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How to do justice to Christ's Last Words

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Haydn's meditations on Christ's Seven Last Words are among the great pieces of Easter music. But could Ruth Padel, steeped in Darwin and Freud, write poetry about this cornerstone of Christianity?

Two years ago I rashly accepted a commission from Tring Chamber Music and Paul Barritt, leader of the Hallé orchestra, to write poems to read between movements of Haydn's quartet Opus 51, which meditates on Christ's "Seven Last Words". Haydn, commissioned in 1785 by Cádiz cathedral, wrote this music to go between words so it's hard to perform and listen to without some. The question is, what should they say?

The "Words" are sentences excerpted from the Gospels, three from Luke, three from John, one each from Mark and Matthew. 1: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. 2: Truly I say to you, this night you will be with me in Paradise. 3: Woman behold your son; son, behold your mother. 4: My God, why hast thou forsaken me? 5: I thirst. 6: It has been accomplished (or, fulfilled. Or maybe, It's over). 7: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.

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