Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, BWV 721
by Johann Sebastian Bach [playing time 4:27]  [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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This chorale is one of Bach's most strikingly simple arrangements: the tune sings in the soprano above an unwavering texture of chords in the other voices. Within this simplicity, however, is profundity. The setting has the affekt of a mysterious, somber procession, evoking the plea for mercy of the text. For a translation, see this version by the San Francisco Bach Choir.

I have played this chorale during Good Friday meditations on a couple of occasions. For this realization, I just started my sequencing software during one of my practices to capture the MIDI information. After the service I orchestrated it with seMUSPARAte patches for soprano, bass, and inner voices, captured the audio, and uploaded it. I have mixed it with a great deal of energy in the lower frequencies, partly in response to the relatively low registers, and partly to reflect the somber character of the music.

The text of this chorale is not strictly a Good Friday text, but this realization springs from that day and from the service I played just before returning home to set up the patches used for the various parts. The final four minutes of a beating heart may evoke mystery, languishing, sorrow, expectation; musical representations of any of these may spring from the soul of Bach, and I hope some or all speak through here, in this simple but sublime chorale.

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