Last missive from JSB

There’s a legend that tells of Bach on his deathbed, dying from a failed operation that was supposed to restore his sight. He dictates note by note to his son-in-law, “Vor deinem Thron tret ich hiermit”, “Today, I approach thy throne”.

One of Bach’s signature compositional forms is the chorale. He composed 350 chorales, each 4 or 6 lines harmonized in 4 parts. They are interspersed in his oratorios and cantatas as stand-alone prayers or as morality texts that condense the message of his story.

His last work is not a chorale, but a take-off on a chorale, called a chorale prelude. He takes the four lines of the chorale, and constructs a miniature contrapuntal piece on each of them separately.

Listen here to my own piano performance of Bach’s last work.

Johann Sebastian Bach died on this day in the year 1750. His style of composition is so intricate that musicians ever since have stood in awe and wonder, where could it have come from. The mathematical constraints on fugal composition are so severe, that only a few others have produced occasional works in this form. For Bach, fugues seem to flow through him, and they are not only mathematically perfect but emotionally satisfying with a huge variety of messages and moods.

For your average musical genius to compose a piece like Vor Deinem Thron would require many hours and days of poring over the score, rearranging notes and voices to make it work out right. It came through Bach as a completed whole that appeared in his head, in sharp enough focus that he could dictate the score, note by note.

Here is a vocal arrangement of the same music:

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