THE last ten years of Bach’s life were by no means years of human or spiritual loneliness. His Lutheran theology enriched his inner life with joyful confidence in the promise of grace. In contrast, Beethoven vacillated among various philosophies—Catholicism, a bit of oriental mysticism, and a romanticized deism of Schiller and Kant—ultimately experiencing true spiritual revelation, strikingly evident in his last piano sonatas and quartets, as well as in his Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony. Beethoven’s religious revelations were of a more individual character, born from personal tragedy. The note of spiritual struggle is never absent in either his compositions or his writings; he suffered from an agonizing feeling of isolation caused by the loss of his hearing and by his unfulfilled craving for human affections. Bach’s philosophy, on the other hand, was the steady rock of faith throughout his life, and he fully enjoyed the satisfaction of human relationships; tragedy was no precondition for his religious experience.
Bach had all the blessings of a good life, the fulfillment of human desires, and the recognition of his talents in his last years. At home he was surrounded by his family, his faithful Anna Magdalena and five of his children, plus his cousin Johann Elias Bach,1 a man in his thirties who acted as tutor to the young children and as Bach’s secretary. (The letters of Elias, a divinity student at Leipzig University, give glimpses of the mutually devoted Bach family.)
During this period Bach traveled frequently to perform organ concerts, usually as part of the inauguration of a new or newly renovated organ. In August, 1746, he visited the city of Zschortau, where he was invited to examine the new organ built by Johann Scheibe. A month later he went to Naumburg where Zacharias Hildebrandt of Leipzig had built a new organ.2 He also traveled to Dresden for the ceremony of his royal appointment and to visit Count Keyserling. (These absences from his duties at the Thomas School probably vexed the officious council, but by this time these gentlemen seem to have resigned themselves to the stubborn independence of their “incorrigible” cantor.)
Bach’s home was often cheered by visitors, for as Emanuel wrote in his short autobiography: “It hardly ever occurred that a master of music would pass through Leipzig without making the acquaintance of my father and letting himself be heard by him.” These visits may have been interrupted intermittently when the military campaigns of Frederick the Great curtailed travel. Since in those days battles were localized and of short duration, however, travel was not completely suspended as it has been in recent wars.
In 1741 Bach went to Berlin to visit his son Emanuel, who had just become the court accompanist to the Prussian king. His stay was cut short when Johann Elias wrote urging him to return as soon as possible for Anna Magdalena, in the early stages of pregnancy, was in critical condition from hemorrhaging. Fortunately she recovered, and half a year later bore her last child, Regina Susanna, who lived until 1809.
A Private Performance for the King
In May, 1747, Bach again visited Berlin. This time his two devoted sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Friedemann, proudly presented their famous and adored father to Frederick the Great. Historians differ considerably on the circumstances under which Bach was introduced to the king. Forkel, who relied upon the report of Bach’s son Friedemann, relates that Bach was repeatedly and urgently invited by the royal amateur musician—Frederick was a flutist of considerable ability. When at last Bach traveled north, accompanied by Friedemann, and announced himself, the King, impatient to hear the famed master Philipp Emanuel had often bragged of, did not give him time to change from his dirty traveling clothes into his black cantor’s garb, but immediately led the weary traveler to his new fortepianos.
Authorities Spitta and Terry suspect that Friedemann embellished his tale a bit. The commonly accepted version relates that Bach had gone to Berlin not to seek more fame, but to meet his daughter-in-law and his first grandchild, born in 1745. When the king heard that Bach was in the vicinity, he summoned him to Potsdam, giving up the customary daily concert in which he himself participated, and led Bach from room to room to try out the new fortepianos that Silbermann had built. This account is verified by a report of May 11,1747, in the Spenerische Zeitung3 According to this and all further evidence Bach improvised on all the instruments and then asked His Majesty to submit a theme for the improvisation of a fugue. Frederick gave him a rather long theme4 which Bach immediately developed “in the most learned and interesting manner”5 without the slightest preparation. The king then asked Bach to improvise a fugue in six voices on the same theme. According to Forkel, Bach explained that “not every theme is suited for such full-voiced treatment” and chose a theme of his own for this six-voiced improvisation. The Spenerische Zeitung reports that he complied with the king’s request on the next day, when His Majesty took him to see the organs in Potsdam.
