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Bach composed Komm, süßer Tod in 1736 as part of a songbook edited by Georg Christian Schemelli, including 69 Sacred Songs and Arias.
On top of the 69 sacred pieces, each one featuring a melody and a figured bass, the hymnal known as the Schmelli Gesangbuch also includes almost 900 other hymns. But it's Bach's mournful music for solo voice and basso continuo, Komm, süßer Tod, komm selige Ruh, which steals the show.
Unlike many of the arrangements and newly harmonised chorales, this five-verse song is thought to have been written from scratch for the songbook. Bach used lyrics by an unknown poet, written around 1724, asking death to come quickly and peacefully to deliver the singer to heaven, where he can see the face of Jesus:
- Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh!
- Komm führe mich in Friede,
- weil ich der Welt bin müde,
- ach komm! ich wart auf dich,
- komm bald und führe mich,
- drück mir die Augen zu.
- Komm, selge Ruh!
Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest!
- Come lead me to peace
- because I am weary of the world,
- O come! I wait for you,
- come soon and lead me,
- close my eyes.
- Come, blessed rest!
There's something deeply moving about the single vocal line singing such poignant text, and it's been suggested this introspective piece is a reflection of the personal tragedies in Bach's life. Still, whatever the motivation for its composition, there's no doubt the music is some of Bach's most reflective and devotional songs.
210 years after the publication of Bach's original music for basso continuo and solo voice, British conductor Leopold Stokowski transformed the work into a lush orchestral arrangement in 1946. Making the most of the soul-shattering harmonies and the soaring melody, Stokowski's transcription of the Baroque piece is nothing short of heart-breaking.