The twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 should make as confront anew the American government’s torture regime in all its forms, past and present, from black sites abroad to the intimidation of innocent people in the homeland. Today’s theme song for that confrontation: J. S. Bach’s simplest pieces, Komm, süßer Tod (Come sweet Death).
It appeared in a book of religious songs published in 1736 edited by Georg Schemelli, cantor in the hill town of Zeitz not far from the Saxon commercial center of Leipzig where Bach was then director of music. The songbook contains almost a thousand religious poems, both 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 these and helped to harmonize others. The most famous of these arias, ascribed to Bach on stylistic grounds, is Come sweet Death. Schemelli intended his 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 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 one in hand and sings the music from a sheet hneld in the othner. 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: “Spanish boots” to be fixed tightly around the shins and then beaten with marrow-rattling hammers; iron maidens, which the Germans associated with the English; thumbscrews of various sizes and prized because they allowed for the calibrated administration of dire pain. Operating these and other implements were well-trained torturers and interrogators.
As I pointed out here last week, in Bach’s Germany torture was a widely accepted method of establishing the truth, though a few jurists objected for the simple reason that it didn’t work, arguing that it often yielding only false confessions from the weak and nothing from those strong enough to withstand the suffering. Even those who confessed to capital crimes under the duress of torture were executed according to the dictates of Lutheran holy law.
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 (let loose 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 unb but, in unbearable, but unlike the sentences meted out at the Last Judgment, it never went on forever.
The concluding sections of German hymnal were often devoted to death, an especially crucial matter for Lutherans since reform theology revolutionized the attitudes towards the departed. Gone with the Reformation were indulgences and intercessory masses that might rehabilitate the dead from the beyond grave. Vanished, too, was Purgatory, that great holding pen for souls awaiting judgment. Disappeared with it was the potential to extract revenue from the grieving survivors, including those in the forests of Bach’s central Germany for the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome, funded through this cann y monetization of death in the first years of the 16th century.
Because the final judgement of the soul was fixed at the moment of death, mortality 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 the subject.
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 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 conclude the strophe, the cadential figure repeats 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 saturated with a yearning for death, Come sweet death, cannot advocate the ultimate sin of suicide; only God can take away life.
The afterlife led by Bach’s grimly beautiful aria is one of the strangest among the often bizarre paths taken by his exhumed works.
The flamboyant American organ virtuoso, Virgil Fox, he 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: a literally breathtaking he inversion of the aria’s original purpose, especially as played by Fox on one the worlds larges organs of nearly 30,000 pipes in the grand atrium of John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia.
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. Confrontation with death has been transformed into a Wagnerian expression of pure feeling 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 basking 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.