The Seven Last Words of Christ by Théodore Dubois
Program notes by Yvonne Grover
The tradition of singing the Passion story began in the early centuries of the Christian church. To add solemnity to Holy Week services, priests would chant the appointed Gospel account rather than simply read it. By the 13th century, these intonations had developed into dramatic narrations with soloists playing the key roles. The earliest polyphonic settings date from the 15th century with extant examples surviving from England, Italy, and Spain. By the mid-17th century, the Reformation had led to a distinctly German oratorio Passion set in the vernacular, employing recitatives, arias, choruses, and instrumental movements. These oratorio Passions ultimately reached their pinnacle in the great St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. Heinrich Schütz, considered the greatest Lutheran composer prior to Bach, composed his Seven Last Words in the early 17th century. In order to include all seven sayings Christ spoke during the crucifixion, Schütz created a composite text from all four Gospels. Hadyn composed an instrumental work on the Seven Last Words in 1787 and later added choral parts, but no composer is known to have created a major choral setting of this unique version of the Passion story until Théodore Dubois, over two centuries after Schütz.
Théodore Dubois (1837 - 1924) was an important organist, composer and teacher of music on the Paris music scene during the late 1800's. In 1861 he was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition. He studied at Reims and the Paris Conservatory where he later was the director from 1896 - 1905. The composer of four operas, a large-scale ballet, several oratorios, and a Requiem Mass as well as many orchestral works, Dubois remained a composer of the "academic style." He succeeded Camile Saint-Saens as organist at the Madeleine in 1877 and was highly regarded as an excellent music teacher. Much overshadowed by his French contemporaries Charles Gounod, Gabriel Faure, and Camille Saint-Saens in composition, he is best remembered today for his book Notes et Etudes d'Harmonie (Notes and Lessons in Harmony), still used as a source for harmonic practice in the Romantic style. Dubois composed The Seven Last Words of Christ in 1867 for Saint Clotilde in Paris, where he was the choir director (Maitre de chapelle). He scored the work for full orchestra, chorus, and soloists, but later revised his orchestration to include only organ, timpani, and harp, the version most often heard today. This performance uses the original orchestration of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trombones, strings, organ and percussion.
The Seven Last Words of Christ is presented in eight movements: an introduction for soprano and orchestra followed by a movement for each word of Christ from the cross. Composing for the Catholic church, Dubois used traditional texts from the Roman Catholic Holy Week liturgies to add meditations on the scriptural account. The opening soprano solo is the O Vos Omnes traditionally sung at Tenebrae services. In the Third Word, Christ¹s words to Mary, his mother, are combined with the 13th-century sequence Stabat Mater Dolorosa; in the Fourth Word, Christ¹s anguish at being forsaken by his Father is combined with the liturgical text Omnes Amici Mei. At the end of the Seventh Word, Dubois concludes his sacred cantata with a hymn-like setting of the medieval antiphon Adoramus Te, Christe. This serene hymn, much like a chorale at the end of an 18th century cantata, provides the listener with a foretaste of the resurrection after the compelling drama of the Passion story.