreath was a plait of thorns, with finger-sized spikes; the purple cloak, a dirty scrap of cloth; the scepter, a cane for beating: falling at his feet, an obscenity. There in Jerusalem, the games of the future Holiest Inquisition and the pursuit of heretics were rehearsed. Jesus was a nothing, the "other," the abandoned one who had been handed over to be destroyed, "Greetings King of the Jews," and later, with a plaque hung around his neck, bearing in three languages (murderers are often pedantic)-Greek, Latin and Aramaic-the crime of which he had been convicted: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
The Auryn Quartet's cellist Arndt had prepared the audience and the Festival for Jens's observations the night before, when he followed two brief welcoming speeches by local dignitaries with a passionate, contextualizing utterance of his own, which at once point was briefly interrupted by approving applause:
Our Festival's theme this year, "Joseph Haydn: A Great European," has its basis in Mozart's concern about whether the 58-year old Haydn would be able to communicate (i.e., speak English) during his first journey to London in 1790. "Don't worry," Haydn told his friend, "My language (i.e., music) is understood all over the world."
This is not merely historical rhetoric. If you look at the difficult state of the world and Europe today, most recently the terrible discovery inside the lorry near Vienna just a few days ago which shocked us all so deeply, it shows us once again how important it is to find and cherish a language that is understood all over the world.
I raise this concern tonight because of a personal connection. When I learned there were four kids inside that lorry, I thought at once of my own three kids who through good fortune are growing up in peace. And so I say that growing up in peace must be a self-evident right for kids "all over the world"- as Haydn said.
As we continue our Festival tonight, guided by Haydn's special plea for understanding between nations, and in the knowledge that our musicians come from four nations and three continents, it is in the spirit of being here with you, dear audience, that makes this week so special, because in listening you also become an active part of concerts at which we hope to experience together an understanding beyond boundaries, which is what Haydn had in mind in 1790, and which shows how relevant his ideas are two centuries after he shared them with Mozart.
Please let us keep these thoughts in our hearts and minds during your listening to and our playing of this wonderful music at this extraordinary place. Let us have a great week in Mondsee, thinking of Haydn's ideas on communication, and on humanity without borders.
The program Saturday night which followed Arndt's speech was similarly international, loosely devoted to Great Britain as represented by three British, one Commonwealth and one Austrian composer spanning four centuries. In each, except for Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op. 49, for solo oboe, pianist Peter Orth rode to the rescue of an indisposed Kathryn Stott, first to partner Valda Wilson in music by Purcell, Haydn and Graeme Koehne, and then, after intermission, the Auryn Quartet in Elgar's splendid but deeply sad Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84.
The gracious, charming Wilson scored her greatest triumph in the sadness and suffering of Purcell's Music for a While, letting her luscious soprano voice linger poignantly over the music's shifting tonal sands and slowly moving melodic line, with Orth ever alert to the restrained emotion of John Dryden's poetry, beginning with "Shall all your cares beguile: Wond'ring how your pains were eas'd, And disdaining to be pleas'd." Wilson was similarly successful in Koehne's Three Poems of Byron, showing off the seductively lyrical skills of a 59-year old composer who earlier this year was chosen as one of Australia's Ten Greatest Composers by Sydney-based Limelight magazine, before Marie-Luise Modersohn gave a sumptuously-toned take on Britten's characteristically fragile Metamorphoses, made admirably but perhaps unnecessarily instructive by her reading the relevant poems between each of the movements, stretching the playing time to over 20 minutes.
Wilson then returned to sing five of Haydn's endearing, Scottish folksong arrangements, a genre which the Austrian composer largely created, in which singers inevitably have to make two central choices: Whether to attempt something close to a Scottish accent, and whether to sing the songs as moderately aspirational concert songs or delightfully sentimental household desserts. For an Austrian music festival based on pan European principles, with an almost entirely German-speaking audience, Wilson made the most appropriate choices, to sing with a minimum of accent and a maximum of heartfelt expression, and the results, perhaps because she also generously provided her adoring audience with an explanation of each song, left everyone in the hall wanting more.
The remarkably persuasive performance of Elgar's Piano Quintet, with or without Kathryn Stott, was all the more remarkable because neither the Auryn Quartet nor Orth had never played it before. Not surprisingly for six musicians who know each other intimately, and whose passionate recordings of quartets and quintets by Schumann, Brahms and Fauré are among the most glorious in the catalogue, they threw themselves into the music as if Elgar were an English relative of Brahms, emphasized by the big singing melodies and most dramatically by the big cello solos in the Adagio, which could have been lifted straight from Brahms's Double Concerto. With just one and half rehearsals, the performance swept the audience away and had the players themselves, in the green room after the concert, wondering whether this was a piece they ought to add to their repertoire.