Around 1785, Haydn received a commission for a composition from Don José Sáenz de Santa María, marqués de Valde-Íñigo, a patron who paid for the decoration of the Santa Cueva Cave under the Santo Rosario Church in Cádiz (southern Spain). He asked Haydn to write 7 slow instrumental pieces that corresponded to the Seven Words that Christ is said to have uttered while hanging on the cross.
Seven slow pieces – sonatas he called them – intended for the Good Friday service in the cave chapel. Haydn describes the service as follows: “The walls, windows and pillars of the church were draped in black, with only one large lamp in the center illuminating the sacred darkness. At noon, all doors were closed and the music started. After an appropriate introduction, the bishop ascended the pulpit, spoke one of the seven words, and then gave a meditation. When it was finished, he came down and knelt before the altar. This time was filled by music. The bishop would ascend the pulpit and leave it again for a second, third time, and so forth, while the orchestra played each time he ended his sermon. I had to take this situation into account in my music. ”
Shortly after this commission, Abbot Maximilian Stadler visited Haydn and describes how Haydn was brooding on how to approach this work.
He advised Haydn to start by putting the words to music first. That is what Haydn did and then everything fell into place.
Haydn originally composed the seven last words for an orchestra. That could never have been a very large orchestra, given the small cave church where it was performed.
The seven words are preceded by an Introduction and concluded with a short, violent presto, Il Terremoto, depicting an earthquake.