Upon his return to Leipzig, Bach composed an entire set of ten canons, one sonata in four movements, and two ricercars on the “royal theme.” The second ricercar is a six-voiced fugue thus fulfilling in a more complete and polished form his extemporaneous execution of Frederick’s request. When Bach published this Musikalische Opfer (Musical Offering), with the music printed by Johann Georg Schubler of Zella St. Blasii near Suhl, in Thuringia, he humbly stated in his dedicatory preface to the king that he had “noticed very soon that, for lack of necessary preparation, the execution did not succeed as well as such an excellent theme required.”
The ricercars and canons bear Latin titles and inscriptions that echo an age long vanished. A quaint and rather cryptic acrostic on the word ricercar precedes one of these compositions:
To the Canon a 2 per Augmentationem, Contrario Motu (two-part canon in augmentation and contrary motion) he adds: “Notulis Crescendibus crescat Fortuna Regis” (As the notes grow, so may the King’s fortunes). In the next canon, which modulates in successively ascending keys, he writes “Ascendenteque Modulatione ascendat Gloria Regis” (And as the modulation rises, so may the King’s glory). It has been observed that for an artist the purpose and perpetual exercise of creation grows out of simply his pleasure in this exercise. This is always true in part, but even now that Bach had stopped writing for the liturgy, he continued to believe that the purpose of music was the glory of God, and that all other endeavors were but the idle jingling of Satan. In Protestant theology the glory of God meant more than singing His praise, and Bach, believing that his musical creations came from God and that he was only an earthly agent, accepted the divine source of all his music, whatever the occasion for writing it had been. God’s glory, indeed the very quality of divinity, is embodied in His own creation.7
A Spiritual Sacrifice
The works of Bach’s last eight years lead the thoughtful student and the sensitive listener into greater depths of spirituality than any of his earlier works. But a certain esoteric character also marks these compositions. The works were not written for the liturgical service, were not accompanied with lyrics to suggest a particular religious thought, in general did not specify what instruments were to be used for their performance. These qualities combined with the extraordinary predominance of contrapuntal intricacies—canons, puzzle canons, mirror fugues —lead many to categorize the works of his last years as studies in the musical theory and pedagogy. And indeed the display of skill for its own sake forms an undeniable aspect of this period’s art. But this aspect is only one, and not the essential one, in his last works. From the time Bach gave up writing for the church he submitted himself to a rigorous discipline, and for a twofold reason: besides his desire to sharpen his acuteness in contrapuntal perception and quick insight into all possible moves of the intervals and their harmonic combinations the metaphysics of Werckmeister, Kepler, and their Pythagorean mysticism had taught him that this very discipline dealt with fundamental, primary elements of the divine spirit. The infinite possibilities of intervallic combinations within the movement from dissonance to consonance was the creativity of the divine spirit. “Anyone could do as well, if only he work as hard as I have,” he told his students.
Musical discipline now became a spiritual sacrifice—an act of worship. By this means his personal creativity found identity with the highest creativity. The assiduous exercise of contrapuntal problems took on the sanctity of a religious exercise, and so completely did he devote himself to it that his skill indeed resembled the performance of miracles. For who had ever heard of a human creature spontaneously improvising a six-voiced fugue on a theme submitted to him only a few moments earlier? No wonder connoisseurs stood in awe for such transcendental skill, and no wonder that most of his pupils regarded Bach as something of a saint. It was said that one of his pupils, Johann Christian Kittel (1732-1809), kept hanging over his harpsichord a picture of Bach, covered with a curtain that was removed only at special occasions. No one was to behold the master’s face except in an attitude of special reverence.8
The extant works of the years 1742-1750 consist of the Goldberg Variations; the second volume to the Well-Tempered Clavier; a prelude and fugue for organ; one cantata (perhaps composed at an earlier period); some canonic variations upon the chorale “Vom Himmel Hoch da Komm’ Ich Her”; a canon for the Society of Musical Sciences; another for J. G. Fulde; the Musical Offering for Frederick the Great; six chorales taken from various vocal movements in his cantatas and transcribed for the organ (printed by Schübler); 18 chorales in various styles; a canon in seven parts probably dedicated to the Thuringian organist Johann Schmidt in Talla; and The Art of the Fugue, a collection of 14 fugues and 5 canons.
