March 1, 2002

Good Friday music

Haydn, "The Seven Last

Words of Christ"

Brentano String Quartet

Mandel Hall, February 22

Imagine: University of Chicago presents a Good Friday service. It is long and intense; there is no intermission. Mandel Hall replaces the Spanish cathedral; the poet usurps the priest.

Last Friday, the Brentano String Quartet performed Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ," with Mark Strand reading his poetry for the work. Haydn wrote "The Seven Last Words" on commission from a Spanish cathedral for a Good Friday service. It has nine movements, one for each of the seven phrases Christ uttered from the cross, an introduction, and a finale. In the 16th century, there would have been a scripture reading between each movement. Here at the University of Chicago, 2002, the movements were separated by poetry recitation. The poetry of Mark Strand, currently a teacher in the Committee on Social Thought, reinterpreted Haydn's music and brought it into the secular realm.

The first eight movements are slow movements. Many of them contain two contrasting themes, one strong and harsh, the other personal and song-like. Haydn's music presents a tension between the agony and the grace of the crucifixion. The fourth movement, "Women Behold Thy Son, and You, Behold Thy Mother," is a good example. At times it sounds almost pastoral, representing the tenderness of the moment between mother and son. At other times it is dominated by tough, strong chords, which bring us back to the cruel reality of a drawn-out death. "My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" also contains these two contrasting themes. It alternates between the full, rich sound of all four instruments playing together, and the lonely solos of the first violin, the viola, and the cello. Strand's poem interpreted this as the greatness of man against the inescapable darkness of mortality.

On Friday, the role of the performers, as in all live concerts, was amplified. When we can see as well as hear the music being performed, we are reminded of the physicality of music. The performers played as if by the movement of their whole bodies they could bring forth the music from their instrument. In "I Thirst," when the first violinist was about to begin the harsh, agonizing theme, he drew himself up to his full sitting height, then let loose as if he was about to engage in a life or death battle. The music of Haydn, the poetry of Strand, and the drama of the performers worked together to create a stunning experience.

The last movement has no corresponding text; it represents the earthquake that occurred immediately after Christ's death. The tempo shifts to presto, very fast, and the music is composed of catastrophic chords. Adding emphasis to the jolting music is the fact that most of it is played in unison. At the end of the final movement, the audience let out a sigh. (In fact I heard a whispered "whoa," from the man behind me.) After a brief moment of stunned silence, the audience broke out into a tumultuous applause that called the performers back onto the stage several times.