For many it remains an open question whether the tricentenary of one of J. S. Bach’s most famous tunes—or, to be more precise, the work that eventually spawned that tune—should be a moment of celebration or sadness.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent in 1716—three hundred years ago this weekend according the church calendar—Bach led a performance of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life) in the court chapel of Weimar, Germany. In the Bach catalog this work goes by BWV 173a—a number that might make you think of a high-performance Bavarian motorcar rather than a fully-loaded and perfectly engineered work of eighteenth-century church music. The “a” of 173a doesn’t indicate that it’s turbocharged (though Bach’s music often is), but that this is an early, alternate version.
Beginning in the spring of 1713 Bach had started composing one cantata per week for his ducal employers in Weimar. It was his first extended effort to build up a body of sacred vocal music.
The score and the performing parts for BWV 147a are lost but the work can be largely reconstructed because Bach re-used these materials for an updated version of the work created after he moved to Leipzig in 1723. As director of music in that city, Bach was responsible for providing—and performing—a cantata every Sunday, and in his first three years on the job all this music came from his own pen. It was one of the most sustained creative outpourings in history.
In Leipzig the opening of the church year—the first Sunday of Advent—was marked by a cantata. The next three Sundays were without such music, which was thought by the Lutheran churchmen who held sway there to conflict with the penitential mood of the season. The break also allowed Bach and the musical forces arrayed beneath him time to prepare for the intense stretch of festive music that would begin on Christmas Day and continue in packed celebration through to the Feast of the Epiphany twelve days later.
Given the demands of this composing schedule, not just at Christmas but also throughout the year, Bach frequently drew on earlier works when he could.
Having no liturgical destination in Leipzig, the Weimar cantatas for the last three Sundays of Advent would have to be repurposed if they were to be of use to Bach. And so it was with BWV 147a. Just a few months after taking up his new post, Bach removed the work from its original calendric spot in the run-up to Christmas and slotted it in the middle of the summer—July 2nd, 1723— for the Feast of the Visitation when the pregnant Mary met up with her cousin, Elizabeth, then carrying John the Baptist.
Lightening his workload, Bach reused most of the arias from the Weimar cantata, but from scratch composed for the new occasion an expansive, uplifting movement. Bach himself seems to have been quite taken with what he came up with because he used the movement twice in the same cantata, placing the identical music at the close of the first part, and again at the conclusion of the entire work.
This is the movement known most widely today by its impossibly stilted English title, Jesu, Joy of Man’s of Desiring. That formulation, which has almost nothing to do with the texts Bach set, comes from British medic poet laureate of the early twentieth century, Robert Bridges. His entire first stanza does little to clear things up:
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring / Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring / Soar to uncreated light.
The lyric of Bach’s movement is less transfiguring, and instead more physical. Though it was originally heard in high summer, the poetry Bach set favors metaphors that seem more at home in flu season: “Jesus remains my joy, / My heart’s comfort and broth.” That’s the opening of the final movement. Likewise when the music is heard initially at the end of the first part of the cantata, Jesus is described as the ultimate medication for Christians who are “sick and sad.”
It is strangely fitting that this generous movement added to Bach’s original Advent cantata should have migrated back to its pre-Christmas position. True, Jesu—or “Je-zoo” as more than a few couples have pronounced the word when requesting it from me at the organ—is a favorite on wedding days. But the main residence of Jesu is yuletide, where its popularity only seems to increase. It will long be a mainstay of the season, taking on the form of such endlessly-churned-out products of the culture industry as “The Ultimate Classical Christmas Album of All Time”—a repackaging of an ancient anthology of holiday cheer from the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy.
What is most astonishing about the piece’s viral afterlife as an instrumental hit is how lugubrious so many of these performances are. The celebrated British pianist Myra Hess made a famous transcription of the piece that she published in 1926 and recorded several times. Her reading of the piece set the goalposts for most modern interpretations. The shimmering romanticism of Hess’s touch, her sluggish yet yearning tempo, the prayer-like devotions of her rubato—all of this seems to partake of the soft-focus radiance of Bridge’s poetic translation rather than the buoyancy of Bach’s original, as in a live version directed by Ton Koopman. These days if you try to add some pep to the tune at a wedding or in a mall at Christmastime, most people will barely recognize it as the same piece, so inculcated are they with the devout pace of all those guitar versions, ultimately descended from Hess.
I’ve already heard the tune too many times to count this holiday season, most recently while racing through the psychedelic tunnel of the Detroit airport in a mad dash to make a connecting flight. As I scrambled past human obstacles and their luggage, the instrumental version of Bach’s movement trudged on inexorably in all directions at once. This Jesu didn’t have to make its flight and so be carried to the next airport. This timeless music was there already.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)