Four major compositions of this period—the Goldberg Variations (1742), the Musical Offering (1747), the canonic variations on the chorale (1746-47), and The Art of the Fugue (1749-50)—were composed on one theme or one song only. The 30 individual pieces of the Goldberg Variations, including nine canons, have the same bass, and are thus forced to follow its modulations. Such treatment is particularly demanding when canons are superimposed upon a given bass. The royal theme is variously set in the Musical Offering as canons, ricercars, and a sonata in four movements are all made of the royal theme; the five canonic variations also are on the short hymn Vom Himmel Hoch. The entire Art of the Fugue, which comprises 18 compositions, four of which are canons, was written on one short fugal subject. From this one theme a dozen countersubjects were derived. Both the theme and its countersubjects appear in inversions, rhythmic variations, and even in the form of a hochetus.9 In total there are 133 metamorphoses of the short fugal subject and 17 countersubjects.
No less than 33 canons of widely varying technique are found in Bach’s last works, and he must have written innumerable others as trial and preparation. Canons appeared often in earlier works, but now he made an intensive study of them. Formerly his canons were made on short phrases of hymns, often rhythmically modified to make strict imitation possible. As we have seen, these canons had symbolical implications. In the canons of his last years he submits himself to infinitely more binding restrictions, demanding much more discipline than needed for fugue writing.
In a canon in unison the second voice sings or plays the same notes as the first, but enters either immediately after the first note of the leader (the dux) or later, depending on the possibilities of the counterpoint. In a puzzle canon the singer or instrumentalist has to discover that place of entrance himself, as well as the fitting interval for the companion chant (the comes), a task that may indeed be puzzling. (The puzzle canon that the learned society of Mr. Mizler received from Bach was never solved by any of its members. Now several solutions are extant.)10 In a canon in the second above or below the dux, the melody is duplicated a second higher than in the leader. Similarly a canon can be built on a fifth or seventh or other suitable interval. Usually when the answer is given in different intervals, rather than in unison or octave, it does not duplicate the intervals exactly as they appear in the leading voice, for if it did so, it would play in a different key from the dux, and we would have a piece in two simultaneous keys. The half-steps and whole steps of the scale consequently have to be those of the key of the dux. In the canone in moto contrario every interval of the melody moves in the opposite direction of that in the dux, while the given bass imposes its usual restriction upon the harmony. Other types of canons include the crab canon and canon in four parts.
In the Goldberg Variations Bach composed canons answering in all intervals—a second, a third, a fourth, and so on. The writing of these demanded even more rigorous discipline, since the canons have to harmonize not only with each other but also with the bass. This bass may at times show some ornamental modification, but it never deviates from its basic harmonic and modulatory scheme throughout the variations.
