Listen: Haydn Seven Last Words—Earthquake

Music-lovers are familiar with the solemn and dramatic setting of the première of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross two hundred and thirty Good Fridays ago.  In the words of Haydn himself,

The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse.

The original orchestral version was soon arranged for string quartet and also for piano.  This latter version was expertly executed by an arranger whose name is lost to history, but who met with Haydn's explicit approval:   

I am full of praise for the keyboard reduction, which is very well written and with special diligence.

Still, this excellent arrangement today falls short in three key respects:  One, it is not quite faithful enough to the original; two, it fails to take into account the subtle revisions of phrasing, dynamics, and register that Haydn brought to bear upon his own oratorio version (produced a decade later and therefore not yet unavailable to the contemporaneous arranger for keyboard); three, it falls short of communicating the range and power of the original by restricting itself to a technical level appropriate for 18th-century amateur pianists, but hardly for the professional pianists of today, or for the greater expressive and dynamic range available to us on our modern iron-frame pianos.

And so, in a modest effort to remedy these three shortcomings, I have revised this keyboard arrangement in a manner that I hope might meet with the approval of the nameless arranger and of Haydn himself, were they alive today.  Here is how the closing Earthquake movement sounded in my performance at the December Evenings Festival.