"JESU, JOY OF MAN'S DESIRING" by J. S. Bach
I was in a guitar store, and since I had an interest in guitar playing, both classical and electric, I was looking at the books sold in the store. I picked up one book called Speed Metal by a heavy metal artist. Flipping through it, in the middle of this book I saw Bach's piece, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". Truly this is a timeless work, or something.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 to 1750) is considered the greatest Baroque composer, if not the greatest composer ever. He was talented as a musician, being a singer and violinist when young and in his later years playing the organ. His organ playing was the mainstay of his income. But he is now appreciated for his composing. He would compose any type of music of the day. Concertos, fugues, toccatas, preludes, chorals. Not only was Bach a great musician, but a very religious man and a family man, fathering 21 children (Americana, pp 12 - 13).
All of the information for analysis of this piece was gotten from a copy of the music in Concord Series No. 15 (Davison, pp. 359 - 366). "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is a choral prelude. It is two separate pieces spliced together. What is done, is part of the prelude is played and then a line of the choral, then part of the prelude, a line of the choral, and so on. The prelude or the choral could be played by itself as a separate piece. Putting them together this way has the effect of a river (the prelude) then an island (the choral), a river then an island, and so on.
The composition is in the key of G, and though some people joke that all of Bach's pieces are in 4/4 time, this one is in 3/4. The pace of the piece is andante moderato (walking moderately), a slow moving piece. This piece was made to be played on the organ, but, of course, with human voices singing the choral, though it has been played by many different consorts of instruments, often with the organ playing the choral.
The prelude has three parts to it. In this paper, they will be described as the top, middle, and bottom lines. All of the lines are counterpoint, and, therefore, all have melody to them. But the top line has the predominant melody.
The top line is predominantly triplets; each group of triplets is equal to one beat, with three groups of triplets per measure.
The middle line couples up a dotted eighth note and an sixteenth note, each couple equal to one beat with usually three of these couples per measure. Each dotted eighth note hits at the same time as the first note in the each triplet in the top line, and the sixteenth note hits on the last note of each triplet in the top line. Occasionally in this piece the middle line does not follow this pattern.
The bottom line is made up of quarter notes, three per measure. The bottom lines's quarter notes coincide with the first beat of each triplet in the top line and with each dotted eighth note in the middle line. On the bottom line, occasionally a dotted eighth note and a sixteenth note are used.
An analysis of the prelude would show that chords produced by this piece are in typical Bach fashion. It starts on the I chord (G Major) and at the end of the piece goes to a classic Baroque ending, a V to I progression (D Major to a G Major).
The choral has four voices, the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. These voices tend to go at a slower pace than the prelude, using predominantly half notes and quarter notes with occasional groupings of eighth notes and/or sixteenth notes for a slurring or ornamentational effect.
An analysis of the choral would show that it was also done in classic Bach fashion. It starts on the I chord (G Major) and ends with the same V to I progression that I've seen in every Bach piece that I've analyzed.
The words to this piece are a praise to Jesus (God), listing His many great attributes ("love most bright", "holy wisdom", "Word of God in flesh", "truth unknown", etc.) and the singers' desire for Him ("Jesu, joy of man's desiring", "soar to uncreated Light", "soaring, dying round Thy throne").
About half of the time, the prelude continues on while the choral is being sung. The rest of the time the prelude is silent while the choral is being sung.
The prelude is slow and stately. It is flowing and lacks the dramatics of a toccata, fugue, or fantasy. It is, after all, in andante moderato. It is as though Bach did not the accompaniment to overwhelm or take anything away from the choral's lyrics. In fact, a video on Bach stated that he didn't want his church music to overwhelm the words of worship (Angelou, Lesson 12).
The choral's part of this pieces's meaning is very straight- forward. It is a praise of God (Jesus) and the singers' desire to be near Him. We know this not only from the lyrics, but with more certainty from Bach's background, Jesu was the Joy of his desiring.
The prelude, as stated before, is very majestic and stately. But, since it doesn't want to take away from the lyrics, it truly, doesn't give the complexity of Bach's other works, but for this piece it fulfills its purpose.
In the choral the counterpoint is excellent, the lyrics superb, and it has a good melody to build off of.
There are only two potential problems with the choral. The first is that it is broken up by the prelude in this piece, it can be hard to follow the meaning or it can be seen as a way to help you reflect on the words and worship. The second is not the fault of Bach but rather that we don't speak German. Any work, even technical, but especially artistic work when translated out of German to English loses something and can become awkward (Peter, pp. 3 - 76).
This composition ranks among Bach's more popular pieces, especially with the Christian community. This is because not only is it melodically and counterpuntually sound, but it fulfills its purpose in a worshipful environment. Since the prelude is slow enough and lacks dynanicism and violent emotion, it puts the listener and performer in a more restful and contemplative condition. The lyrics speak of the central figure of the Christian religion (God, more specifically Jesus) and of every Christian's desire to be near Him.
This is not to say that non-Christians cannot appreciate this piece. This composition is a mainstay of virtually all Bach recordings of his most popular pieces. Though if you don't have the same Spirit that Bach had, like German, it loses something in translation.
Angelou, Maya, Humanities Through the Arts, Lesson 12, produced by Harry Ratner. 1978.
"Bach, J. S.", Encyclopaedia Americana, Vol. III, 1953 ed.
Davison, Archibald T., et al, ed.,Concord Junior Song and Chorus Book, Concord Series No. 15, Schirmer Music Co., Mass., 1928.
Hart, Michael H., The 100; A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Citadel Press, New Jersey, 1987.
Miller, Hugh M., Introduction to Music, A Guide to Good Listening, College Outline Series, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1958.
Peter, Hildemarie, The Recorder, Its Traditions and Its Tasks, C. F. Peters Corp., New York, 1953.