On learning of the supposed suicide of Mohammad Saleh al Haneshi in Guatanamo Bay earlier this month I immediately thought of one of J. S. Bach’s simplest pieces, Komm süsser Tod (Come sweet Death). This is an aria that Bach apparently wrote for a book of religious songs published in 1736, and edited by Georg Schemelli, cantor in the lovely hill town of Zeitz not far from the Saxon commercial center of Leipzig, where Bach was then director of the four city churches. The songbook contains almost a thousand religious poems new and old, sung mostly to the tunes of venerable Lutheran chorales. But the collection also includes about seventy new melodies. According to the book’s preface, Bach composed some of the new melodies and helped to harmonize others. The most famous of these arias, ascribed to Bach on stylistic grounds, is Come sweet Death. Schemelli intended his densely-packed songbook to be used in churches as well as for private, household devotions, in small groups or alone, with the aid of keyboard instrument or even a lute.
A lovely engraving of Zeitz graces a fold-out leaf preceding the title-page. King David plays his harp in the foreground, alongside an angel with clavichord in hand and another holding a sheet of music from which he apparently sings. Beyond is the Weisse Elster River and from its far bank rises the bluff on which the city sits gracefully inside well-maintained medieval walls. The towers of Zeitz’s churches, town hall, and other administrative buildings are spread gracefully among the lower dwellings. Contiguous to one corner of the town, where the plateau rises to a stretch of the river, is the Zeitz castle, where the great Lutheran musician Heinrich Schütz sometimes led performances of his music in the Baroque chapel with its two organs. The frontispiece of Schemelli’s Songbook presents a perfect of picture of architectural and civic harmony.
At the top of the engraving, the sun encloses the symbol of the trinity, and the rays of the Sanctus—“Holy, Holy , Holy”—part the clouds and shower the town with God’s love. Never was there a more unambiguous image of theocracy: God is great, and God is everywhere.
But somewhere in the town there is also a torture chamber equipped with the technologies of pain: those grim shin guards known as Spanish boots to be fixed tightly around the lower-leg and then beaten with marrow-rattling hammers; iron maidens, which the Germans associated the English; thumbscrews of various sizes and of graduated pain potential. Operating these and other implements were well-trained torturers with interrogators standing by.
As I pointed out here last week, in Bach’s Germany torture was a widely practiced and accepted method of establishing the truth, though a few jurists objected for the simple reason that it didn’t work, often yielding only false confessions from the weak and nothing from those strong enough to withstand the suffering. The latter were normally executed according to the dictates of Lutheran holy law.
Even defenders of torture in the “enlightened” 18th century had to admit that occasionally it sometimes went too far and could lead to the wrongful death of the suspect. All could be comforted, however, in the knowledge that redemption had been the eternal reward for the ephemeral, if excruciating, pain endured on earth. For many, both innocent and guilty, death was the only way out. The recalcitrant few who refused to confess and be offered the absolution of the state religion would be subjected to eternal torment far worse than that resulting from their earthly trials. But these same ordeals were like a preview of those to come: rats (used to on newly-inflicted wounds), searing irons, boiling water, implements for the racking of the body. Hell was hell, but there was also a hell on earth, made legal and civilized by resorting to technology and by confining the procedures to specifically, sanctioned durations. Human torture was excruciating but, in contrast to the sentences meted out at the Last Judgment, it never went on forever.
The concluding section of German hymnals was often devoted to death, an especially crucial matter for Lutherans since reform theology revolutionized the attitudes towards the departed. Gone with the Reformation were the indulgences and intercessory masses that might rehabilitate the dead from the beyond grave. Vanished, too, was that great holding pen of Purgatory, with its souls awaiting judgment, and disappeared with it was the potential to extract revenue from the grieving survivors in the forests of Bach’s central Germany for the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome. Death and the final sentence it brought was one of the must intensely cultivated topics in Lutheran song, both in simple arias and complex cantatas composed by Bach and his contemporaries.
Among the favorite themes of the Lutheran poets was weariness with the world and a yearning for its end. Death was depicted as a release from the tumults of earthly life and the vicissitudes of the body, a host for disease and sin. That death was seen as a blessing accounts for the rapturous treatment Bach often gives it.
The Schemelli Songbook is particularly rich in new melodies devoted to dying, among them “Come sweet Death.” Each of the poem’s five strophes begins with these words, set by Bach to a scale moving down through the interval of the fourth. This so-called descending minor tetrachord was a musical figure long associated with death and sorrow. Bach’s harmonization of this invocation begins with the dark chord of the home key of C-minor and moves quickly to its radiant major relative on E-flat. Already in the first line, with these simplest of means, death is cast as a refuge.
