»Work and structure« – these were the two most important things that gave Wolfgang Herrndorf support during his three-year fight against cancer. In his blog of the same name, the author of the successful novel »Why We Took the Car« documents and comments on his experiences and his thoughts about death. In this concert, Ensemble Resonanz combines his last words, originally recorded digitally and published after his death in book form, with Joseph Haydn’s setting of the Passion »Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross«. In seven slow and reverent movements, Haydn sets the last words of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Gospels, to vivid music. Herrndorf’s texts are read with great intensity by actress Birgit Minichmayr, whose distinctive voice has been heard in performances at Vienna’s Burgtheater since the late 1990s.
Teaser »Last words«
Birgit Minichmayr narrator
conductor Riccardo Minasi
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, Hob. XX/1A (1787)
Wolfgang Herrndorf (1965–2013)
Work and Structure (2010–2013)
Last Words :About the programme
Last words have always been assigned a great significance. On their deathbeds, Goethe called for »more light«, Kant stated, »It’s enough«, and Beethoven lamented, »Pity, pity, too late!« – which was not a reference to an unfinished work, but to a delivery of Rhenish wine that had just arrived and that he would not get to enjoy. Last words are often so symbolically appropriate for the life and work of an individual that we may begin to suspect that those words have been put in their mouth posthumously by well-meaning surviving dependants.
The Bible is no exception to that. The seven last words Christ is said to have uttered on the cross are not listed in that way in any of the gospels. Rather, they are a collection of utterances recorded by individual evangelists. The fact that Jesus’s last words are clearly construed, and that it just happened to be seven (like the seven days, seven deadly sins, etc.), shows that – as so often in the Bible – it’s less about factual veracity than it is about the symbolic truth and the related theological statement. »The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross« refer to different aspects of the Christian message: forgiveness, comfort, redemption and transcendence, but also the unspeakable earthly suffering of a crucified man.
The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross
1. Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
1. Today you will be with me in paradise.
3. Woman, behold, thy son! / Behold, thy mother!
4. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
5. I thirst.
6. It is finished.
7. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.
A tricky commission :Haydn’s Seven Last Words
The Spanish port city of Cádiz had a long tradition linked to these Seven Last Words. But let’s hear the story in Joseph Haydn’s own words: »In the year 1786, a canon from Cádiz asked me to compose a piece of instrumental music to ›The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross‹. It was the custom in those days during Lent to perform an oratorio, with the following contributing to its effect: the walls, windows and pillars of the church were covered with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging in the centre illuminated the holy darkness. The bishop would ascend the pulpit, recite one of the Seven Words and reflect on it. He would then descend from the pulpit and fall to his knees before the altar. This interval was filled with music. For each Word, the bishop would ascend the pulpit, and the orchestra would play after each address. My composition would have to take this custom into account. Writing a series of seven ten-minute adagios that doesn’t tire the listener was not the easiest of tasks.«
To this day, we can still feel the slight despair Haydn must have felt when faced with this tricky commission – which he dealt with masterfully. Even he admitted that he considered »this work to be one of my best«. Despite the uniform feel and tempo, the Seven Words boast an impressive musical variety. And Haydn even pulls off a slow introduction before the seven slow movements.
»Writing a series of seven ten-minute adagios that doesn’t tire the listener was not the easiest of tasks.«
Work and Structure :Wolfgang Herrndorf’s last words
In Ensemble Resonanz’s »Last Words« programme, no words from the Bible are sung, spoken or interpreted in the way Haydn had intended for Cádiz. Instead, the actor Birgit Minichmayr reads the last words of a man who took Mark Twain’s advice on the matter: »A distinguished man should be as particular about his last words as he is about his last breath. He should write them out on a slip of paper and take the judgment of his friends about them. He should never leave such a thing to the last hour of his life, and trust to an intellectual spurt at the last moment to enable him to say something smart with his latest gasp and launch into eternity with grandeur.«
That man is the author Wolfgang Herrndorf. Born in Hamburg in 1965, he initially worked as an illustrator for publications such as »Titanic«, before achieving success as a writer in 2010 with »Why We Took the Car«, a novel for young adults. What not many people know is that Herrndorf was already seriously ill with cancer – a malignant, untreatable brain tumour – at the time. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and experiences in the battle against the disease, his fear of death and the reactions of those around him in a blog, which was initially intended for his friends so that he wouldn’t have to say everything multiple times. However, the online diary soon grew into a public literary project, and was published as a book in 2013. Herrndorf gave it the title »Work and Structure«, the two factors that kept him going during his illness.
Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words, recorded by Ensemble Resonanz, directed by Riccardo Minasi, is also available on CD.
No trace of self-pity :The exit strategy
The texts read by Birgit Minichmayr cover almost the entire period of »Work and Structure«. It’s clear from the very beginning that Herrndorf isn’t out for (self-)pity. »What I need is an exit strategy,« he writes soberly in April 2010, not long after receiving the devastating diagnosis. For him, an atheist, the solution lies in obtaining a gun: »The certainty of holding it in my hand was, from the beginning, a key element of my psychological hygiene.« He will retain this vestige of self-determination to the end. In the epilogue it says: »Wolfgang Herrndorf did it the way it had to be done. At 23:15 on Monday, 26 August, he shot himself in the head with a revolver on the bank of the Hohenzollern Canal. He aimed through his mouth towards the brain stem. The calibre of the weapon was 9 mm. Herrndorf’s personality did not change as a result of his illness, but his coordination and spatial orientation were impaired towards the end. That day was probably one of the last he would still have been able to carry out the deed.«
Despite all the frustration and discord, the blog shows how Wolfgang Herrndorf was far from succumbing to world-weary cynicism. He notes at one point: »It’s always the same three things that floor me: the friendliness of the world, the beauty of nature and small children.« And he quotes Schlingensief: »It can’t possibly be as beautiful in heaven as it is here.«
Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 24 Mar 2021
Translation: Clive Williams
Poem from »Work and Structure« :Wolfgang Herrndorf
We Will Meet Again in Heaven
An Angel Saved Me
Shadow in Tiger Country
One More Summer
One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round
I’ll Come Back as a Flower
I Don’t Want You to Cry
In Heaven I’ll Go Sledging
Work and Structure