Bach is Everywhere!

More than we think, Bach’s music is prevalent in our lives. You may not recognize the titles of the tunes, but we hear them all the time from the movies, radios, celebrations, and at dinner tables: Goldberg Variations, Air on the G string, Minuet in G major, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Well-Tempered Clavier, and Cello Suites to name just a few. Out of many, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is perhaps the most popular tune recognized by most and is often performed at wedding ceremonies.

Where does it come from?

It is the most common English title of the last movement from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). Contrary to common assumption, the violinist and composer, Johann Schop, not Bach, composed the original chorale melody, and Bach’s contribution was to harmonize and orchestrate it. The English version was written by the poet Robert Bridges based on the stanzas of the same hymn composed by Johann Schop, “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne”, the lyrics of which were written in 1661 by Martin Janus.

Its original instrumentation is for voices with trumpet, oboes, string, and continuo and the affect is rather festive since the original German hymn was characteristically a lively hymn of praise. The music’s wide popularity has led to numerous arrangements and transcriptions for many different instruments and voices. The first known transcription was for piano solo by the English pianist Myra Hess in 1926. Contrary to the original setting of festive nature, a more stately tempo is traditionally used with the English version.

I often run into people telling me how complicated Bach’s music is, and it is meant for the musically learned ones to truly appreciate the beauty of his works. I then courteously ask them if it takes an expert to watch the sunset in the Rocky Mountains and to appreciate the magnificent scenery. (Yes, we are lucky to live in this amazing state of Colorado!). As human beings, we all have a propensity for excellence. When we see or hear something excellent (and done well), we instinctively find ourselves in awe of such beauty.

Bach speaks to us in many different dimensions, and it is to be enjoyed by all. Sometimes his music stirs our intellect as well as our emotions, but sometimes the beauty is in its simplicity. His legacy is a gift to us all, and I hope everyone can learn to love his awesome gifts as much as I do.


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