At the beginning of each of the three acts of his play “Easter”, written in 1901, August Strindberg indicated that one section of the longer string quartet by Joseph Haydn, called Die seine letzten Worte unseres Erlosers am Kreuze or “The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross”, should be played.
The original orchestral work by Haydn was commissioned in 1783 for the Good Friday service at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva (Holy Cave Oratory) in Cadiz, Spain. When it was completed, the priest who commissioned the work, Don Jose Saenz de Santa Maria, paid Haydn in a most unusual way - he sent him a cake filled with gold coins!
The orchestral work was published in 1787 and performed in Paris, Berlin and Vienna that year. The composer then adapted it for string quartet, and later in 1796 as an oratorio for solo and choral singers, and finally for solo piano. The seven main meditative sections, labelled “sonatas” and all quite slow, are framed by an Introduction and a speedy “Earthquake” conclusion - a total of nine movements.
But why did Strindberg, hardly a church-goer but definitely a music lover, want these particular pieces at the beginning of his three-act play?
The Seven Last Words from the Cross are traditionally attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion, and are taken from the gospels of Mark, Luke and John. They have been widely used in sermons and as a meditation since the 16th century during Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday by Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and other Christian denominations.
These are the seven sayings:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Woman, behold your son. Son, behold you mother.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“It is finished.”
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
They have been given deeper religious meaning in relation to words of, in this same order: Forgiveness, Salvation, Relationship, Abandonment, Distress, Triumph and Reunion.
But what has this got to do with Strindberg’s play? He only uses three of Haydn’s nine movements - the Introduction Maestoso Adagio; the 1st saying “Father, forgive them”, a Largo; and the 5th movement, or 4th saying “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, an Adagio.
But his play is just about this - forgiveness.
How can a family redeem itself after a scandal? What does it take to forgive and be forgiven? What is it like to suffer for another’s sins? “Easter” is a tragic story with a happy ending. It was written by the Swedish playwright and author near the end of his tumultuous life, after a severe mental breakdown, and reflects his desire to question the usual distinctions between waking and dreaming, the natural and the supernatural, in the experience of his characters.
The play centres on the Heyst family, living in turn-of-the-century Stockholm. The father has been imprisoned for embezzlement, leaving the family disgraced and seriously in debt. His son Elis, a teacher, is depressed and remorseful. Elis’s fiance, Kristina, tries to be a part of this dysfunctional family, but she has secrets of her own.The mother, Fru Heyst, is in near-delusional denial about her husband’s guilt. The daughter, Eleonora, has been confined in a mental institution, but has been released in time to return home for Easter. There she mets Benjamin, an orphaned student who is staying with the family as a way of making amends for the father’s crime of wiping out his inheritance. They are all afraid of Lindkvist, the rich landowner who is threatening to seize their furniture and evict them to repay the debt. But it is he who, in the end, brings redemption through forgiveness, just as the spring light and warmth begins to penetrate the heavy darkness of winter.
Strindberg’s play is closely connected to this sequence of meditative concepts that hold the secret meaning of the The Seven Last Words from the Cross - forgiveness for yourself and others who have sinned out of love, salvation through the forging of relationships beyond the bounds of blood, learning the lessons of abandonment and distress to acquire a new insight into family ties, and finally triumph over despair and a reunion with the forces of revitalising nature that heals the soul and takes us beyond the limits of our selfish desires into hope for the future.
We are very fortunate in Newton Dee that we have been able to explore this theme over Easter. Not only through Strindberg’s uplifting play, with its haunting music as a frame, but also in daily talks during Holy Week on the personal meanings of these Seven Last Words for today, and by listening to our choir sing parts of Haydn’s oratorio, culminating on Easter Sunday with the whole piece being performed. We will also see these seven sayings in eurythmy, to explore how we can also journey on this path of redemption and forgiveness.