Commemoration: Johann Sebastian Bach

Tomorrow is the commemoration of one of the Lutheran church’s most famous Kantors, Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685, Bach was not only a musician but an excellent theologian, basing his text on Scripture and composing nearly all of his music for use in the church service, with most of his cantatas concluding with a chorale based on a Lutheran hymn. One of the most famous examples of this is “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which was based on a hymn written by Martin Janus and a melody composed by Johann Schop. Bach wrote the harmonies and created the orchestration for the piece.

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

These familiar words are not, in fact, a direct translation, but were written instead by the poet Robert Bridges, who used the original as inspiration. Here are the original stanzas from the hymn “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne,” translated into English by Francis Browne:

What joy for me that I have Jesus,
oh how firmly I hold on to Him
so that He may make my heart rejoice,
when I am sick and mournful.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives Himself to me for His own.
Ah, therefore I shall not let go of Jesus,
even if my heart should break.

Jesus remains my joy,
the comfort and life’s blood of my heart,
Jesus defends me against all sorrows,
He is my life’s strength,
the delight and sun of my eyes
my soul’s treasure and joy;
therefore I shall not let Jesus go
from my heart and sight.

Bach did, of course, write and compose an incredible amount of original work as well. If you’re looking to fill three hours in your afternoon, search for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (titled on his own manuscript copy as “Passio Domini Nostri J.C. Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum” or, “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew,” with the Scripture highlighted in red ink). A musical drama without the costume changes (essentially an opera that depends entirely on vocal performance), this oratorio depicts Christ’s suffering and death on Good Friday. Excerpted from about halfway into the piece:

O mankind, mourn your great sins,
for which Christ left his Father’s bosom
and came to earth;
from a virgin pure and tender
he was born here for us,
he wished to become our Intercessor,
he gave life to the dead
and laid aside all sickness
until the time approached
that he would be offered for us,
bearing the heavy burden of our sins
indeed for a long time on the Cross.