Today, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is revered as one of the greatest composers of all time whose multitudinous compositions, with their combination of intellectual rigor and transcendent beauty, are among the foundational documents of Western art music. In his day, J.S. Bach was seen as a church musician who dazzled his contemporaries with his organ playing and churned out new compositions with almost alarming speed and frequency. Though he was well-known and widely respected, he was not revered as he is now. His reputation received a facelift in the early 19th century (long after his death) with the publication of a biography in 1802, the revival of his Saint Matthew’s Passion by the composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, and ultimately the creation of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog) in 1850. Since then, Bach’s legacy has only grown. Among his famous compositions are the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, hundreds of cantatas and oratorios, and dozens of short chorales. And that is but the tip of the iceberg. Bach has over 1000 known compositions, and perhaps as many that have been lost forever.
Other interesting Bach facts:
- He was a genuine patriarch, fathering 20 children (10 of whom survived to adulthood) with 2 successive wives. See the family tree.
- Several of his children became famous composers in their own right, most notably Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach.
- There are streets all over Germany named for Bach, although he never left the country and never lived more than 250 miles from his birthplace in Eisenach. See the map.
- He was once put in prison by an employer who didn’t want to let him move jobs.
- He wrote a cantata about coffee addiction. Read about it here.
- Finally, Anthony Tommasini recently named Bach the greatest composer of all time.
“Komm, süsser tod” (Come, Sweet Death) is often counted among the chorales. But it was originally published for solo voice and basso continuo as a set of 69 songs that Bach contributed to a collection in 1736. Harmonic shortcuts aside, it follows the basic form of many of the chorales, with several short phrases separated by fermatas, and considerable harmonic rigor: each of the 12 chromatic tones gets intelligently used at some point in the 21-measure song. Having been written with no particular instrumentation indicated, “Komm, süsser tod” has been performed and arranged in many different guises, including symphony orchestra, voice and organ, mixed choir, concert band, and just about every other imaginable combination. Here are my favorite 2 performances from YouTube:
Leopold Stokowski’s moving orchestra transcription:
Klaus Martens sings while Ton Koopman plays:
An unknown wind band plays Reed’s arrangement:
Finally, for those of you who have gotten this far, there are a whole bunch more links to check out!
“Komm, süsser tod” has its own wikipedia page which includes the original German lyrics and an English translation. Well worth a look – it’s downright cheery! Also very worth a look is the original publication of “Komm, süsser tod“. The vocal line is in soprano clef (C is the bottom line of the staff), and the bass line uses figured bass. But if you can navigate those, you’ll find it to be a great, authentic resource.
Let’s not forget about Alfred Reed, the arranger of the wind band version in question. Read his bio and more at the page for one of his great compositions, The Hounds of Spring.