In his famous Poetics of Music of 1939, Stravinsky observes, “A real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present.” Michael J. Trotta’s Seven Last Words is a work solidly grounded in tradition, yet incorporates a musical language that, in George Gershwin’s words, “informs the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time.”
Musical settings for the Seven Last Words date from at least the early 16th century, and composers of many style periods have contributed, including de Lassus (16th century), Schütz (1645), Haydn (1787), Frank (1859), Dubois (1867), and MacMillan (1993), and many others. (Although, as Trotta points out, settings in English are relatively rare.) Trotta adheres to the tradition, sometimes incorporating innovations in scoring or ordering of texts introduced by previous composers.
Musically, Trotta presents a broad range of musical conventions and devices, allowing the Words to “expose a gamut of emotions…in a way that distills the most poignant moments of the human condition.” Additionally, the setting interpolates liturgical texts not contained within the traditional set, “further expanding the story and the reaction
of those present and witness to the Passion.”…
… Trotta’s Seven Last Words is a composition that appeals on many levels. Te overall harmonic color is accessible, rich and varied, and one that is familiar to modern-day ears. It wouldn’t be a stretch to observe that several extended passages are reminiscent of what might be heard in a contemporary film score. At the same time, allusions to musical gestures and conventions drawn from the Western classical tradition are ubiquitous, and can only add to the appreciation of the work by those well steeped in the literature. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the work is highly integrated, with inner logic and connections that even the general listener can appreciate.
It is important to note that the work was commissioned by churches for performance by church choirs consisting of non-professional performers with limited and varied resources. Trotta responded directly to his charge by producing a work that is appealing, adaptable, and within the capabilities of any competent ensemble. Seven Last Words is a significant achievement, a worthy participant in the choral tradition, and a welcome contribution to the literature.