Detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Crucifixion. Source: Google Art Project

Seven Words of Christ – or Early Modern Spirituality

Time to revive early modern sensuality? Seven Words of Christ

In the Middle Ages, the poetical and visual contemplation of the seven wounds of Christ became a beloved spiritual excise. Later, protestant composers rewrote the genre, focusing instead on the “Seven Words of Christ”.

In 1645, Heinrich Schütz published a musical setting of the seven Words of Christ. The composition was written in Weissenfels around and revised again in 1657. He scored it for five voices, five instrumental parts and continuo and defined it as an oratorio or Passion cantata. The original title is, The seven words of our dear Redeemer and saviour Jesus Christ, which he spoke on the stem of the Holy Cross.

Without a doubt, the composition was created to be part of a protestant liturgy, probably intended for the court of the Margrave Christian Ernst von Brandenburg-Bayreuth. 

All in all, we know of sixteen composers who later reused the motive. The best known of these settings is probably that by Joseph Haydn, who composed an instrumental meditation commissioned for Cadiz in Lent. Haydn later arranged it as an oratorio and for a string quartet. He also approved his publisher’s arrangement for solo piano. Finally, in 1796, Haydn adopted it as an oratorio (with both solo and choral vocal forces.

Pergolesi and the Seven Words

However, the genre did not solely flourish in the protestant church. Until recently, the composer of one of these works, the “Septem verba a Christo in cruce moriente prolata”, was shrouded in mystery. In particular, the title of the work and the assertion of Pergolesi’s authorship (1710-1736) haunted musicological circles for more than a century. 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 manuscripts in the Abbeys of Kremsmunster and Aldersbach by musicologist Reinhard Fehling seems to have settled the issue of authenticity once and for all. Following this discovery, “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.

This edition of “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 basso continuo. It is essentially a dialogue between Christ on the Cross and the “Anima” (the faithful soul) and a hauntingly beautiful spiritual exercise.

Although parentage is still debated, the music has such profound qualities that the composer has at least to have been on par with Pergolesi. 

Nevertheless, the music composed upon the sayings of Jesus was originally a Protestant “comment” on the medieval Catholic tradition of composing spiritual exercises based on the seven wounds of Christ. 

Membra Iesu Nostri

One of the best compositions belonging to this group is by Dieterich Buxtehude: Membra Iesu Nostri. Membra Jesu Nostri (English: The Limbs of our Jesus), (BuxWV 75). This was composed as a cycle of seven cantatas 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 texts 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




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