The next line—“Come sweet rest—parallels the opening, and begins by leaping upward to one of the highest pitches in the aria, and then traversing stepwise across the jagged interval of a diminished fourth. The poet punctuates this telling passage with an exclamation point that confirm the poignant shape of the melody. That this phrase comes to momentary rest on an unstable pitch in need of resolution suggests a kind of desperation. With these sparse musical means, death is made to seem still a long way off.
After these short, almost fragmentary cries, a pair of longer, interlocking phrases strikes a more affirmative tone, asking for God to lead the dying person to peace. Then the melody sweeps upward, the singer declaiming her — women were the most devoted singers of domestic, Pietist songs such as these, the men were also encouraged to use this repertory — weariness of the world, and moving to a resolute cadence. As patience with the earthly life frays, the singer’s complaint suddenly sharpens again with piquant D-flat in the midst of the wailing “Oh, come, I’m waiting.” Another long phrase conveys the oft-heard request issued by Lutheran sacred poetry for Jesus to close the eyes of the dying. To close the strophe, the cadential figure repeats the the clipped supplication “Come blessed Rest.” Finally, in the last verse, the eyes are closed, the rest yearned for throughout has been found, the singer’s voice has eerily become that of the departed soul.
The central third strophe of the song reaches a new pitch of desperation:
Come sweet death,
come blessed rest.
O world you torture chamber
remain with your misery
in in earthly sorrow;
death brings me
to my beloved heaven.
Come blessed rest!
One of the few melismas deployed by Bach artfully coincides with the opening syllable of the word torture; in this quick arc of melody is embodied both pain and the hope for its end.
Though yearning for death, Come sweet death, cannot advocate the ultimate sin of suicide; only God can take away life. I’m not sure if this is merely sacred poetry and music, or if it might better be characterized as fanatical. Either way, it is a piece of unyielding, almost grim, beauty.
According to unclassified prison documents available on the New York Times’ Guantanamo Docket, Saleh described himself as “devout”, but added that he is not “a religious fanatic.” Throughout his eight years in the torture chamber that is Guantanamo, Saleh continued to deny any involvement with al Qaida and on his release hoped “go back to Yemen and get married.” Various copies of the summary of evidence from the Combatant Status Review Tribunal—the most recent available of its crushingly similar versions is from February of 2007—relates that after being freed Saleh “intends to go to school and become a history or geography teacher.”
After eight years in prison, hunger strikes, being strapped at the end to a psychatric ward and force fed chair, death was Saleh’s only escape from the torture chamber of Guantanamo. Fellow detainee Binyam Mohamed, released from the prison in February, doubts the official story, writing recently in that “[Saleh] never viewed suicide as a means to end his despair.”
In the end, though, his escape came only with death.
The afterlife led by Bach’s devasting aria is one of the strangest among the often bizarre paths taken by his exhumed works.
The flamboyant American organ virtuoso, Virgil Fox, of cape and diamond-studded shoes, made a extravagantly lush transcription, which in his recordings of it quaver with layers of emulsified string sounds, Bach’s harmonies rendered sluggish by all the goo. “Komm süsser Tod” is forced to indulge in the sensual excesses of the world. The inversion of the aria’s original purpose was already complete.
The equally flamboyant, if less outré, Stokowski made his own transcription of the aria, a kind of shimmering counterpart to the bombast of his famous reading of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Given its Romantic indulgence in pure feeling, the appearance of a digitally remastered version of Stokowksi conducting “Komm süsser Tod” on the Most Relaxing Bach Album in the World … Ever! seems almost logical.
Fox’s contemporary, tuba legend William Bell, also got a hold of the aria, and in his honor it is now a staple of the worldwide TubaChristmas celebrations. The most intimate of arias reflecting on death, it is now heard each year with massed tubas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
As an antidote to all this sentimental silt, here’s the link to the wonderful baritone Klaus Mertens with Ton Koopman on organ doing only three of the five verses. In contrast to its more normal guise in corners of contemporary culture we’ve just visited, ‘Komm süsser Tod” here attains a far greater impact by virtue of the direct simplicity of its declamation and accompaniment.
The American disfiguring of “Komm süsser Tod” is perhaps an accurate reflection of the aria’s contemporary status. Christmas eve with stentorian tubas; chilling out in one’s living room with a glass of whisky in hand and Bach’s aria on the Bang and Olufsen; or attending an organ recital last month at the National Cathedral in Washington, where one could bask in the colored light from the stained glass windows and the undulating Romantic bliss of Virgil Fox’s transcription of a sober Lutheran setting—all these are a long way from the austere sentiment Bach and poet expressed nearly three hundred years ago.
As this music plays no one cares to think either about the torture chamber now sunken beneath its textless surface or to reflect on the relief in death that this song so powerfully promises.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com