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Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring: Bach's Most Loved Work

Jul 19, 2008
Even non-musicians around the world are undoubtedly familiar with one of Johann Sebastian Bach's more famous compositions, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Usually, this song is played in a slow, almost reverent style during weddings or in religious and liturgical services. However, many music lovers aren't aware that this recognizable tune was actually intended to be played in a much more upbeat manner.

The song was originally composed for accompaniment of voices, as well as traditional orchestral instruments, particularly woodwinds, strings, and brass. Today though, it is more often performed on piano and organ. It's difficult to say whether or not Bach might be rolling over in his grave every time the slower version of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring graces someone's nuptial ceremony. Nevertheless this piece has won the affections of both aficionados and non-musicians alike. In fact, of all of Bach's compositions, this one is his most recognized.

The German-born composer originally wrote his composition in the early 1700's. It was performed publically for the first time on July2, 1723 as part of Bach's cantata: "Herz und Mund Tat und Leben" ("Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life"). What is perhaps less known about this fondly-loved composition is that the underlying choral melody was actually composed by violinist Johan Schop.

Schop was something of a pioneer in the music world during the early 1700's. Considered to be a virtuoso, his technical ability was largely unsurpassed by his contemporaries, and certainly unequalled by his predecessors. Despite his immense talent, Schop has since faded into the background. Today, Bach himself is attributed most of the credit for Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

The piano arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring that is most familiar to listeners in the 21st century was actually transcribed by British pianist Myra Hess, well over 100 years after its composition. It is this adaptation that has stood the test of time as far as popular recognition goes, and is how the song is most often publicly performed today. When it does happen to be accompanied by English-speaking voices, it is sung to the words that were translated from the original German to English by the prominent 18th century English poet Robert Bridges. The English version, though, diverts somewhat from the original German. Bridges obviously did what poets do best, creating a poem that still echoes the sentiments of the original work, but contains flowing rhyme which is easy to sing in its translated English.

Since its first public performance nearly three centuries ago, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring has been adapted and performed by hundreds of other musicians and artists. Even modern artists, such as Josh Groban, continue to make this song one of classical music's most renowned and adored tunes.

Even though Bach did not consider this piece his favorite or best work, it is probably the most widely recognized of all of his compositions. Because of its mainstream popularity, this song will undoubtedly continue to surface at weddings and other public performances for hundreds more years.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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