Alle Menschen müssen sterben – BWV 262

In our times it is fashionable to say, of both Bach and Beethoven, that they “belong to everyone”. This has always struck me as not only false, but obscene. You don’t have to be a Germanophile – although I am one – to appreciate the German musical inheritance. You do, however, have to be honest about the paticularity, the rootedness, of this music. The “otherness” of the great German composers is part of what constitutes my immeasurable love for them.

I have no doubt that Beethoven in particular sincerely believed in the silly, cynical rhetoric of the Enlightenment. But the culture that birthed and shaped him is greater even than him, and it overshadows everything he wrote. The Fifth Symphony could only be written in Germania, just as Hamlet could only be formed by an Anglo-Norman aristocrat. Certainly, the sheer power of this music has penetrated global culture. But that is a testimony to the music itself and not to an imagined universality.

The Lutheran Chorale

This distinctive German-ness is perhaps nowhere more clearly asserted than in the Lutheran Chorale. This is a genre of composition that originated in the German Reformation of the 16th century. It is a setting of a hymn in the German language – or whatever the vernacular of the congregation might be. It is usually in four-part harmony, with the melody at the top. This formed the backbone of Protestant liturgy for centuries. In later centuries, other composers incorporated chorales into symphonies. One of the most memorable is this one, from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony:

Sadly, the sturdiness and sobriety of the chorale has disappeared from many western churches, as has the Latin musical tradition.

Alle Menschen müssen sterben

Nevertheless, we have a vast repository of chorale composition to draw upon and admire. My favourite one of all is the one I’m going to play for you at the end of this article. Its title is Alle Menschen müssen sterben: “All men must die”. The traditional attribution is to Bach, BWV 262, but there is actually an unresolved controversy around the question of its authorship. The composer who wrote the musical setting of the words could well have been Pachelbel. I am neither competent nor willing to contribute to that discussion. I simply wish to celebrate this music. Here is the first verse, with my own translation:

Alle Menschen müssen sterben,
Alles Fleisch vergeht wie Heu;
Was da lebet muss verderben,
Soll es anders werden neu.
Dieser Leib, der muss verwesen,
Wenn er ewig soll genesen
Der so grossen Herrlichkeit,
Die den Frommen ist bereit.

All men must die
All flesh fades like the grass
What lives must perish
That it may be made new.
This body must decay,
That it might regain forever
That great glory
Which awaits the righteous

To our modern, faulty ears, this all sounds very morose. But it isn’t – quite the opposite. This is a bright, triumphant hymn, in D Major. It is about the sovereignty of the Triune God and the invincibility of His Grace. I cannot hear this music too often – it seems to be ushering me forward into a place I’m not yet ready to find. But I’ve played it for you, to the best of my ability, in straitened circumstances. I cannot hope to do it justice, but I hope it edifies you:

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