Bach’s final fugue

Today is July 28, the anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. The last music he dictated on his deathbed was a reworking of an earlier chorale prelude, “When we are in direst need” to “Before Thy throne I come herewith”.

His second son, C. P. E. Bach, tried to boost the sales of the (posthumously published) Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 — a work J. S. Bach without any doubt saw as his musical testament — by telling the story that his father died over the last notes of the unfinished fugue. We know now that this is almost certainly not true — and there is even discussion whether the fugue is really unfinished, or whether he left its completion as a musical puzzle.

Below is a TV capture of Glenn Gould playing the final fugue — but instead of tapering off on the final notes, he breaks off in midair on the climactic point just before. The performance is idiosyncratically Gould, but truly mesmerizing.

Bach the man died. Bach’s music lives. Long may it endure.

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