We’ve taken time in past posts to explore composers who have used their music to explore themes of grief in their personal lives. This grief is usually directed at someone close who has died, or the composer’s own mortality as they are diagnosed with a life limiting illnesses. It is rare that composer’s have been lucid enough on their deathbed to actually compose a piece related to their dying experience.
Johann Sebastian Bach, is one such rarity. Born in Germany in 1685, JS Bach is considered one of the greatest composers in Western tradition. He began his musical education at the age of 10, when he moved in with his eldest brother, after both of their parents died.
His composing style, in the Baroque form, was considered “old fashioned” by his contemporaries. However, his skill as an organist helped gain him fame while he lived. His most well known works include the Brandenburg concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, Mass in B Minor and Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
Medical historians have pieced together a probable medical course through examination of letters, portraits, etc. It seems that Bach had a minor stroke around 1746 which contributed to some facial palsy and vision loss. By the end of 1749 he was no longer writing music but dictating all of his compositions. He had 2 eye operations in March and April for complete blindness, which were unsuccessful. In mid-July 1750 he had yet another stroke with a complicating pneumonia. In the hours prior to his death he was said to have regained his complete vision (or perhaps was “seeing” the unseen as often occurs in the last days of life). He died July 28 1750 at the age of 65.
His last composition was completed on his deathbed. He was blind, had just had yet another stroke, suffering respiratory complications from the CVA, and yet lucid enough to somehow communicate his final piece. The piece, started prior to the stoke, was a chorale prelude first known as “When we are in Deepest Need”. It was in those last days that he finished it and changed the title to “Before Thy Throne I Now Approach.”
The piece in itself isn’t complex like a multi instrument symphony. The lone organ plays both melody and harmony. Listen the video clip of just the ending. In the short clip I’ve added my own thoughts on what’s being heard in the melody and harmony.
Cross published at http://arts.pallimed.org/2009/02/johann-sebastian-bach.html
Breitenfeld, Tomislav; Solter, Vesna Vargek; Breitenfeld, Darko; Zavoreo, Iris; Demarin, Vida (2006-01-03). “Johann Sebastian Bach’s Strokes”Acta Clinica Croatica (Sisters of Charity Hospital) 45 (1)