Bach’s Deathbed Chorale

As was customary in the Lutheran rituals of death and dying, Bach died at home, probably on the second floor of the cantor’s apartments in the Thomasschule, in his own bedroom above the Thomasplatz. A week before his death on July 28, Bach’s condition had deteriorated quickly when he suffered a stroke, which was soon followed by raging fever; a pair of failed eye operations performed on him a few months earlier had left Bach blind, and lying in his bed he would not have been able to see the summer morning early in his east-facing window. The hours of Bach’s death was approaching.

In these circumstances, the actions of the dying person and oft he family members, friends, and clerics standing by were thoroughly ritualized. Those gathered around the deathbed would have comforted the dying man by praying and reading from the Bible, singing chorales, perhaps even playing them on a harpsichord or clavichord.

They were also there to watch for signs: at this critical juncture Bach’s every action could give crucial information concerning the destiny of his soul, that is, the outcome of the final contest between good and evil, between heaven and hell. Even Martin Luther himself, when on his deathbed, had been repeatedly awakened by those around him so that they could confirm his faithfulness as near as possible to the actual moment of death. A pastor  was the most reliable and resourceful interpreter of the actions of the dying , and during Bach’s last week, his father confessor, Christoph Wolle, the archdeacon at the Thomaskirche, was summoned to the cantor’s bedroom. Following his training in pastoral care, Wolle would have given Bach a final belssing, quoted passages from scripture, and read prayers, while commenting on the dying man’s deportment in order to assure the family that his faith was unswerving. But however comforting father confessor and family may have been, in the last week of his life it was Bach alone who would determine the fate of his soul.

With the ultimate question to be decided over the course of Bach’s last days, the composition or, as is more probable, the revision of his so-called deathbed chorale, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, would have played a crucial role in the domestic drama of his death: 

Before your throne I now appear,
O God, and humbly bid you,
turn not our gracious face,
away from me, poor sinner.

Bach’s last piece is an elaborate demonstration of intricate contrapuntal tehnique used to treat a chorale text which both anticipates death and refers beyond it, to the arrival of the dead man in heaven:

As one might expect from the dying musical utterances of a composer of Bach’s stature Vor deinen Thron is embedded in mystery and myth, the fragment of truth often indistinguishable from the shapes of legend.

The piece was first published posthumously in 1751, appended to the first edition of the Art of Fugue in order to make up for the incompleteness of the collections’s final contrapunctus, whose own  shatteringly premature end in the midst of a massive contrapuntal oration supposedly marked Bach’s death, at least according to an annotation in the original manuscript made by  Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

The myth of finality is complicated further by the fact that the manuscript version of the deathbed chorale, also a fragment, includes  some improvements to the published readings. In the note which appeared on the reverse side oft he title-page of the first edition oft he Art of Fugue, Emanuel claimed that shortly before his death his father had dictated the chorale extemporaneously to an unnamed scribe. This notion was repeated by the guardians of Bach’s legacy, his family legacy and early biographers,

Although Bach’s devotees presented the deathbed chorale as an inspired, unpremeditated creation, neither the printed nor manuscript version of the piece could have been dictated extemporaneously, at least not in its entirety, as Bach’s myth-making heirs hoped to imply.

Far from having been conjured ex nihilo by the dying composer, this chorale is in fact an expansion of the short setting of the chorale melody that appeared in Orgelbüchlein written nearly thirty years earlier to an alternate text Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein (When we are greatest need). The deathbed chorale strips the original of its elaborate ornamentation and introduces lengthy contrapuntal interludes thematically based on the chorale melody itself. What is remarkable, however—and this is what must have left a lasting impression on Bach’s closest circle —is that even on his deathbed the composer was engaged with the techniques of learned counterpoint in all its fabulous complexity. It was intricate counterpoint that had occupied Bach’s last musical reflections.

While we should keep in mind that Bach did not compose the entire work in the last week of his life—a superhuman act thought by the heirs to be a suitably impressive yet devout summation of his genius—there is no reason to doubt that he was indeed at work on an expanded version of the chorale while awaiting his death, perhaps even before the stroke he suffered on July 20th. The blind Bach could have listened to someone play the piece, then could have dictated adjustments and corrections to an expanded, more contrapuntally complex, yet less elaborately ornamented version oft the origianl Orgelbüchlein chorale. A family member or student would have served as the amanuensis for these revisons, playing through the piece for the blind composer, who dictated the corrections while lying in what he clearly now knew was his deathbed. Given the debilitating illness which beset Bach in his last days, the slight differences between the two chorales might well approximate the level of composerly exertion of which the ailing man was then capable .

For a recording that follows a 19th-century version of he piece see:


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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