“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is one of most popular musical works of all time. However, what are its origins? Interestingly, it has a connection to the Church Year and the Season of Advent. Let’s begin in the little village of Nazareth in the region of Galilee around the year 1 AD.
After the angel had left, Mary was confronted with reality. She needed someone to talk to but couldn’t talk to her parents or her fiancée Joseph. How would she tell him what the angel had said? What would they say? What would the townspeople say? Then she remembered that her elderly cousin Elizabeth had miraculously become pregnant. She would understand. So, Mary quickly packed a bag and left to visit her. Hot and thirsty after several days of walking Mary finally reached Elizabeth’s home near Jerusalem. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, she greeted her with a cry of joy reminding her how blessed she was. Mary was surprised that Elizabeth already knew. Grim reality turned into full and complete joy as Mary burst into a song of faith and exultation that came to be known as the Magnificat (from the first word of the Latin text). Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months. For the full story, see Luke 1:26-56.
“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” comes from Movements 6 and 10 of Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (“Heart and Mouth and Deeds and Life”). Originally a cantata for the season of Advent, Bach reworked it in Leipzig for the Feast of Visitation commemorating the story above. Among other things the libretto applies Mary’s song to the believer’s life and faith.
The cantata is in two parts with this work concluding each part. It is an elaborate setting of the tune WERDE MUNTER, which is sung by a choir to Stanzas 6 and 16 of the hymn “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (“Jesus, Delight of My Soul”) by Martin Jahn (c. 1620-83). Below are these two stanzas with a new metrical translation that attempts to better capture the meaning of the original German.
Joy is mine for I have Jesus;© 2021 Martin P. Dicke. All rights reserved.
Firmly to Him will I cling.
Through great grief and woe His precious
Word sustains, and so I sing.
I have Jesus, who does love me,
Gives Himself to me most gladly.
Jesus will I ne’er forsake
Even if my heart should break.
Jesus is my joy, my gladness;
He my comfort, life always.
Jesus drives away all sadness;
Grants me strength through all my days.
My delight, joy naught can sever;
My soul’s blessed, blissful treasure.
Jesus, feed my heart and soul.
Jesus, never let me go.
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For a literal translation and more information about this cantata, visit www.bach-cantatas.com. In the context of the libretto, Mary’s joy becomes ours when we sing these movements.
New editions of “Jesu, Joy” are available for choir and a variety of instruments. The choir edition has a new translation that better reflects the original German. Follow the links below for:
- New Choir Edition (SATB with new translation)
- New Instrumental Editions
This work exudes the peace and joy that Mary must have felt when singing her song. May it be a blessing to you and to all who hear it and may Mary’s peace and joy be yours.
Soli Deo Gloria!