Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – J S Bach (1685-1750)

This article was first published in the August 2016 edition of the parish magazine.

This is the most common English title for the 10th and last movement of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben”, BWV 147 (“Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life”), composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1716 and 1723.

Originally scored for a chamber orchestra, these days a piano (or organ) plays a lengthy series of broken chords, over which a 4-part choir (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) sings long sustained phrases in full harmony. As is the case in many churches, St Margaret’s choir was often asked to sing this at weddings.

Similarly, when my brother and his then fiancée were planning their wedding in 2014, Jennifer and I were asked to sing this whilst they signed the register. Although we like to think that we can handle a tune, neither of us can sing two parts at the same time, and we did our best to explain that it wouldn’t sound like the recordings they had heard with only two female voices (soprano and alto) accompanied by an organist whose hands are riddled with arthritis. Their minds were made up though – as we were unable to play their favourite (Pachelbel’s famous canon – simply impossible for two instruments to play a quartet!) then we were required to sing “Jesu, Joy…” We did our best, the organist doing some remarkable hand-crossing in order to accommodate his arthritis, and it seemed to go down well.

The most commonly heard English translation of the original German text is

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,

Holy wisdom, love most bright;

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring

Soar to uncreated light.

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,

With the fire of life impassioned,

Striving still to truth unknown,

Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,

Hark, what peaceful music rings;

Where the flock, in Thee confiding,

Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;

Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.

Thou dost ever lead Thine own

In the love of joys unknown.

 

However, you are unlikely to hear the second half. Most choirs and organists call it a day after the first half as it is so long and repetitive. Congregations have usually had enough by the half way point too.

Here is a recording of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (first half only, couldn’t find any recordings of the whole piece!)

Enjoy!

Carol P

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