Joseph Haydn and the "Seven Words"

by Camille Saint-Saens

HaydnJoseph Haydn, that great musician, the father of the symphony and of all modern music, has been neglected. We are too prone to forget that concerts are, in a sense, museums in which the older schools of music should be represented. Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music. The same is true of the one who does not prefer the first prelude of the Wohltemperirte Klavier, played without gradations, just as the author wrote it for the harpsichord, to the same prelude embellished with an impassioned melody; or who does not prefer a popular melody of character or a Gregorian chant without any accompaniment to a series of dissonant and pretentious chords.

The directors of great concerts should love music themselves and should lead the public to appreciate it. They should not allow the masters to be forgotten, for their only fault was that they were not born in our times and they never dreamed of attempting to satisfy the tastes of an unborn generation. Above all, the directors should grant recognition to masters like Joseph Haydn who were in advance of their own times and who seem now and then to belong to our own.

The only examples of Joseph Haydn’s immense work that the present generation knows are two or three symphonies, rarely and perfunctorily performed. This is the same as saying that we do not know him at all. No musician was ever more prolific or showed a greater wealth of imagination. When we examine this mine of jewels, we are astonished to find at every step a gem which we would have attributed to the invention of some modern or other. We are dazzled by their rays, and where we expect black-and-whites we find pastels grown dim with time.

Of Haydn’s one hundred and eighteen symphonies, many are simple trifles written from day to day for Prince Esterhazy’s little chapel, when the master was musical director there. But after Haydn was called to London by Salomon, a director of concerts, where he had a large orchestra at his disposal, his genius took flight. Then he wrote great symphonies and in them the clarinets for the first time unfolded the resources from which the modern orchestra has profited so abundantly.  Originally the clarinet played a humble role, as the name indicates.  Clarinetto is the diminutive of clarino, and the instrument was invented to replace the shrill tones that the trumpet lost as it gained in depth of tone.

Old editions of Haydn’s symphonies show a picturesque arrangement, in that the disposition of the orchestra is shown on the printed page.  Above, is a group made up of drums and the brass. In the center is a second group—the flutes, oboes and bassoons, while the stringed instruments are at the bottom of the page. When clarinets are used, they are a part of the first group. This pretty arrangement has, unfortunately, not been followed in the modern editions of these symphonies. In the works written in London the clarinet has utterly forgotten its origins. It has left the somewhat plebeian world of the brasses and has gained admittance to the more refined society of the woods. Haydn, in his first attempts, took advantage of the beautiful heavy tones, “chalumeau,” and the flexibility and marvellous range of a beautiful instrument.

During his stay in London Haydn sketched an Orfeo which he never completed, as the theatre which ordered it failed before it was finished. Only fragments of the work remain, and, fortunately enough, these have been engraved in an orchestra score. These fragments are uneven in value. The dialogue, or recitative, which should bind them together was lost and so we are unable to judge them fairly. Among the fragments is a brilliant aria on Eurydice which is rather ridiculous, while another on Eurydice dying is charming. We also find music for mysterious English horns; it is written as for clarinets in B flat and reaches heights which are impossible for the instrument we now know as the English horn. There is also a beautiful bass part. This has been provided with Latin words and is sung in churches. This aria was assigned to a Creon who does not appear in the other fragments. One scene shows Eurydice running up and down the banks pursued by demons.  Another depicts the death of Orpheus, killed by the Bacchantes. This score is a curiosity and nothing more, and a reading causes no regret that the work was not completed.

Like Gluck, Joseph Haydn had the rare advantage of developing constantly. He did not reach the height of his genius until an age when the finest faculties are, ordinarily, in a decline. He astounded the musical world with his Creation, in which he displayed a fertility of imagination and a magnificence of orchestral richness that the oratorio had never known before. Emboldened by his success he wrote the Seasons, a colossal work, the most varied and the most picturesque in the history of ancient or modern music. In this instance the oratorio is no longer entirely religious. It gives an audacious picture of nature with realistic touches which are astonishing even now. There is an artistic imitation of the different sounds in nature, as the rustling of the leaves, the songs of the birds in the woods and on the farm, and the shrill notes of the insects. Above all that is the translation into music of the profound emotions to which the different aspects of nature give birth, as the freshness of the forests, the stifling heat before a storm, the storm itself, and the wonderful sunset that follows. Then there is a huntsman’s chorus which strikes an entirely different note.  There are grape harvests, with the mad dances that follow them. There is the winter, with a poignant introduction which reminds us of pages in Schumann. But be reassured, the author does not leave us to the rigors of the cold. He takes us into a farmhouse where the women are spinning and where the peasants are drawn about the fire, listening to a funny tale and laughing immoderately with a gaiety which has never been surpassed.

But this gigantic work does not end without giving us a glimpse of Heaven, for with one grand upward burst of flight, Haydn reaches the realms where Handel and Beethoven preceded him. He equals them and ends his picture in a dazzling blaze of light.