In the five canonic variations on the hymn “Vom Himmel Hoch da Komm’ Ich Her” the self-imposed restrictions are tightened. The cantus firmus of the chorale is always present in the first four variations, while the canons play against it, first in unison, then with the answer in the lower fifth, always making melodic allusions to the original melody. Then a canon in the upper seventh appears between the two lowest voices, plus a free melody in the alto and the chorale melody in slow notes in the soprano, thus binding all other voices to obey its course of harmonic demand. In the fourth variation the soprano duplicates the entire tenor in twice its tempo, while the cantus firmus is heard slowly in the bass, and a free voice is added in the alto. In the fifth variation the alto sings the original chorale melody, while the tenor intones it a measure later, inverted, and a sixth lower. Then the two sing the entire chorale again in canon, but this time a third apart, the alto singing the inversion and the tenor the original. Now the bass and the tenor take up the inverted canon, the tenor answering in the upper second, while two free voices are added to the ensemble. All this time the bass has played a free accompaniment. Next an inverted canon in the ninth appears between the outer voices. All four phrases of this Christmas hymn have thus been faithfully and consistently presented in inverted canons and in four different intervals. As a conclusion Bach has fitted all four simultaneously in diminution (twice its tempo) as well as in inversion.
In his Musical Offering 10 of the 13 compositions present canons on the royal theme—in two voices, with the royal theme as obligato. In the fifth canon of Musical Offering, however, Bach lets the second voice play in g minor, while the leader plays in c minor. This bitonality is then corrected by a third voice, a rhythmically varied and somewhat ornamented version of the royal theme. This theme then dominates the tonality and leads the harmony away from any bitonal chaos. The royal theme itself appears in several succeeding sections, modulating from c minor, through d, e, f sharp, g sharp, b flat, back to c minor. Each time it acts as the stabilizer of the bitonality. Number 8 is a mirror canon with the answer in the inversion. The next is a crab canon (canon cancrizan), a device as old as the science of counterpoint. Here the second voice plays the first one backwards, the last and the first notes beginning and ending simultaneously. This type of canon does not require as much skill as it may seem,11 and since the ear cannot spontaneously detect and follow it, it is a sort of music for the eye. Bach wrote only one.
A four-part canon is generally written on such simple material that no particular difficulties arise. But in the Musical Offering Bach wrote one on the royal theme, which had to be ornamented in such a way as to make this difficult feat possible. It displays an unprecedented skill that can have been acquired only by faithful perseverance.
Many have judged the canon technique to be an idle game, like working a jigsaw puzzle. Indeed it is, except when endowed with disciplinary, artistic, and spiritual purpose. For Bach, the constant exercise of fitting and adjusting all possible positions resulted in a miraculous command over contrapuntal technique and sensitivity to the infinite harmonic possibilities of every note. He thus acquired the greatest freedom under the severest restrictions. This assiduous discipline enabled him to express depths of spiritual experience never sounded before or after, depths that suggest individual religious revelation.
This sacred purpose was lost during the era of the Enlightenment and its resulting style of Empfindsamkeit.12 In Hamburg, Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was temporarily influenced by the English Enlightenment, told the music historian Charles Burney that he regarded canons as “dry and despicable pieces of pedantry, that anyone might make who would sacrifice his time to them.”13 Even though he later recanted his derogatory opinion of polyphony, the statement is typical of the enlightened composers.14
The Art of the Fugue
In The Art of the Fugue the self-imposed discipline seems to have relaxed to the point that Bach seems to surrender himself to the ecstacy15 of musico-religious revelation that was the reward for all these preparatory disciplines The “ground of being and meaning” seems to have been revealed to Bach in the cognitive form of musical creation. The idea that the nature of music was associated with Pythagorean concepts of mathematical proportions, which described the cause and ground of the existing world, had been deeply ingrained into Bach’s mind by his reading of Kircher and Werckmeister. Even if Bach was no longer knowingly influenced by these Pythagorean-Keplerian notions, he always believed in music as a source and instrument of revelation.16
Bach gave no directions whatever for the performance of The Art of the Fugue: no tempo markings, no dynamics, and no suggestion of instruments to be used. He was occupied in his last years with musical substance only, not with its presentation. And musical substance here applies only basic, primary elements of music. Bach conceived most of his music, and particularly this work, independent of the expressive demands and limitations of particular instruments. (However, in the Musical Offering he did assign its sonata to the traverse flute which Frederick the Great played, a violin, and the unspecified continuo, which would have been played on one of Frederick’s pianofortes by Carl Philipp Emanuel. Elsewhere in the work his only suggestions are for violins in two of the canons.)
