Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf (from the Orgelbüchlein), BWV 617
by Johann Sebastian Bach [playing time 2:48]  [Download the MP3]

J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
The greatest of them all

"Who's your favorite composer?" is as tired a question as "Whomever I'm listening to at the moment" is an answer. If pressed, however, and with apologies to Ludwig, Wolfgang, Pyotr, and all the other greats, I would give the nod to Bach. His supreme blending of beauty, logic, and inventiveness has never been surpassed, and much of my avocational music-making is devoted to listening, learning, and making synthesized realizations of his music.

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Text - Nunc Dimittis; Tune - ?; The Hymnal 1982 - N/A

Lord God, now unlock Your Heaven.

My time is finished,

and my soul rejoices.

I have toiled and struggled to the end.

Send me quickly to my eternal rest.

I release all that is on earth;

I would rather be in heaven.

I find this work the most profoundly affecting chorale in the entire Orgelbüchlein. The cantus firmus is presented in an unusual two-voice harmonization in the soprano and alto, generally with wide, austere intervals. The bass sets up a palpable heartbeat, and between these two evocations of the ethereal and the worldly, the tenor weaves a gentle bridge.

The text is from the Song of Simeon, and is a reflection on death. And indeed, the treatment of this chorale -- lengthy, meditative -- suggests long reflection and languishing in the hour of highest need. The tenor thread weaving between heaven and earth seems to aspire to the eternal, rising toward the end, but never quite attains it. Sighing chromatic lines appear, the thread winds downward, the heartbeat gradually slows, and the lines descend to a final, fading statement: it is finished.

In all of Bach's oeuvre, this is a moment where the mortal and the eternal are rendered, in the fragile space of less than three minutes, with striking clarity. To accent this symbolism, I have added soft choral patches to the voices of the cantus firmus, as well as an acoustic bass with a fair amount of reverb in the pedals to give that line the heavy, steady -- and in the end, faltering -- thump of a heartbeat.

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