History of Hymns: 'Jesus, Joy of Our Desiring'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus, Joy of Our Desiring”
By Martin Janus; Attr. Robert S. Bridges
The United Methodist Hymnal, 644
Jesus [Jesu], joy of our [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.
This hymn has unusual origins, taking several twists and turns that cover at least three centuries before it arrives in hymnals. The tune is primarily known through the arrangement by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) from his Cantata 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (“Heart and mouth and deed and life”), composed in 1723 during his first year as Cantor at Thomaskirche in Leipzig. As was Bach’s practice, he borrowed sections of this cantata from other sources—in this case, the earlier source was an Advent cantata written in Weimar in 1716. The closing chorale of the cantata was a hymn by Protestant pastor Martin Janus (1620?-1662?), “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (1661), paired with a melody (1642) by Hamburg composer Johann Schop (1590?-1667).
Bach chose stanzas 2, 6, and 16 from Janus’s longer eighteen-stanza poem. The Advent leanings in the original German are apparent in the direct translation (not for singing) of stanzas 1 and 2 that follow:
Jesus, delight of my soul,
Jesus, my best pleasure,
Jesus, my sun of joy,
Jesus, it is well known to you
how I love you from my heart
and am distressed without you.
Therefore O Jesus come to me
and stay with me forever and ever.
Jesus, my refuge and deliverer,
Jesus, the ground of my confidence,
Jesus, mighty trampler on the serpent,
Jesus, light of my life!
How my heart longs for you,
dear Jesus, painfully!
Come, ah come, I wait for you,
come, O dearest Jesus!
The source of the English translation is a mystery, though it is most often attributed to the British poet laureate and hymn translator Robert Bridges (1844-1930). The reader will soon note that Bridges’ supposed version is not a translation, but another hymn. The first stanza [with original words in brackets] appears at the beginning of this article. The text has a somewhat mystical quality, maintaining Advent allusions. Key phrases—“Word of God” and “uncreated light”—suggest John 1:1 and John 1:4-5, 8-9, respectively. These passages provide a biblical basis for this stanza. John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (KJV), is clear in its connection to the stanza. The phrase “uncreated light” is perhaps ambiguous to some. John 1:8 notes, “He [John] was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.” In the Orthodox tradition, “uncreated light” is not natural light. Neither is it light that emanates from God or Christ. “Uncreated light” is the being of God—God’s Self and energy. This light is represented in the Transfiguration and Resurrection icons of the Orthodox Church by a white (or blue-tinted) light surrounds the representations of the transfigured and resurrected Christ, signifying God’s presence at these pivotal points in Christ’s ministry and life. We are “drawn” to this Light, even “soaring, dying round thy throne.”
This hymn has been traditionally performed at weddings, often as an organ solo. Stanza 2 references hope, joy, and love, cloaked in blissful pastoral metaphors such as “deathless springs,” “peaceful music,” and “beauty’s fairest pleasure.” These images are likely the basis for nuptial connection:
Through the way where hope is guiding,
hark, what peaceful music rings;
where the flock, in thee confiding,
drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead thine own
in the love of joys unknown.
In the context of the first stanza, the second stanza is a description of what it is like to “soar. . . [and] die. . . around thy throne.” A common link between the two stanzas is “wisdom.” Wisdom is not just an idea or a virtue. The Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 211) offers this petition in stanza 2: “O come, thou Wisdom from on high.” Sophia, a figure in Greek philosophy, personifies Wisdom. Both Orthodox (Ἁγία Σοφία, Hagia Sophia) and Catholic (Sapientia) traditions recognize the feminine personification of this virtue as “Holy Wisdom,” cited in line two of stanza 1. Believers partake in wisdom as God’s children, portrayed in the beatific scene described in stanza 2.
It is reasonable to assert that Robert Bridges, the translator of “O Gladsome Light, O Grace” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 686), a translation of the early Greek lamp-lighting hymn Phos hilaron, and “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 679), a Latin morning hymn from the fourth century, could also have composed the mystical images of “Jesu, joy.” Luminescent language characterizes all three hymns.
Bach’s treatment of the melody varied according to the cantatas in which he used it. Of the several versions existing of this traditional German Bar-form (AAB) tune, some scholars believe that Bach was familiar with and based his melody on a version set to the text “Werde munter, mein Gemüte” (1642) by Johann Rist (1600-1667). This was available to Bach in a 1715 publication:
Bach uses this chorale tune in seven cantatas and an organ work. The melody, as it appears in the cantatas, is usually straightforward with predominately quarter and eighth notes in 4/4 meter with few ornamental tones. However, the setting used in Bach’s Cantata 147 (movements 6 and 10), forming the basis for the hymn that appears in hymnals, is distinctively set in ¾ meter:
In the cantata, the four-part homophonic chorale floats over a compound-triple figure in 9/8, a setting that is virtually universally recognized. Hymnals provide only the four-part chorale since the setting in the cantata includes instrumental interludes between each phrase, making it difficult for congregational use.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.