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Seven Last Words from the Cross

for tenor, mixed choir and chamber orchestra

Year:  1999 Instrumentation:  chamber orchestra: 1201; 0300; timp; harpsichord; strings

Year:  1999
Instrumentation  chamber orchestra: 1201; 03...

David Hamilton

Composer:   David Hamilton


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The 'seven last words' of Christ are the final statements Chris made as he endured the crucifixion. They are found through the four Gospels although none of the Gospels presents all of them. They are often responses to specific events detailed by the Gospel writers, and therefore do not represent a linked narrative flow.

Setting seven apparently unrelated statements posed a musical challenge. To the biblical texts I have added two traditional Latin texts. A short section from the Good Friday hymn Vexilla Regis opens and closes the work, and the antiphon of Good Friday Crux fidelis (Faithful cross) is sung before Christ's final words.

The music establishes a meditative tone from the beginning presenting fragments of the Gregorian chant melody Victimae Paschali ('Christians, to the Paschal Lamb offer your thankful praises...'). This melody is also woven through the musical fabric of the work generating some of the melodic material, notably the violin solo about halfway through the work and the melody for the setting of Crux fidelis. The music reaches a violent climax point at Christ's words 'It is finished!', before subsiding to a restatement of earlier music, briefly building again at Christ's repeated cries of 'Father'. Throughout the work there is a deliberately uneasy juxtaposition of major and minor versions of the same chord.

In my choice of versions of the text I have left the more archaic forms such as 'Thou' in those utterances directed by Christ to God, and used more contemporary language in those directed to others.

The original versions of Seven Last Words from the Cross was commissioned by the NZSO for performance on a tour to Noumea in April 1999. My choice of instruments then favoured the darker colours, omitting flutes and clarinets from the usual orchestral layout. In the revised version I worked to a given scoring, which still favours darker instruments: oboes, bassoon, and trumpets dominate the scoring.

Seven Last Words from the Cross was revised for performance by Auckland's Bach Musica conducted by Rita Paczian, for the choir's 2008 concert series.

Text note

Text in Latin and English from the Bible