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Having the last word

April 1, 2015

A few years ago I decided I would invent my own proverbs. The basis of a good proverb is not that it necessarily means anything, but that it sounds like it ought to. As is sometimes said*, “A proverb is the wit of many but the wisdom of few.”

Mine was a short-lived endeavour, lasting only until I discovered the stiffness of the competition. William Blake was a master, and this setting by Benjamin Britten of The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock was quite enough to put me back in my place.

But after a conversation I had not so long ago, I found myself thinking in aphoristic manner: “If someone always insists on having the last word, let them. You can always ignore it.”

Another way of putting that would be that sometimes it’s best to hold your tongue. And that is a phrase I cannot hear without Joan Baez’s magical rendition of the folk ballad Mary Hamilton.

Now, this is a music blog, as you know. OK, I’ll correct that – it’s an assembly of disconnected circumlocutions which are occasionally pulled into some sort of order by reference to music. What I mean to say is that it is not a religious blog.

I make that disclaimer because the first musical thought that came into my mind for the phrase “last word” was the Seven Last Words. I didn’t know that phrase other than as the name of a composition by Haydn, until Dad explained that it referred to the final seven short utterances of Christ on the cross. So you’ll have to trust me that there is nothing more than coincidence in play in mentioning it to you just before Easter.

When I checked with the Deity of Data, I saw that there have been many settings of these “last words”. It is a musical conceit, to be sure: the words do not appear in the same gospel accounts but are gathered from all four. They have sometimes been an excuse – like many scriptural passages – for composers to write for a sympathetic constituency; sometimes they inspire composers who are religious to write in furtherance of their faith. We will not attempt to decide, let alone judge, except on musical grounds.

Having seen how many settings there are of these words, I thought I would try out something new to share with you. So here is Daniel Elder’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. I like this, though it is not free from cliché. The atonal half-shriek that occurs is a device very much of another time, but it is thankfully not predominant. Elder’s very beautiful modern polyphony engrosses the listener. It is not a calming piece – troubled, rather, its slightly agitated surface suggesting greater turmoil within. Try it, and let me know.

And that’s my final word on the subject.

Apart from this one.

As Abba correctly observed in The Winner Takes it All: “Nothing more to say.”

* By me. Yes – that’s one of mine.

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