Good Friday Tradition

It was a long standing tradition at Second Presbyterian Church to annually perform Théodore Dubois' “Seven Last Words of Christ” on Good Friday. Originally, this piece was performed at noon; however, several years into the annual tradition, the performance was moved to 7:00 pm to accommodate a larger audience. The work was sung by a double quartette, consisting of the Second Presbyterian Quartet and four additional guest singers.

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

Dubois was the organist and choirmaster at the Basilica of Saint Clotilde in Paris, where Cesar Franck served before him, when he wrote the “Seven Last Words of Christ.” This composition was first performed in 1867 for the Good Friday service at the Basilica of Saint Clotilde. Dubois composed several other notable works for orchestra, choral and organ; however, with the exception of the “Seven Last Words of Christ,” very few of his works are still performed today,  Perhaps part of the reason for his relative obscurity is that Dubois composed in the idiomatic style of his day–a style most now consider overly-romantic or trite. In this sense, the “Seven Last Words of Christ” is a period piece. Its style is representative of another time and place; namely, the gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s. We had an opportunity at Second Presbyterian Church to become time travelers, reveling in this glimpse into the past by experiencing the music of Théodore Dubois while immersed within the glorious Arts and Crafts interior of our Second Presbyterian Church.

Here at Second Presbyterian Church, Dubois’ “Seven Last Words of Christ” was performed sporadically during the late 1800s and two or maybe three times in the early 1900s. Even then, it wasn’t until years after the arrival of organist Edward Eigenschenk in 1928 that this composition became practically synonymous in Chicago with Second Presbyterian Church.

Dr. Eigenschenk began programming the “Seven Last Words of Christ” as an annual Good Friday event in 1936. It was, most certainly, Dr. Eigenschenk’s dramatic interpretation of Dubois’ music that drew church members and visitors to “come from miles away to hear Dr. Eigenschenk’s ‘Earthquake Scene,'” as our church bulletins during those years proclaimed. 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, it is still used during each Good Friday service at Second Presbyterian Church.

Dr. Eigenschenk was highly skilled in improvisation He could invent, on the spot, an elaborate composition using just a tune as a theme. When he accompanied the “Seven Last Words of Christ” 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, some would say, like sections of the storm music from the “William Tell Overture.”

Dr. Eigenschenk’s interpretation of the “Seven Last Words of Christ” 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