Anna Magdalena, Music and the Art of Dying

News that the United States ranks 30th among nations in infant mortality rates, and is the second worst among developed countries makes me reflect on the role music has long played in preparing for and coping with such deaths.  Among the most poignant confrontations with such circumstances before the advent of modern medicine is the notebook presented by J. S. Bach to his young wife Anna Magdalena in 1725.

The notebook begins in the loftiest realms reached by 18th-century keyboard music, with early versions of Johann Sebastian Bach’s third and sixth partitas (BWV 827 and BWV 830), copied out by the composer himself. After the bracing chromatic counterpoint and taxing technical demands of the closing gigue of the sixth partita, Bach’s young wife, Anna Magdalena, makes her appearance as copyist, entering a naïve minuet by an unknown composer. This is the first of two dozen diminutive dance pieces—minuets, polonaises, marches, and kindred trifles by her stepson Carl Philipp Emanuel and others—that attest to Anna Magdalena’s taste for light music. Yet suddenly, in the midst of the Notebook’s run of often banal secular pieces, the sacred unexpectedly intrudes. After Anna Magdalena had copied out a fashionable polonaise, she turned to a meditation on death entitled Bist du bei mir, long attributed to J. S. Bach, but actually the work of a lesser known contemporary, G. H. Stölzel. The text runs:

[If] you are with me, I go joyfully
to my death and to my rest.
Oh, how pleasant would be my end,
If you pressed your beautiful hands on me
And closed my trusting eyes.

Seemingly innocuous in terms of musical style, the melody is freighted with a profoundly religious concern—the contemplation of dying a blessed death.

This abrupt shift of topic—from dances to death—has most often been attributed to the meandering musical predilections of Anna Magdalena, and, accordingly, is taken to represent her search for modest, expressive pieces that she might sing. True, the juxtaposition of secular and sacred is by no means rare in manuscript collections of keyboard music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; one does not have to search long to find raucous dances and bawdy drinking songs disporting themselves unapologetically in the company of devout religious melodies. But Anna Magdalena Bach was not simply searching in a rather desultory way for pleasing melodies with which to fill out her personal notebook and with which to polish her bourgeois refinements. Thhis explanation does not sufficiently account for her apparently disquieting affection for texts that reflect on death and dying; these sacred songs represent more than moments of pious reflection amongst the earthly distractions and delights provided by the dances. Rather, they speak profoundly to the moral dimensions of music-making in the Bach home and the central position of the art of dying in their domestic musical life.

Anna Magdalena’s apparent fascination with death should come as no surprise: the art of dying was one of the most important topics in the literature of moral uplift which circulated widely in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which was collected avidly by J. S. Bach and his family. One of the authors best-represented in the Bachs’ large collection of religious books, the seventeenth-century theologian  Heinrich Müller warned readers of his Liebes-Kuß (Kiss of Love) that “Above all things, know that you must die”’ Similarly, the anonymous aria Gedenke doch, mein Geist (Remember, My Spirit) of Anna Magdalena’s notebook concludes: “Inscribe these words in your heart and breast: you must die.” Writers such as Müller ceaselessly reminded their readership that death could come at any time: “Today healthy and strong; tomorrow dead and in your coffin.” Anna Magdalena was certainly not too young to harbor such concerns: these songs on death were entered into her notebook in the 1730s  when she was herself in her thirties. Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, had died in 1720 at the age of thirty-five; Bach had returned from a trip to Carlsbad to find her dead and already buried.

Given the uncertainty of life’s duration, Bach’s moral library urged constant preparation for death: damnation was the penalty for deferring maintenance on the soul. While no one could help but fear death at times, with proper preparation, faith in Jesus would lead the believer to salvation. The writers favored by the Bachs relished the opportunity to detail the terrors which surround the death beds of the damned and the unprepared: in these scenarios snapping lions, gnawing worms, ravenous rats await the doomed just beyond the threshhold of life. Müller urged his readers to entertain “thoughts on death” (Sterbens-Gedanken), every day if they hoped to avoid such a fate; these thoughts equipped the Christian with the spiritual armor to resist the mortal temptations of the devil through the last moments of earthly life. Müller and others offered concrete suggestions intended to prepare their readers for the grueling hours and minutes of dying; these recommendations ranged from the recitation of daily prayers beseeching God to ensure belief in the “last hour” (letztes Stündlein) to the memorization of scriptural dicta and glosses. Müller argued that the wisdom of such passages could be more firmly entrenched in the mind by coupling them with melodies; the chorale was the favored musical form of the Lutheran ars moriendi, but hardly less valuable were strophic sacred songs, a genre energetically cultivated by many of the same authors of moral literature represented so heftily in the Bachs’ library. Aided by the proven pneumonic power of music, articles of belief were to be inscribed deeply in the soul so that they would not be erased during the final assault of the devil: strengthened by vigilant rehearsal, the sedulous practitioner of the ars moriendi would face death with fearless Christian resolve.

