Today is July 28th, and it was 263 years ago that the great Johann Sebastian Bach, departed this life in the year 1750. According to Christoph Wolff, Bach was healthy for most of his life except for the last year. His eyesight was failing, perhaps due to cataracts as well as untreated diabetes. The obituary blamed his studying late at night without adequate light:
“his naturally somewhat weak eyesight, further weakened by his unheard-of zeal in studying, which made him, particularly in his youth, sit at rework the whole night through, led in his last years, to an eye disease.”
In the spring of 1750, Bach’s eye troubles caused him enough discomfort for him to seek an eye operation from the famous Sir John Taylor, a famous English eye doctor who came to Leipzig in the spring, and was known as a specialist in cataract operations. Unfortunately the operation was not successful and so Bach underwent a second surgery, but according to the obituary: “matters were made worse by harmful medicaments and other things, possibly including rubbing the eye with a brush and draining the eye and its surrounding area of blood, up to half a teacup full —treatments known to have been applied by Taylor.”
Perhaps it wasn’t a botched operation but rather the post-operative care which affected Bach so adversely and contributed to his decline. (Yet I can’t imagine the state of medicine during the 18th-century!) Bach suffered a stroke on July 20th from which he never recovered. It was then that he decided to review his previous composition from the Orgelbüchlein, “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” (When we are in deepest need) and discovered the same tune fit the words “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit.” (Before thy throne I now appear). According to legend, as Bach lay in a darkened room, he asked that someone play the chorale for him on his pedal harpsichord and dictated changes, preparing him to meet his Lord. He died on July 28th, a Tuesday, at 8:15 pm.
Before your throne I now appear, O God, and bid you humbly, turn not your gracious face From me, a poor sinner. Confer on me a blessed end, on the last day awaken me, Lord, that I may see you eternally: amen, amen, hear me.
I invite you to hear the Great Eighteen Chorales — Bach’s last works, (including his very last piece, “Vor deinen Thron,” as I present them in concert on two successive Sunday afternoons: August 18th and August 25th at 2:00 pm. Reservations may be made in advance by clicking this link: