Recently, the Kantorei sang “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as a choral response in worship. This composition is most often heard as only an instrumental arrangement at weddings. You may wonder, “Where does this piece originate? Is it a “stand alone” piece or is it a portion of a larger work? Was it written for weddings?”
What follows is a brief history of this composition, one that has achieved popular and universal acclaim. This piece of music is derived from J. S. Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). BWV 147 written in 1716 and 1723. The cantata, a piece of music written for voices and instruments, was used in Bach’s time as a musical counterpart to the sermon, the chorale often times framing the sermon. “Jesu, Joy” was used in the final version of BWV 147 as the closing movement of each of the two parts of the cantata.
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben began during Bach’s time in Weimar as a sixmovement cantata for the fourth Sunday in Advent, 1716. When Bach began his duties in Leipzig in 1723, a “time of silence” during Advent was observed, meaning concert music could not be performed. So, in 1723, Bach adapted this cantata for use on the feast of the Visitation (July 2), expanding the composition to ten movements. The text of the closing chorale, now known as “Jesu, Joy,” is the text of the 1661 hymn, “Jesus, My Soul’s Delight,” by Martin Jahn. The stanzas chosen express a commitment of the believer to hold Jesus as a high treasure. The text also affirms the love of the Lord and His solace in times of sickness and sadness. The triplet figure, which is readily recognizable, is thought by some to be symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
One final question: Why did Bach compose cantatas in Leipzig? In May 1723, when Bach took office as Thomaskantor, the music director in Leipzig, part of his duties was to supply music for the Sundays and feast days of the liturgical year at the four churches of the town. Bach decided to compose cantatas for these occasions, beginning with a cantata for the first Sunday after Trinity until the feast of the Trinity in the next year. Bach wrote a total of 200 cantatas during his time in Leipzig, largely to meet the Leipzig Churches’ demand for about 58 different cantatas each year. Quite an accomplishment!
Joy in Jesus,
Kantor Irene Beethe