Jesu, meine Freude

J.S. Bach composed all six of his authenticated choral motets between 1723 and 1727, early in his tenure as director of music at St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig.  The majority of his output during these years consisted of church cantatas, composed in a relatively “modern” style, with independent instrumental continuo, obbligato instrumental passages, and movements for solo voice in the operatic style of the period; but he was also required to provide motets (independent choral “anthems” with sacred texts) for ordinary Sunday worship services and special, community events, for which he utilized existing compositions in the sixteenth and seventeenth century style, known as stile antico, as well as his own compositions. These works might have been performed with continuo and doubling instruments, but generally would not have had independent instrumental lines, and indeed could have been (and on occasion may have been) performed with no accompaniment at all.   For many years it had been thought that Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227), the longest and most complex of Bach’s six original motets, was written in 1723 for the funeral of Johanna Maria Käsin, the wife of Leipzig’s postmaster. Recent scholarship discredits this, however, leaving the motet’s purpose and use shrouded in some mystery.  Bach scholar Christoph Wolff suggests that it may have been composed for pedagogical purposes, providing Bach with a vehicle for training his students in the vocal techniques and genres required by his extraordinarily demanding cantata repertoire.

Bach composed the first version of his Magnificat, in E-flat major (BWV 243a), for Christmas in 1723.  That work utilizes a five-part choral texture, adding a second soprano part to the customary four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), which contributes considerably to the richness of the tonal palette of the work as a whole. It would appear that Bach continued experimenting with this idea in Jesu, meine Freude, augmenting the four-part chorale settings with movements in both five- and three- part textures.  This enables him to compose an extended work which maintains the listener’s interest throughout, despite the lack of instruments and solo passages which enriched his more modern cantatas.

Jesu, meine Freude is based on a chorale melody by Johann Crüger (1653), with a text by Johann Franck (c. 1650). The words of the movements 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 are based Romans 8:1–2, 9–11, and speak of Jesus Christ freeing man from sin and death. Franck’s chorale text is written from the believer's point of view, praising the gifts of Jesus Christ and longing for his comfort and strength. Chorale and biblical verses together provide a text rich in stark contrasts between heaven and hell, joy and suffering, frequently within a single section. Bach's brilliant and descriptive word setting heightens these contrasts, resulting in a work with unusually broad dramatic range.

The motet’s structure is wonderfully symmetrical.  It utilizes six chorale stanzas, with verses from Romans between each stanza—bringing the total number of movements to eleven.   The chorale text by itself doesn’t imply dramatic development; but the biblical interpolations are ordered so that, combined with the chorale texts, they add a certain directional movement:  generally, from the general present, to tumult, to the death of earthly concerns, and then to new life and belief, even in the face of continuing strife and sorrow.  Movements one and eleven share identical music (a four-part choral setting)—both melodically and harmonically—though their texts differ.  Movements two and ten also share similar, though not identical, musical materials; both are five-part, dramatic choruses, utilizing a good deal of dynamic contrast and surprising rhythmic angularity.  Movements three and nine return to the chorale melody, but in five-part settings – each, in a different way, elaborating on the melody and harmonic setting familiar to the listener from movement one.

Movements four and eight are scored lightly, for three voices, in the manner of trio sonatas. I suspect that Bach provides a sort of breathing space with each of these, setting contemplative texts set in a manner that allows for calm, thoughtful consideration, without much dramatic coloring.  Numbers five and seven, by contrast, are rich, elaborate, highly-charged variations on the chorale melody, set again for five-part chorus; number five in particular sets a very colorful text about standing firm in the face of the very worst that the world can throw at one, and provides the most vivid examples of tone-painting found in the motet.  The remaining movement, number six, is a beautifully-structured double fugue, which changes tempo at its climax and concludes with a powerful setting of the text “Now, if any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Movement six, briefly described above, follows immediately on this with the text, “Away! away!  Thou art all my delight, Jesus my desire!” as though the speaker, brought to the very brink of hell, pulls himself back just in time, strengthened in his faith and determination.  Bach uses a symmetrical, closed structure to describe a developing, strengthening faith—but a faith which comes full circle, back to its source.