Originally this work was commissioned as an orchestral work to be performed at the Santa Cueva Oratory in Cadiz for Good Friday in 1786. This what Haydn himself had to say about this:
"The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse."
Subsequently Haydn adapted it for string quartet.
It seems strange that a piece based on words should start out life without any voices, but it wasn't until 1794, when Haydn heard that someone else had added a chorus to his work, that he thought he could go one better and he wrote his own choral version in 1796.
The words themselves are not taken directly from the bible, but are derived from poetry by Joseph Friebert, adapted by Gottfried van Swieten.
So the work has had a long journey to arrive at the version for choir, solo and strings that we are privileged to hear today.
Click on this link to hear some of it:
The concert is on 21 April 2018. Full details to follow.