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Explore "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by J. S. Bach & Johann Schop

"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is one of the most popular choral compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was crafted around 1714-1716, Bach's first year in Weimar. It is the 10th movement of "Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben," his famous cantata. However, the melody of this piece was composed by Johann Schop, while Johann Sebastian orchestrated and harmonized the melody. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is also simply called, "Joy." 

River and music notes


"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is commonly termed as "Jesus bleibet meine Freunde" or "Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe" in German. The cantata, BWV 147 was crafted in Weimar, Germany when the Bach family lived there for a small period. In 1723, It was subsequently revised in Leipzig for future usage.

Also, this music famously appeared twice in Bach's cantata, in the 6th and 10th movements, respectively. This explains the reason behind the usage of two different titles in German. Although the composer intended it to be more upbeat, the piece is often played using a slow tempo. Bach, through the lyrics, portrayed his relationship with Jesus in a friendly and cheerful scenario.       


This choral prelude was composed by splicing two separate pieces together. A line of choral follows each part of the prelude, and the format is repeated in a continuous cycle. The notable fact is that the prelude and the choral can be played separately. However, they follow a distinct pattern to create the effect of a river (prelude), followed by the effect of an island (choral).

Bach had created this piece for voices, to be accompanied by continuo, strings, oboes, and trumpets. In 1926, Myra Hess, the English pianist, created the first transcript of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" for piano solo and published it. In 1934, her version was subsequently upgraded and adapted for piano duets. Also, Peter Hurford, the renowned British organist created the transcription for the organ. In the modern-day, this piece by Bach is a fan favorite, especially at funerals and weddings.

The composition is structured on the key "G." However, unlike popular contrary that all of Bach's work follows the 4/4 time signature, Jesu is in 3/4. It unfolds at a slow-moving pace that is "andante moderato," or "walking moderately."

The prelude contains three parts - the "top," "middle," and "bottom" lines respectively. All of them are counterpoint and are equipped with their own distinct melodies. The "top" line is furnished with the predominant melody, and contains triplets, with each group of three equalling to one beat. The middle line joins together a dotted "8th note" and the "16th note," where each couple is equivalent to one beat. Each measure usually contains three of these couples. Each dotted "8th note" is played with the first note of each triplet in the "top" line, while the "16th note" is played with the last note of each triplet, hitting simultaneously. However, on certain occasions, the "middle" line's 16th note is played shortly after the last note of each triplet of the top line. The "bottom" line comprises exclusively of quarter notes, three in each measure. These quarter notes are played with each dotted "8th note" of the "middle" line and the first beat of each triplet in the "top" line.


The chords produced in the composition follow Bach’s signature style. The prelude starts on “G Major” (I chord) and subsequently offers a typical Baroque ending - “D Major” to “G Major” (V chord to I chord). The choral also constitutes four voices - bass, tenor, alto, and soprano. The voices utilize predominantly half and quarter notes, going at a much slower pace. They also utilize an occasional grouping of the “8th note” and “16th note” for a concealed ornamentation effect.

The lyrics praise Jesus, marking his great characteristics, and the singer’s desire for the Almighty. The prelude coincides with the choral along half of the composition while remaining silent for the rest. The prelude is devoid of the dramatics of a fantasy, fugue or toccata, as Bach ensured that the accompaniment doesn’t overwhelm the choral’s lyrics. It is majestic and dignified and ultimately fulfills its purpose.

The lyrics of the choral is excellent, and the counterpoint superb, building its magnificent melody. However, it can be hard to follow its elucidation as it is continuously halted by the prelude.

Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1968, “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring” was integrated into the track “Wicked Anabelle” by Pete Quaife. The Kinks bassist was working on the track for “Village Green Preservation Society.” 
  • In 1972, the song became a pop hit when “Apollo 100,” a British band crafted a jazz arrangement of the same. They utilized the 10th movement of “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” one of Bach’s cantata. The arrangement was released after nearly 250 years of its creation. However, the group disbanded shortly thereafter. 
  • It was also ranked 71st in the list of biggest the U.S.A. hits in 1972.   
  • Also, in 1972, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" ranked 6th on the "The U.S.A. Billboard Hot 100." It reached number 24 in Canada.
  • The song was featured on the 514th episode of “The Muppet Show” in the UK. The character Rowlf plays the composition and is eventually halted by Beauregard, who intends to clean the piano. 
  • The song is also featured in the show “Muppets Most Wanted.” 
  • “Joy” also appeared on the soundtracks for the movies “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Boogie Nights.”


Johann Sebastian was famed as a church musician who dazzled throughout his lifetime for his work on organs, churning out new pieces at an alarming rate and consistency. The composition offers its own intellectual rigor, culminating into a piece of transcendent beauty as it unfolds. Bach’s “Jesu,” along with his cantata and other works form the foundations of “Western Art Music.” “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring” is duly touted as one of his most enduring creations. This piece is considered the principal mainstay of almost all of Bach’s works. The prelude lacks any violent emotion or dynamism and helps the performer or listener to attain a more contemplative frame of mind.


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