This All Saints Sunday, as we remember those who have died, two of the pieces I’m playing are especially associated with funerals: Vor deinen Thron (Before thy throne I now appear) by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Swedish hymntune Tryggare kan ingen vara (Children of the heavenly father). I’m embedding a video of the Bach chorale prelude played at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
Bach’s last composition, Vor deinem Thron, was dictated to his pupil and son-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnikol, on his deathbed. He had undergone two failed eye operations a few months before, leaving him blind, and had suffered a stroke the week before. David Yearsley published a fascinating article called “Vor deinen Thron tret ich and the art of dying” which you can find by clicking here. The piece is based on a hymn by Martin Luther, “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein,” (When we are in deepest need) and according to Yearsley, was a reworking of a previous composition. I have played it for countless funerals.
“Children of the heavenly father” was written by Lina Sandell Berg, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in 19th century Sweden, who was only a teenager when she wrote this beloved hymn. She was paralyzed as a young child and confined to bed, with little chance of recovery. At age twelve, though, she improved enough to be able to walk. She tragically saw her father fall overboard on a ship and drown, although that was years later and not the inspiration for this hymn.
Children of the heavenly Father, safely in his bosom gather; Nestling bird nor star in heaven Such a refuge e’er was given.
Music for the dying has a profound effect because apparently, the sense of hearing is the last to go, and often it’s music sung around the deathbed that releases the person from life into death. In 2003 we held an Association of Lutheran Church Musicians regional conference at LCH and one of the workshop presenters told about his father’s battle with brain cancer. When the family started singing a favorite hymn, tears started rolling down the man’s cheeks, even though he had been unresponsive for weeks before.
A deathbed scene in which the music of Bach played an important role happened right here in Hawaii, with the late organist Robert T. Anderson, whose memorial service was held at LCH. Local organist and harpist Nyle Hallman brought her harp to Anderson’s bedside and started playing. Suddenly when she started playing Bach’s “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,” he opened his eyes. He died a short time later.
P.S. I want Bach played at my funeral!