“Be Thou But Near”

Johann Sebastian Bach.  Often considered to be the organist among organists and the composer among composers, many of his melodies are instantly recognizable and familiar. And such is the case with the song we are looking at today, Bist Du Bei Mir or Be Thou But Near.  There’s just one little problem.  Bach didn’t write it, even though there is a lot of printed music out there that says he did.

Bach, however, does have a strong connection to this piece.  Bach and his wife, Anna Magdalena, copied this song, along with many others, into Notebooks.  This was music for her to study and enjoy, but not necessarily written by composer Bach.  As hard as it is for me to imagine that a composer as prolific as Bach didn’t use only his own tunes in making a gift for his wife, there is something very humble in the notion that he was not only familiar with the works of others, but willing to include them in this very personal compilation.

So then, who wrote this song? The melody was most likely composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stolzel as an aria for an opera, first performed in 1718.   The original score of the opera no longer exists.  The manuscript for this particular aria had been part of a German music library until it was lost during World War II.  It was reportedly rediscovered in 2000 in the Kiev Conservatory.

The song is often used at weddings because of the text.  We do not know who wrote the original German poem of 31 words, but it essentially tells the beloved that ‘as long as you are with me, I can face death with ease.’