You’ve probably heard this lovely lilting Baroque piece performed as an instrumental at weddings. But the composer who popularized it—the inimitable J. S. Bach—originally programmed it as the finale to a ten-movement liturgical work celebrating the miraculous pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke, and God’s subversion of the world order through the birth of Christ. “The wondrous hand of the exalted Almighty / is active in the mysteries of the earth!” the work proclaims.
Under Bach’s design, those pastoral triplets (DUM-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da . . .) gird up a choir-song of praise to Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, our joy and our strength. Even when the light, bright major chords give way to the minor in line five, signifying the turning of life’s circumstances, the Christian’s confession remains the same: Jesus is mine; what shall I fear?
Though Bach is often cited as the melody’s originator, that credit in fact goes to Johann Schop; it was first published in 1642 with Johann Rist’s hymn text “Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich” (“Wake, My Spirit, Rise”). In 1661 Martin Janus wrote a new text for the tune—of no less than nineteen stanzas!—titled “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (“Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss”). Bach took stanzas six and seventeen of this hymn, harmonized and orchestrated them, and placed them as the closings to part one and part two, respectively, of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life) (BWV 147).
These two chorale movements, titled “Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe” (“Blest am I, that I have Jesus”) and “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (“Jesus shall remain my joy”), have identical musical settings, and their English translation is as follows:
Blest am I, that I have Jesus!
O how tightly I cling to Him,
so that He delights my heart
when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives Himself to me as my own;
ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus,
even if my heart is breaking.
Jesus shall remain my joy,
my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow.
He is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and wonder of my soul;
therefore I will not let Jesus go
out of my heart and sight. [Source]
Bach wrote Herz und Mund in 1723 during his first year as the director of church music in Leipzig, basing it on an earlier cantata he had written in Weimar in 1716 for the fourth Sunday of Advent. Because Leipzig observed tempus clausum (a “closed time” of penitence) during Advent, allowing cantata music only on the first Sunday, Bach could not perform the cantata for the same occasion in Leipzig, so he adapted it for the feast of the Visitation on July 2.
Scored by Bach for four vocal soloists, a four-part choir, and an instrumental ensemble of trumpet, two oboes, violin, viola, and continuo, the chorale music was first given the title “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in 1926 when Dame Myra Hess published a transcription for solo piano—which you can hear Benjamin Moser play in the video below.
(“Jesu” is a poetic derivation of the Latin name for “Jesus.” I most commonly hear it pronounced YAY-su, but see here.)
Hess’s transcription revived the piece’s popularity and has become the basis of numerous arrangements for all kinds of instruments, the most common being piano, organ, flute, string quartet, guitar, harp, handbells, or some combination of those.
I particularly like the sound of guitar and cello together:
And even more this arrangement for jazz ensemble by the acclaimed pianist and composer Jon Batiste, whom you might recognize as the bandleader on Late Night with Stephen Colbert:
“I love remixing things and making them fit into a different context than what you imagined,” Batiste told NPR. He said “Jesu” and the other sacred songs on his Christmas album are very special to him, “because they’re basically in line with my faith and everything that I believe in.”
Another fun version, which starts on classical guitar and then breaks out into a derivative melody with Irish fiddle, is the one arranged by Carl Marsh for Amy Grant’s 1992 album Home for Christmas (the only nonvocal track on the album). The recording features Tom Hemby on guitar, Mark O’Connor on violin, and Marsh on keyboard, backed by the London Studio Orchestra.
Here’s an excerpt from the performance of Marsh’s “Jesu” arrangement at the 2013 Christmas concert at Twin Lakes Church in Santa Cruz County, featuring Rebecca Jackson on violin:
In the mid-twentieth century, some English-language hymnals started including a song called “Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring” with lyrics attributed to the Victorian poet Robert Bridges. These are not a translation of the original text by Janus that Bach used but rather were inspired by it:
Jesu, joy of our 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.
(If you like the electric guitar in Groban’s version, check this out!)
“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”—and the larger cantata it’s a part of—is especially appropriate for Advent and Christmas, as it enjoins us to cling to the best gift ever given, which is God himself, and to sing, like Mary, our own Magnificats.
“O most delighted Christians,” the cantata’s fourth movement exclaims,
Arise! Make yourselves ready!
Now the pleasant time is here,
Now is the day of salvation: the Savior calls
You to arm body and soul
With the gifts of faith.
Arise! Call to Him in fervent longing.
Like what you’ve heard? Click on the album cover to purchase the artist’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” track or full album. Instrumental jazz, Irish jig, or classically sung hymn—each version is unique. (Note: These are affiliate links, which means a small percentage of the purchase price goes to support the work of this blog.)