This is the sort of work of which the public remains in ignorance and which it ought to know.

But all this is not what I started out to say. I wanted to write about a delicate, touching, reserved and precious work by the same author--The Seven Words of Christ on the Cross. This work has appeared in three forms—for an orchestra and chorus, for an orchestra alone, and for a quartet. When I was a young man, they used to say in Paris that this work was originally written for a quartet, then developed for an orchestra, and, finally, the voices were added.

Chance took me to Cadiz, once upon a time, and there I was given the true story of this beautiful piece of work. To my astonishment I learned that it had been first performed in the city of Cadiz. They even spoke of a competition in which Haydn won the prize, but there was never any such contest. The work was ordered from the author, but the question is who ordered it. Two religious circles, the Cathedral and the Cueva del Rosario, both lay claim to the initiative. I have gone over all the evidence in this dispute which is of little interest to us, for the only interest is the origin of the composition. There is not the slightest doubt that the Seven Words was written in the first place for an orchestra in 1785, and its destination, as we shall see, was settled by the author himself.

In his Memoires pour la Biographie et la Bibliographie de l’ile de Cadix, Don Francisco de Miton, Marquis de Meritos, relates that he corresponded with Haydn and ordered this composition which was to be performed at the Cathedral in Cadiz. According to his account Haydn said that “the composition was due more to what Senor Milton wrote than to his own invention, for it showed every motif so marvellously that on reading the instructions he seemed to read the music itself.”

If the Marquis was not boasting, we must confess that the ingenuous Haydn was not so ingenuous as has been thought, and that he knew how to flatter his patrons.

In 1801 Breitkopf and Haertel published the work with the addition of the vocal parts at Leipzig. This edition had a preface by the author in which he said:

About fifteen years ago, a cure at Cadiz engaged me to write some passages of instrumental music on the Seven Words of Christ on the Cross. It was the custom at that time to play an oratorio at the Cathedral during Holy Week, and they took great pains to give as much solemnity as possible. The walls, the windows and the pillars of the church were hung in black, and only a single light in the centre shone in the sanctuary. The doors were closed at mid-day and the orchestra began to play. After the opening ceremonies the bishop entered the pulpit, pronounced one of the “Seven Words” and delivered a few words inspired by it. Then he descended, knelt before the altar, and remained there for some time. This pause was relieved by the music. The bishop ascended and descended six times more and each time, after his homily, music was played. My music was to be adapted to these ceremonies.

The problem of writing seven adagios to be performed consecutively, each one to last ten minutes, without wearying the audience, was not an easy one to solve, and I soon recognized the impossibility of making my music conform to the prescribed limits.

The work was written and printed without words. Later the opportunity of adding them was offered, so the oratorio which Breitkopf and Haertel publish to-day is a complete work and, so far as the vocal part is concerned, entirely new.

The kind reception which it has received among amateurs makes me hope that the entire public will welcome it with the same kindness.

Haydn feared to weary his hearers. Our modern bards have no such vain scruple.

Michel Haydn, Joseph’s brother and the author of some highly esteemed religious compositions, has been generally credited with the addition of the vocal parts to the Seven Words. Joseph Haydn did not say that this was the case, but it would seem that if he did the work himself he would have said so in his preface.

This vocal part, however, adds nothing to the value of the work. And it is of no great consequence who the author of the arrangement for the quartet was. At the time there were many amateurs who played on stringed instruments. They used to meet frequently and everything in music was arranged for quartets just as now everything is arranged for piano duets. Some of Beethoven’s sonatas were arranged in this form. The piano killed the quartet, and it is a great pity, for the quartet is the purest form of instrumental music. It is the first form—the fountain of Hippocrene. Now instrumental music drinks from every cup and the result is that many times it seems drunk.

To return to the Seven Words. Their symphonic form is the only one worth considering. They are eloquent enough without the aid of voices, for their charm penetrates. Unlike the Creation and the Seasons they do not demand extraordinary means of execution, and nothing is easier than to give them.

The opera houses are closed on Good Friday, and it used to be the custom to give evening concerts, vaguely termed “Sacred Concerts,” because their programmes were made up wholly or in part of religious music. This good custom has disappeared and with it the opportunity to give the public such delightful works as the Seven Words, and so many other things which harmonize with the character of the day.

At one of these Sacred Concerts, Pasdeloup presented on the same evening the Credo from Liszt’s Missa Solemnis and the one from Cherubini’s Messe du Sacre. Liszt’s Credo was received with a storm of hisses, while Cherubini’s was praised to the skies. I could not help thinking—I was somewhat unjust, for Cherubini’s work has merit—of the people of Jerusalem who acclaimed Barrabas and demanded the crucifixion of Jesus.

To-day Liszt’s Credo is received with wild applause—Victor Hugo did his part-while Cherubini’s is never revived.



Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music