Our manner of absorbing music is entirely different from that of Bach’s time when the connoisseur admired mainly craftsmanship. Our romantically conditioned esthetics expect emotional reaction. We need an imaginative interpretation. A mere reading on a rather neutral instrument like the Silbermann fortepiano, or on an inexpressive harpsichord, or an organ without much registration, does not satisfy us. The work reaches us best with modern orchestration of modest size—and a modest and truly reverential attitude. Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that this, and all the works of Bach’s last eight years, can be played on keyboard instruments, with or without pedal boards. This fact should not lead to the conclusion that Bach wrote The Art of the Fugue only for the harpsichord; as we have said he did not write for an instrument. But with the exception of one pedal point and the mirror fugues (which would require two keyboards), no stretches of more than an octave are ever required of either hand. Consequently if he had so desired, Bach could have played the work on one keyboard alone, without the use of a pedal board, although it seems most improbable since he owned three of them.
Bach never finished The Art of the Fugue, for death overtook him. The last part, Contrapunctus XIV, is broken off in the 239th measure. In the autograph is found a little note by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, saying: “During the writing of this fugue, where the name BACH in the countersubject is introduced, the author had died.” The theme using the notes representing B (German for b flat), A, C, and H (German usage for B natural), appears like a musical signature in the last fugue of his life, technically the most perfect and as an art work the most profoundly significant of his mystic faith.
Bach had taken steps toward its publication before he completed the work. The finished parts were engraved by an unknown craftsman, perhaps one of his own sons.17 On the back of Bach’s manuscript of the last and uncompleted fugue, corrections of the engraving in the master’s handwriting, appear. Carl Philipp Emanuel published the work posthumously.
The Persevering Spirit of an Era
During the composition of this great monument of contrapuntal art Bach’s health was breaking down. For some time his eyesight had been failing, gradually dimmed by cataracts. This approaching blindness was much aggravated by a paralytic stroke that he suffered in May, 1749.18 At that time the end appeared to be near. The Saxon prime minister, Count von Brühl, had been informed of the impending death of the Thomas cantor, and with indecent haste he arranged the formal examination for Bach’s successor. Barely a month after Bach’s stroke “the examination for the future post of cantor at St. Thomas was delivered with greatest applause by Herr Johann Gottlob Harrer, Capell Director of His Excellence Secret Council and Prime Minister von Brühl.”19
But Bach not only recovered and lived for more than a year more, but once more rallied his fighting spirit in the defense of the sacred art of music against the aggression of enlightened academicians. This time he took up the cause of one of his favorite pupils, Johann Friedrich Doles, who for five years had been spreading the teachings of his revered master as cantor at the Gymnasium of Freiburg in Saxony. Then a new rector, Johann Gottlieb Biedermann, launched an attack upon music which, like Ernesti, he considered a dangerous hindrance to academic learning.
The controversy began after a musical festival on the anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia, for which Doles composed, rehearsed, and directed the music to a Singspiel, a musical play. The successful performance was repeated several times, and the profit to this enterprise amounted to 1,500 Thaler. Apparently half of this slipped into Biedermann’s pocket, for “he gave account of only half the amount.”20 When he offered Doles only 30 Thaler for his work, the proud musician declined such a niggardly offer, saying that he was content with his success. As these transactions became known, Biedermann sought to avenge his injured reputation with a pamphlet, De Vita Musica.21 With distorted quotations and unscholarly interpretations of Plautus, Horace, Cato, and others, and by historical examples such as the disreputable Caligula and Nero, this essay attempts to prove that music has a detrimental effect upon human character. Although he admits that music itself must not be damned, he believes it leads men who practice the art into dissolute lives. He warns students not to become one of “Jubal’s brood/” an oblique attack on the biblical inventor of music.