The sacred songs of the Anna Magdalena Bach book project a sense of domestic calm and compassion by drawing repeatedly on this death-as-sleep trope. The literature of moral uplift frequently praised the restorative power of sleep for true believers. Exploiting the metaphorical resonance of  the warming embrace of sleep, the literature in Bach’s library compared the grave to a bed, the dirt to sheets; waking up after a good night’s sleep provided a foretaste of the resurrection of the body at the Last Day. By contrast, the godless were troubled at night, just as they would be tormented in eternity. The pious preparation for nightly sleep served as an intimate rehearsal for the real end of life. Heinrich Müller urged the believer to memorize comforting passages and recite them while going to sleep. Moral writers often drew on nurturing motherly imagery to convey a sense of the sweet rest of God that would be the eternal dividend of a pious death: thus the dying soul might be depicted as a sick child who, as Müller put it, surely finds his “best rest on the lap and at the breast of his mother.” The songs of the Anna Magdalena Bach book articulate this rest-as-death metaphor through a nurturing maternal idiom: the comforting affect of Bist du bei mi, and other pieces in the notebook, is that of a mother putting her child to sleep, the song’s regular phrase structures and frequent repeated notes in the bass referring to the musical style of the lullaby.

The consultation of literature on dying and the singing of devotional songs on the same theme such as those in Anna Magdalena’s Notebook were an integral part of the family’s cultivation of the ars moriendi. The theological books were intended for both a male and female readership, and addressed themes relevant to the daily lives of both sexes; accordingly, these volumes were divided more or less equally between Bach’s heirs regardless of gender. To give but one example, Bach’s first child, Catharina Dorothea, received among other books from her father’s estate a volume entitled Nuptialia, a collection of wedding sermons by August Pfeiffer, whose works were outweighed only by thos of Martin Luther on the Bach’s bookshelves. Poignantly, this guide to domestic and married life became Dorothea’s property when she was 41 and single; like two of her three sisters who survived to adulthood, Catharina Dorothea never married. This grim volume never tires of informing Pfeiffer’s listeners and readers that death hovers over every couple, whether freshly united or near the end of decades of married life.

What a contrast these wedding homilies  make with the pep-talks of the current age. In the nuptial sermon that opens the book, Pfeiffer draws a vivid picture of Abraham mourning over the body of his dead wife, Sarah. For Pfeiffer, the death of spouses and children is the central fact of earthly existence and one that should not be shied away from, even at a wedding celebration. “Can a woman forget her baby?” he asks, especially having endured childbirth, the pain of which is the legacy of Eve’s sins. The answer is that she cannot forget, and at the wedding Pfeiffer goes on to dramatize the anguished sighs of devout, devoted parents grieving over lost children: “Oh, my heavenly father, here are your children, that you have given me. Oh, I hereby give them over to you.” Pfeiffer and other evangelical wedding preachers claimed the premature death of children as a blessing, since the sin and torment of a long earthly life would be spared them; these young souls went unblemished directly to heaven. For Pfeiffer, it is the death of babies that sends the clearest message to the parents that they must die as well. Such crosses were to be borne with belief and through careful preparation for one’s own big sleep.

Anna Magdalena would certainly have imagined that her husband, sixteen years her senior, was likely to die before she did. But Pfeiffer’s stern vision of domestic life aside, she could have been excused for hoping to be spared the loss of so many children. Of the thirteen children Anna Magdalena gave birth to, only six outlived her; of her first eight children only two survived beyond the age of four.  Her first child, Christiana Sophia Henrietta (1723-1726), died soon after turning three; her second, Gottfried Heinrich (1724-1763) was musically gifted and lived a longer life, but was mentally handicapped; the third, Christian Gottlieb (1725-1728), died at two-and-a-half. The little girl and boy who died were, presumably, walking and speaking, and capable of a full array of emotions from anger to love to sadness. In 1733 Anna Magdalena’s daughter Regina Johanna died at the age of four-and-a half, that is, during the period that many of these death lullabies were likely copied into her notebook. Thus by the time the last of these songs was entered, Anna Magdalena had had much brutal experience of her own infants’ sleep as death.

As Anna Magdalena’s notebook filled with music the number of her dead children inexorably increased. Given the mortality all around her, it seems certain  that Anna Magdalena used the songs of the 1725 notebook as lullabies, that is, whether they were used by this busy mother-musician, for the practical purpose of putting her children to sleep and for comforting them while ill, even fatally so. When she sang songs filled with sleep-as-death metaphors she knew that her children might not wake up. In this scenario the songs present their messages with even greater power, re-enacting the prayer of the mother at the cribside, following the Lutheran tradition in which family and friends often made music around the deathbed to usher the dying out of this world and into the next.

The inclusion of “Bist du bei mir” on  a number of CDs marketed for children is done in happy ignorance of the context for this song and others in the Anna Magdalena’s notebook.  The instrumental version for clarinet and piano to be heard on the Everland Kids’ Sleep Tight cleanses the music of its text; but even in purely instrumental form this hypnotically beautiful lullaby cannot shake the spirit of death that hovers over it, unbeknownst to the slumbering bee pictured on the CD cover. Given America’s recently exposed health record for newborns these timeless death songs of the Bach family have regained a mortal relevance.

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 dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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