Seven Words of Christ

Pergolesi: Septem Verba A Christo

The history of the oratorio “Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata “ has been as shrouded in mystery as its probable creator. The title of the work and the assertion of Pergolesi’s authorship have haunted musicological circles for a century or so; initially the question was raised on the sole basis of an incomplete manuscript catalogued in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek since 1882 and regarded as genuine. However, the recent discovery in 2009 of two more manuscripts in the abbeys of Kremsmunster and Aldersbach by musicologist Reinhard Fehling seems to have settled the issue of authenticity once and for all and “Breitkopf and Härtel” had the score printed in a critical edition. The director Réne Jaocobs immediately spotted the qualities of the music and in July 2012 Pergolesi’s lost masterpiece was given its concert première at the Beaune Festival. Shortly after it was recorded after by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, led by René Jacobs.

The Seven Words of Christ is a cycle of seven cantatas, each consisting of two arias. Recitatives are kept to a minimum. The music is scored for four solo vocalists, trumpet, two horns, harp, strings and a basso continuo. Essentially a dialogue between Christ on the Cross and the “Anima” (the faithful soul), it is a hauntingly beautiful spiritual exercise. Featured soloists include soprano Sophie Karthaüser, counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux, tenor Julian Behr and bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff. Especially Christophe Dumeaux presents us with a excruciating meditation, but in each their own way the soloists must be applauded for their ability to convey the pain involved in this special kind of Easter Music.4745905-origpic-9f3559

Even though the question of parentage is still questioned by some it is clear that the music has such profound qualities, that the composer has to have been on par with Pergolesi. And few are although at least 16 composers have written musical settings of the Seven Last Words, for various combinations of voice and/or instruments. The best known of these settings is probably that by Joseph Haydn, who composed an instrumental meditation, which was commissioned for Cadiz in Lent. Haydn later arranged it as an oratorio and for string quartet, and approved his publisher’s arrangement for solo piano.

Another famous compositions are by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Christoph Graupner (1683 – 1760). Another type of this music is the meditations upon the wounds of Christ, also heavily inspired by late medieval spirituality. One of the best compositions belonging to this group is by Buxtehude: Membra Iesu Nostri.  Membra Jesu Nostri (English: The Limbs of our Jesus), (BuxWV 75). This is a cycle of seven cantatas composed by Dieterich Buxtehude in 1680, and dedicated to Gustaf Düben. The full Latin title Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima translates as “The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus”. The main text are stanzas from the Medieval hymn Salve mundi salutare, formerly  ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux, but now thought more likely to have been written by medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (died 1250). It is divided into seven parts, each addressed to a different part of Christ’s crucified body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. In each part, biblical words referring to the limbs frame verses of the poem.

Septem verba a Christo
Composer:  Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
Performers:  Konstantin Wolff, Julian Behr, Christophe Dumaux, Sophie Karthäuser
Conductor:  René Jacobs
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy for Ancient Music Berlin
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 902155   Spars Code: DDD

 Try out a tiny bit of the music at YouTube

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