His rancorous pamphlet brought forth an immediate hail of reprisals. Johann Mattheson of Hamburg wrote no less than four pamphlets in answer to Vita Musica. The literary commotion soon reached the ears of Bach, and painfully aware of the problem of a music-hating rector, he too wanted to protect his pupil. Unable to take up arms himself, due to ill health, he commissioned the organist and pianoforte maker Cristoph Gottlieb Schröter (1699-1782) to write a rebuttal to Biedermann’s essay. Schröter exposed Biedermann’s lack of scholarship and understanding of the art of music. He expressed the hope that schoolmasters in the future would guard themselves against stooping to such base utterances.
Schröter attempted to prove that any enemy of music is necessarily “a godless blasphemer.” He quoted examples of similar controversies that shook the hallowed position of music in the life of the German Gymnasia and churches. Bach too recognized this growing danger. About this time he set an old cantata, “Oh holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit” (O Blessed Day, Wished-for Time), to a new text which reads in part: “Alas, beloved muse of harmony, sweet as thy music is to many ears, yet art thou sad and standest pensive there; many there be who scorn thy charms. . . . But calm thyself, fair muse; thy glory is not dead, nor altogether banished and despised.”
Bach wrote to the cantor of Frankenhausen, G. F. Einicke, that Schroter’s thesis was quite to his taste (nach meinem gout) and that he would have it published. “Should any more refutations follow, as I presume they will, I don’t doubt that the author’s Dreckohr will be cleaned and made more fit to listen to music.” The word Dreckohr, meaning filthy ear, is a pun on the word director, rector, to wit, Biedermann.
At that time Bach’s secular cantata, “Phöbus und Pan,” written 18 years before, was again performed, probably by Michael Schmidt, a student in Leipzig since March 12, 1749. Bach grasped the opportunity to take a dig at both Biedermann and Ernesti by changing a few lines. In the last recitative, the original text reads:
And now, Apollo, strike the lyre again
For nought is sweeter than thy soothing strain.
This he now altered to:
Now strike the lyre with redoubled power,
Storm like Hortensius, like Orbilius’ roar.
and in another place to:
Storm like Birolius, like Hortensius roar.
The implications were obvious to the learned world: Orbilius is the schoolmaster in Horace, and Birolius represents the name of Biedermann by way of an anagram, Birolius—Orbilius; Hortensius was a rival of Cicero. Since Ernesti was the famous editor of Hortensius, the learned world of Leipzig could also identify this well-known music-hater.22
A few months before Bach’s death Schröter’s article appeared in print, but with some harmless alterations,23 a new title, an extension of a quotation from a writing by Mizler, and a notable improvement of the punctuation and the paraphrasing. Schröter took offense to all these changes. Although the tenor of the article had not suffered in the least, his literary vanity seemed hurt. He accused Bach as the culprit, and asked Einicke to write Bach about it. Bach protested his innocence, and suggested that the printer was guilty. Schröter persisted, angrily accusing Bach, in another letter to Einicke, of evading the issue. The changed title indeed has the ring of Bach’s trend of thought: “Christian Judgment of the Programmatis, edited by Mr. Biedermann, etc.” The improved paraphrasing and punctuation, however, are not typical of Bach’s old-fashioned style, and Bach would hardly have quoted Mizler to support his own ideas.
Bach was spared further annoyance with trifling human vanities, for another paralytic stroke brought him to the portals of eternity. Six months before Bach’s death a renowned oculist, the Chevalier John Taylor, had passed through Leipzig on his way from London to Vienna and had treated the master. The confusions and inaccuracies of the account of his visit to Bach in his memoirs are glaring. He tells his reader that Bach was 88 years old and the teacher of Handel. Although he claims to have diagnosed Bach’s eyesight as beyond repair because of his previous paralytic stroke, he has just said in a preceding sentence that the celebrated master at Leipzig “received his sight by my hands.”24 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, in his father’s obituary, puts the blame of Bach’s decline upon the famous oculist, for he says: “Not only could he no longer use his eyes, but his whole system, which was otherwise thoroughly healthy, was completely overthrown by the operation and by the addition of harmful medicaments and other things”25
It is painful to contemplate that in his last days, when his art reached the loftiest heights of spiritualization, the divine light of this genius should have been clouded by the shadows of human strife, like the petty battle with Schroter, but the artist’s stronger and predominant mood of serenity was very little disturbed, as evidenced by the Art of the Fugue and the last chorales.
