The Seven Last Words of Christ by Theodore Dubois

A tradition at Second Presbyterian Church has been the annual performance of the Theodore Dubois “Seven Last Words of Christ” on Good Friday. This was traditionally performed at noon; however, several years ago the performance was changed to 7:00 p.m. The work is performed by a double quartet, consisting of the Second Presbyterian Church Quartette Choir, and four additional guest singers.

Theodore Dubois was born in France in 1837. He spent most of his life in Paris, where he studied at the Paris Conservatory. While he was not recognized as one of the great musicians of his time, he was highly respected by his more famous counterparts, including Franz Liszt (who gave him musical encouragement), Cesar Franck, and Camille Saint-Saens.

Dubois was the organist and choirmaster at the Church of St. Clotilde in Paris (where Cesar Franck also served at one time) when he wrote the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” This composition was first performed in 1867 for the Good Friday service at the Church of St. Clotilde. Even though Dubois composed several other works (orchestral, choral and organ), very few of them are still performed today, with the exception of the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” Perhaps part of the reason for his relative obscurity today is that Dubois composed very much in the idiomatic style of his day–a style some consider overly-romantic or trite by today’s standards. In this sense, the “Seven Last Words” is very much a “period” piece, in that its style is representative of another time and place–namely, the gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, at Second Presbyterian we can become time travelers, reveling in this glimpse into the past by experiencing the music of Theodore Dubois, together with the glorious Arts and Crafts interior of Second Presbyterian Church.

Here at Second Presbyterian Church, Dubois’ “Seven Last Words of Christ” was performed maybe two or three times between 1900 and 1930 (and most certainly in the late 1800s), but it wasn’t until the arrival of organist Edward Eigenschenk in 1928 that this composition became practically synonymous with the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago.

Mr. Eigenschenk (who became “Dr. Eigenschenk” in 1932) began programming the “Seven Last Words of Christ” as an annual Good Friday event in 1936. Most certainly it was Dr. Eigenschenk’s dramatic interpretation of Dubois’ music that drew church members and visitors, who “would come from miles away to hear Dr. Eigenschenk’s ‘Earthquake Scene,'” as our church bulletins during those years announced. In fact, for many years the announcement of the Good Friday service in our Sunday bulletin encouraged members to arrive early if they wanted to get a seat!

At some point during the 34 years that Dr. Eigenschenk presented the Dubois “Seven Last Words of Christ,” he was able to procure a “Thunder Stop” which was added to our organ for special effects during the Good Friday performance. This type of mechanical sound effect device was usually standard equipment on the mighty theatre organs of the day, and it is generally thought that our thunder stop came from a dismantled theatre organ in Chicago. Nevertheless, it is still functional and, in the best tradition of Dr. Eigenschenk, is still used during each Good Friday service.

Dr. Eigenschenk was highly skilled in improvisation–meaning he could invent on the spot an elaborate composition using just a tune as a theme. When he accompanied the “Seven Last Words” on the organ, much of the accompaniment was improvised, or at least a highly embellished version of the actual music. In fact, for the “Earthquake Scene” for which he was so famous, he would completely depart from the Dubois score, preferring instead to make up his own “earthquake music”–parts of which sounded suspiciously like sections of the storm music from the “William Tell Overture.”

Dr. Eigenschenk’s interpretation of the “Seven Last Words” will probably never again be equaled. However, we still strive to depict the spiritually moving scenes of the crucifixion presented in this musical composition–the angry crowds, the anguish of Jesus’ mother, the thief on the cross, and Christ’s suffering and death on the cross–in the best spirit and tradition of Dr. Edward Eigenschenk.

–Notes by Michael Shawgo