Bach, Jesu meine Freude!
One of J. S. Bach’s most monumental motets, Jesu meine Freude is a work of incredible musical and theological depth. Throughout the work, Bach draws the listener (originally his congregation members) into an intensely personal focus by weaving together scriptural and chorale texts with incredibly evocative music. There is a theme of transformation that underpins the work through all eleven movements. Many of the individual movements begin in a minor mode and conclude tonally with a major resolution. This “minor to major” transformation is a symbolism for the Christian faith. The progression of texts and music fully expose our human weaknesses and fears, but Bach always resolves them—a symbolic representation of his deep faith in the comfort of a loving God.
This particular motet is also a work of genius compositional construction. The work itself is a palindrome, with each movement being reflected from the middle (movement #6) outward. This form also gives the work a palpable direction— possibly representing the linear direction or journey of one’s faith within human existence, and also metaphorical direction which, for Bach, points upward to God in Heaven, the ultimate source of comfort in this life and the next.
Bach composed each of his six motets in the “old style,” (stile antico) which simply means that there is not an independent orchestra accompanying as there is in his cantatas and major works. The absence of orchestral accompaniment places the responsibility for dramatic characterization and contrast solely in the hands of the voices. This is both challenging and thrilling at once—the possibilities for expressing the rhetorical connection between text and music are limitless and the choir assumes the role of both musician and preacher. For Bach, this was no light mission—he was determined to convince people of the love and comfort found through the presence of God and the Holy Spirit. And thus he dedicated his entire life’s work Soli Deo Gloria, “to the Glory of God alone.”