Spektral Quartet joins forces with Seraphic Fire for a new take on Haydn’s “Seven Last Words”

Sat Apr 12, 2014 at 6:00 pm

By Dorothy Hindman

The Spektral Quartet will team up wih Seraphic Fire for Haydn's "Seven Last Words" April 9-13.

The Spektral Quartet will team up with Seraphic Fire for Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” April 16 at Rockefeller Chapel.

Just in time for Easter, Seraphic Fire will introduce Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross to Chicago audiences. The Miami-based choir is pairing with Chicago’s Spektral Quartet in a mash-up premiere specifically arranged for the two ensembles: a unique choral-string quartet version.

The two groups have been performing Haydn’s Seven Last Words in South Florida this past week. They will take the program on the road to Chicago for a Holy Week performance at Rockefeller Chapel in the University of Chicago Presents series April 16, and Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin on April 18th.

“I’m beyond excited,” says Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire’s artistic director. “This is very much Seraphic Fire’s thing.

“It fits into our new takes on old music, trying to keep it fresh and not think of it as museum pieces behind glass, but rather things that can be worked with. This will be a South Florida premiere and maybe a Chicago premiere, the first time this [combination] has ever seen the light of day.”

Commissioned around 1785 for the Cathedral of Cádiz in Southern Spain, the  Seven Last Words is framed by an introduction and turbulent “earthquake” finale, depicting the moment of Jesus’s death. In between are seven slow movements, each corresponding to a specific utterance of Jesus on the cross, and to be performed immediately after a specific recitation and sermon. Haydn strove to create wordless expressions of the text in his score, and, for many, this meditative, consolatory music is among Haydn’s most sublime and beautiful inspirations.

The Seven Last Words is quite unusual in that Haydn created at least four versions during his lifetime: first for orchestra, then string quartet, choir with orchestra, and finally for piano solo.

Shortly after the orchestral original was completed, Haydn’s publisher requested a string quartet version to create additional sales and performance opportunities, and this is still the most often-heard arrangement in the U.S.

It’s a work that members of the Spektral Quartet were always “in love with,” says the group’s violist, Doyle Armbrust,

“We knew that we wanted to have it in our repertoire, and so we made it an annual event every year since, with two to four performances of it every Easter Season.”

Nearly ten years after making his string quartet version, Haydn heard an arrangement of the Seven Last Words in Passau by Kapellmeister Joseph Friebert, who had added a choir singing pious poetry over the orchestral version.

Shortly after this, Haydn published his own choral arrangement, in his first collaboration with Gottfried van Swieten, who would later become his librettist for The Creation and The Seasons. On the heels of that, Haydn made a final piano version for his publisher.

Quigley knows the massive choral and orchestral version, but has never performed it. “That version of the Seven Last Words is performed quite often in Europe,” he says, “but the two Haydn choral works that get played on this side of the Atlantic are the Nelson Mass and The Creation.

“My chorus master James Bass had worked on the piece in Austria, and came back very energized about the possibility of us doing the piece. But I thought, ‘How are we ever going to have the forces to accomplish it?’ An orchestra of 60 and a choir of 120?”

Then came an a-ha moment a few years ago, when Quigley and the musicians in Spektral began to look for potential projects to perform together. All of the members of Spektral had already played in Quigley’s Firebird Chamber Orchestra, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to try something different.

Taking this new version to Chicago is a bold move, as the Vermeer Quartet famously performed the work at Rockefeller Chapel as a Holy Week tradition for many years. Vermeer also released a Grammy-nominated CD of the string quartet, with such eminent figures as Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, and Jason Robards delivering the meditations between the sonatas.

But neither ensemble seems daunted. Seraphic’s chorus master James Bass (who also happens to sing bass) has intimate experience with all versions of the piece, having sung it and prepared it seven times himself. He will assist Quigley in preparing this new version for the April performances.

“I was the choral preparer for the International Haydn Festival in Austria,” says Bass. “One of those years, they decided they wanted to do the entire Festival around the Seven Last Words, and have all four versions performed within a 24-hour period in the Esterhazy Cathedral and the churches that Haydn would have known in Eisenstadt.” Bass’s ensemble repeated the performance in a tour throughout Austria.

Quigley notes that Haydn’s many versions of the work grant some license to make additional arrangements. “Unless you do it as the full orchestra version, there has been someone else’s anonymous hand on the work, unquestionably.”

When Spektral Quartet noted particular non-idiomatic passages in the string quartet version, they began to wonder whether Haydn or one of his students made it. “Obviously, Grandpa Haydn was an absolute master of voice leading,” says Armbrust, “and all of a sudden in the string quartet version, we have some really odd leaps, and odd unisons happening.”

Spektral hired composer/arranger Joe Clark. to make the quartet more playable, and to coordinate it with the choral parts for this premiere. “We had Joe make tasteful changes that I don’t think most listeners would notice,” says Armbrust, “just a few voicings, filling out some of the chords, and adding in some of the wind lines that are noticeably absent from the string quartet version. Still, the vast majority comes primarily from the string quartet version.”

Despite their experience with the Seven Last Words, the Spektral Quartet has never done the work with singers. “I think it opens up all sorts of emotional and sonic possibility, just having the text there,” says Armbrust.

“Playing with a string quartet is really unlike any other instrumental group. It’s supremely intimate. There’s a perfectionism aspect of it that I also see in the way that Patrick leads Seraphic Fire: the attention to detail, ensemble, intonation, all of these things. It parallels how we treat our performances and our music making, and so the idea of working with Seraphic Fire is something that we know is going to go off really well, because we have similar values when it comes to putting something together.”

You may wonder how Haydn added words to what were originally instrumental pieces, even with van Swieten’s help. Quigley explains, “the words are doubled by the chorus throughout in the choral-orchestral version. Except for the a cappella moments, we are basically singing on a part with the string quartet, giving words to what the string quartet is playing.”

Bass holds Haydn’s choral version in high esteem. “Singing this piece and preparing it, I never thought, here’s a spot where the word stresses don’t seem to work. These men were so incredible at their craft, and knew how to change just enough of the rhythm to make the speech patterns and the text feel natural.

“Here’s an opportunity to take two things that Haydn does remarkably well, string quartets and oratorios, and put them together. To me, it just seems like a win-win. If we are able to get to the true sense of the music it should be a beautiful experience for the listener all the way around.”

The extended solemnity of the piece can be taxing for singers, who must maintain a consistent tempo and quiet dynamics throughout. Haydn was constrained by the terms of the original commission, and because of the Good Friday service could not have any fast, loud, or showy passages within instrumental Sonatas.

“Almost nowhere in music will you find seven consecutive slow movements in a work,” Bass says. “It can be difficult for the singer to maintain a spun, Haydnesque Classical tone over long periods of space and time with no change or break.

“The only thing that really has any angst is the earthquake at the end. Haydn writes a triple forte in that, which is the only loud passage in the whole piece. My guess is that Patrick is probably going to take some risks and bump some of these tempos up, in a ways that feels a bit more concertized than worship music.”

And lest some audiences should be overly concerned about the explicitly Christian inspiration of the piece, Armbrust points to its universal quality. “One reason we’re so entranced with the Seven Last Words is the achingly contemplative way Haydn delivers these lines. It creates an intimacy and space for humanness that transcends religious affiliation.”

Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross will be performed 7:30 p.m. April 16 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in the University of Chicago Presents series (ticketsweb.uchicago.edu773-702-8068); and 7:30 p.m. April 18 at Lawrence Memorial Chapel, in Appleton, Wisconsin (lawrence.edu; 920-832-6749).

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