Last Work: Testimony to a Life of Faith
The last half year of his life Bach continued working at his Art of the Fugue and at a revision of a set of chorale-preludes intended for publication. Constantly struggling with his ever weakening physique and his failing eyes, he managed to write out 15 of his chorale-preludes “in his own strong handwriting.” Only an artist convinced that his art was a form of communication with the infinite could have continued working with such unrelenting passion. The Necrology states that he had hoped to have his sight restored by the operation because he desired “to be of further service to God.”
By July, 1750, Bach must have known that the end was near. He called his beloved daughter Elisabeth, “Lissgen,” who had recently married, to his side. Soon her husband, Bach’s pupil Johann Christoph Altnikol, also came and took the last dictations from the now completely blind composer. Three chorale-preludes came down to us in Altnikol’s handwriting. Two were revisions of earlier works: “Jesus Christ Our Savior” and “Come God, Creator, Holy Spirit,” a Lutheran version of the ancient, ecstatic Ambrosian hymn Veni Creatore.
The third proved to be Bach’s last musical utterance. Like The Art of the Fugue, it was never completed. He had used the melody of this hymn, “Wenn Wir in Hochsten Nöthen seyn” (Whene’er We are in Highest Need), once before, when leaving Weimar, but now Bach chose new words to express his present state of mind. In place of the original lyrics which were filled with thoughts of doubt and finite preoccupations,26 he selected the first and last verses of a 15-stanza hymn by Justinius Genesius.
Before Thy throne now I tread
Oh God, and do I humbly pray:
Do not turn Thy merciful countenance
from me, grievous sinner.
Grant me a blissful end,
Awake me at the day of the Last Judgment
Lord, that I may behold Thee eternally.
Amen, Amen, hear and adjudge me.27
The entire poem is a supplication of a dying mortal, commending his soul to God’s judgment in the full and humble Lutheran faith in Christ’s promise of grace. Some of its verses resound with theological overtones that reveal deeper philosophical insight than most hymns. When the poet says “Thou hast, Father, made me in Thy likeness: In Thee I live, create and soar; Perish I must without Thee,” and “God, Holy Spirit, Thou highest force, Whose grace creates everything in me,” he goes beyond the obvious biblical mythology. A lifelong study of theology, the neo-Platonic philosophy of Werckmeister, the Pythagorean music philosophy of Werckmeister, Kircher, and Kepler, and most of all the spiritual dedication to the discipline of his art had brought Bach to a profound realization of the essential nature of being. But this metaphysical realization did not take the form of intellectualized philosophical concepts that might have challenged his simple faith or the Lutheran dogma. On the contrary, his philosophical readings supported and made more firm his biblical faith, as his new treatment of the last chorale reflects.
In the earlier Weimar composition the melody was freely ornamented in lyrical expression of tender personal and sorrowful feelings; thus transformed by ornamentation in the lyrical Italian style the melody alone carried the purpose of the composition. But in his last chorale, at one with the metaphysical heights of The Art of the Fugue, the completely blind composer dictated another contrapuntal web of divine logic to the original, unadorned melody. The three accompanying voices intertwine in inverted and diminished stretti (in simple chorale-motet style) to the calm chant above. We are reminded at once of Luther’s description of contrapuntal music as singing and dancing angels hovering around the throne of God.
But this musico-metaphysical vision was broken off in the middle, as Bach was stricken unconscious by a final stroke of apoplexy. After ten days of fever, at 8:45 P.M., July 28,1750, he “departed gently and blissfully,” as recorded in the formal language of Necrology.