Johann Sebastian Bach - George Upton

The Last of Earth

It was only natural for the old master, weighed down with official and other burdens in Leipsic, to recall the delightful days in Potsdam and live them over; but the recollection of them was not a mere idle, dreamy revery; all his deeper feelings were so engrossed with the realities of his art that he did not hesitate to respond to its exacting demands. He decided to reset the theme which the King had given him with all the skill of which he was capable. He completed the task in a few weeks. In its new form the work had thirteen numbers, finished with masterly ability. He engraved it upon copper and dedicated it to the King, with the title, "Musical Offering, humbly dedicated to His Majesty, King of Prussia." He sent it to the King with the following characteristic letter:

"All Gracious King: Herewith I present to Your Majesty, with deepest respect, a musical offering, the noblest part of which is from your own hand. I recall with the highest pleasure the particular kingly grace with which, during my stay in Potsdam, Your Majesty condescended to give me a theme for a fugue on the piano, and to set me the task of working it out at once in your presence. As a subject, it was my duty to obey Your Majesty's command. I soon realized, however, that because of lack of necessary preparation, the execution was not up to the standard demanded by such a theme. I then determined, and at once set about it, to work out this royal theme more perfectly, and then give it to the world. I have done this to the extent of my ability, and with no other purpose than the exaltation, though only in one small particular, of the glory of a sovereign who must be admired by all in music, as well as in war and the arts of peace. I make bold to add the following respectful request,—that Your Majesty will deign to honor this small work by graciously accepting it, and continue Your Majesty's favor to Your Majesty's most loyal subject and obedient servant,


"LEIPSIC, JULY 7, 1747"

While engaged upon this remarkable work, a new joy brightened his home. His daughter Frederica was engaged to Altnikol, one of his best beloved scholars, who, upon Bach's warm commendation, was given the lucrative position of organist and musical director by the Council of Naumburg. This enabled them to marry and have a home, thus lifting another burden from the loving father. He could contemplate the evening of life with serene hope. His own were all provided for, and he now devoted himself with all his powers to a work he had long contemplated. The evening of life might end in darkness, but now he was ready to go before the throne of the All Highest, to whose service he had devoted his art piously and faithfully all his life.

The great work which he had so much at heart was Kunst der Fuge  (The Art of Fugue), a wonderful creation, unsurpassed in the abundance of its contents and their development. In completely elaborated numbers, not in dry theoretical rules, he shows what a skilful composer may accomplish with a single theme, and how it may be developed in the form and according to the rules of strict counterpoint in every possible way. So far as harmonious combinations are concerned, each part is exhaustively treated. In the closing fugue, beside the two parts of the original theme, he introduces a short but very striking theme of only four notes; but those four notes represent the whole life of the composer, with all its joys and sorrows, its divine inspiration, and its deep soul-sadness—the four notes, "B-A-C-H. "

Bach's labor upon this colossal work exhausted what little strength he had. His eyesight began to fail. His creative faculty was impaired. He could no longer work. The Art of Fugue  remained unfinished. Philipp Emanuel added to the last bars of his father's manuscript the sad words:

"While engaged on this fugue, in which the name of 'Bach' is introduced in counterpoint, the author died."

It was true. The old master did not live to finish the work. The end was near at hand. Two operations were performed upon his eyes, but they failed to help him. His life passed into darkness before death.

But he never lost courage. His spiritual vision remained clear to the last, so that he beheld the glory of his God whom he was so soon to meet. In those last days, so full of pain and of sorrow over the thought that he might lose his faculties completely, he triumphed over sickness and death with the help of that lofty, unwavering faith which had been the inspiration of all his work. Almost with his dying voice he dictated to his beloved Altnikol the majestic chorale Wenn wir in hochsten Nothen sein :

"When, sunk in deepest misery,

To make escape we vainly try,

When earthly help in vain is sought,

And earthly counsels come to nought,

There still remains this one relief—

That Thou dost hear our cry of grief,

And that our faithful trust in Thee

From earthly ills will set us free."

This trust, this deliverance did not fail him in those last days of pain and sorrow, in the last hard struggle. He rose triumphant over them, and the Almighty Father's hand led him to a place in the choir of angels and holy spirits who stand before the throne in adoration, singing, Holy 1 Holy! is the Lord! Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might be unto our God, forever and ever. Amen."

On the thirtieth of July, 1750, the world's greatest musician was buried in St. John's churchyard, Leipsic.