(Re)Arranging the Seven Last Words

This Holy Week marks the third year that Spektral Quartet has played Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ".  We view it as a yearly tradition and approaching this incredible work, full of reverence and depth, is humbling every time.  However, while billed as adapted by Haydn, the quartet version of this masterpiece has moments of thorny voice leading and awkward doublings, while leaving out some interesting lines from the chorus and orchestra original.  We have our suspicions that an eager publisher hired out the creation of this quartet version to make a quick buck.  
So, we decided to engage our friend Joe Clark to arrange a new version for string quartet, while maintaining as much of the original as possible.  Below, Joe describes his process and shares a bit about what it meant for him to grapple with this work. Tonight, we debut the new version at University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel.

I began exploring Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ by researching the history of the work's inception, revisions, and publication. Since there were many different arrangements of the work during Haydn's own lifetime (for orchestra, solo piano, string quartet, and choir), there were a lot of places one could start and a lot of resources to refer to.  Since I didn't want to radically reinterpret the quartet treatment, I used the Trautwein plates of the string quartet version as a point of embarkation and began entering that score, in its entirety, into Finale. I received some assistance with this step from my friend and copyist Jeff Schweitzer.


I then cross-referenced each measure of the newly entered score against the 1801 Breitkopf und Härtel choral version: my primary source.  Throughout the project, I also referred to the Bärenreiter Kassel edition of the orchestral score, and the Edition Peters and Henle urtext editions of the string quartet. And, just in case I needed a second (or third or fourth) opinion, I made a Spotify playlist of every version of the piece I could find.


One of the reasons I love arranging is that each project is different and requires different ways of assessing musical problems and thinking both creatively and practically.  Sometimes, the principle challenge of a project will come from adapting an idea for a large ensemble to a smaller instrumentation (or vice versa). Other times, a challenge will arise translating material from one instrumentation to one with radically different strengths and limitations.  However, for this project, those kinds of broad issues were not particularly applicable since I was adapting a work for string quartet for, well, string quartet.


Instead, the challenges that I encountered  were making changes that would fix tuning, balance, voice leading, textural consistency, contrapuntal clarity, etc. while being subtle, stylistically appropriate, and always respectful of what Haydn, a master of the string quartet, put on the page. I was extremely fortunate that the Spektral Quartet prepared a list of passages in the work that were especially thorny and I was surprised when I found some considerable inconsistencies between the string quartet and choral versions: sections originally marked fortissimo marked pianissimo, missing melodies in the winds, omitted chord tones from the tenor line, etc.


I sent  finished drafts of each movement to Dr. Cliff Colnot, who would edit my work.  It was Dr. Colnot who introduced the quartet and me, and I have been very fortunate to work with and learn from him on many projects. After implementing those changes, I sent the score to the quartet, who then played through the work and offered thoughtful suggestions, which resulted in the final version of the score.


Arranging "The Seven Last Words of Christ" required focus and fastidiousness, but the process was very meditative. I found myself suddenly recalling memories of observing Lent as a child: attending "The Stations of the Cross" devotions, traveling to different churches on Holy (Maundy) Thursday, and fish on Fridays. Regardless of one's faith, there is a beauty in remembering dying and their last moments. I am very thankful for the opportunity to work on this project with the Spektral Quartet and I look forward to our next collaboration.