Today, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is revered as one of the greatest composers of all time whose multitudinous compositions, with their combination of intellectual rigor and transcendent beauty, are among the foundational documents of Western art music. In his day, J.S. Bach was seen as a church musician who dazzled his contemporaries with his organ playing and churned out new compositions with almost alarming speed and frequency. Though he was well-known and widely respected, he was not revered as he is now. His reputation received a facelift in the early 19th century (long after his death) with the publication of a biography in 1802, the revival of his Saint Matthew’s Passion by the composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, and ultimately the creation of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog) in 1850. Since then, Bach’s legacy has only grown. Among his famous compositions are the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, hundreds of cantatas and oratorios, and dozens of short chorales. And that is but the tip of the iceberg. Bach has over 1000 known compositions, and perhaps as many that have been lost forever.
Other interesting Bach facts:
- He was a genuine patriarch, fathering 20 children (10 of whom survived to adulthood) with 2 successive wives. See the family tree.
- Several of his children became famous composers in their own right, most notably Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach.
- There are streets all over Germany named for Bach, although he never left the country and never lived more than 250 miles from his birthplace in Eisenach. See the map.
- He was once put in prison by an employer who didn’t want to let him move jobs.
- He wrote a cantata about coffee addiction. Read about it here.
- Finally, Anthony Tommasini recently named Bach the greatest composer of all time.
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (commonly seen in German as Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe or Jesus bleibet meine Freunde) is from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, written in 1716 when the Bachs lived in Weimar and revised for later use in Leipzig in 1723. The music appears twice, as both the sixth and tenth movements of the cantata, hence the two different German titles. It has become famous separately from the cantata, and is often played at slow tempos. However, Bach may have intended for it to be more upbeat: the text describes the author’s close and friendly relationship with Jesus in very familiar and joyful terms. See the Wikipedia article for more on the text. Also see this page for more on the full cantata. The whole thing is available on IMSLP. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring also shows up in Carter Pann’s Bach Buch for woodwind dectet.
Onto performances, of which there are many worth noting since this piece has been arranged every which way since its original version for strings, oboe, trumpet, continuo, and choir. Here is something like the original:
A wind band version arranged by Alfred Reed:
A “Celtic Woman” version:
A guitar version:
And this is just the very tippy top of a giant iceberg. There are MANY more versions of this out there!