Your Worship Could Use a Little Bach: Advent readings from Luke combined with the spiritual power of 'Jesus, Joy'

Jesus, Joy of All Desiring" may be the single most recognizable piece of music written by johann Sebastian Bach. But although this movement from one Bach's cantatas is familiar, the complete cantata is seldom used in worship today. One reason worship planners avoid this and other Bach worship cantatas is that they seem too daunting. For years I have admired the brilliance and spiritual power of Bach's cantatas__how they weave the biblical narrative together with artistic excellence, engaging drama, reflection on God's sovereignty, and a challenge for personal application. But could a volunteer music ministry could possibly assemble the forces necessary to pull off an entire Bach cantata?

They certainly can. With a handful of excellent instrumentalists and some capable soloists, a volunteer church choir can present such a cantata—and I assure you that it is worth all the effort for participating musicians and the congregation.

Another reason many worship planners avoid a complex piece like a Bach cantata is their fear that they'll turn the worship service into a showcase for a performance. Actually Bach's church cantatas were not intended as concert works at all, but were written for specific services in the church year and often provided musical commentary on the gospel reading for the day. The key is to weave the cantata into the natural fabric of the service so as to minimize the "performance" stigma and to specifically reinforce the power of the spoken Word.

But before you take on an entire cantata, try one movement, "Jesus, Joy," the chorale movement from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life), BWV 147. The earliest version of the work had only six movements and was written in Weimar for the fourth Sunday of Advent, probably December 20, 1716. The libretto was composed by Bach's principal collaborator, Salomo Franck. Shortly after Bach's arrival in Leipzig in 1723, he set about revising and expanding the cantata for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary. Some unknown poet, possibly Bach himself, reworked the text to point more directly at the story of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56).

The music that we know as "Jesus, Joy" actually occurs twice during the cantata, once as movement 6 at the conclusion of Part One, and again with a different text as movement 10 at the conclusion of Part Two. The extended chorale is based on a tune not by Bach, but by Johann Schop. Bach chose verses 6 and 17 of Johann Rist's hymn text "Werde munter, mein Gemuthe" and set these lines in such a way that words and music serve to summarize the cantata's theme— Mary's fear transformed into confidence and joy.

Note that the lines of text from "Jesus,Joy" (p. 17) are a careful translation of the original German and are not very closely related to the very popular text found in most choral octavos. When we have used this music and reading in an Advent service, I have included the following information in the printed bulletin:

This very familiar music is from Bach's cantata that tells the story of Mary's visit to see her cousin Elizabeth. The text and music powetfully portray how fear and anxiety can be replaced by God's comfort and peace.

Using "Jesus, Joy" in a Worship Service

Try using this wonderful piece together with a reading from Luke 1 (the account of Gabriel's announcement to Mary and the young girl's visit to her cousin Elizabeth) for an effective music/ drama/Scripture presentation in worship. The choir parts are familiar and quite easy, and the total performance time is about nine minutes. The performance notes on pages 17 and 18 offer suggestions for preparing and presenting the music of the cantata.

Stanza 1—Choir and instniments

Scripture Reading from Luke 1:26-50 (four readers)

Narrator: God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

Angel: Greetings, you are highly favored. The Lord is with you.

Narrator: Mary was deeply troubled by the angel's message, and she wondered what his words meant.

Angel: Don't be afraid, Mary. God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was, and he will be king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end!

Mary: But I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?

Angel: The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God's power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of God. Remember your relative Elizabeth. It is said that she is beyond the age of bearing children, but she is six months pregnant, even though she is very old. For there is nothing that God cannot do.

Mary: I am the Lord's servant. May it happen to me as you have said.

Narrator: And the angel left her. Soon after that, Mary went to a town in the hill country of Judea. She went into Zechariah's house and greeted her cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby moved within her. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth: You are the most blessed of all women and blessed is the child you will bear! Why should this great thing happen to me, that my Lord's mother comes to visit me? For as soon as I heard your greeting, the baby within me jumped with joy. How happy you are to believe that the Lord's message to you will come true!

Mary: My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Savior, for he has remembered me, his lowly servant! From now on all people will call me blessed, because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me. His name is holy; from one generation to another he shows mercy to those who honor him. He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors, and has come to the help of his servant Israel. He has remembered to show mercy to Abraham and to all his descendants forever!

Stanza 2—Choir (or better yet, choir and congregation)

Suggestions for Worship Planners

First, you need a balanced SATB choir of sixteen or more (although it is entirely possible that Bach performed some of the cantatas with one singer on each part). The singing could be accompanied by organ (see RW 29:32) or piano, although the original orchestration calls for oboe, trumpet, strings, and keyboard continuo (harpsichord or organ, depending on which musicologists you follow).

There is certainly no set rule on the number of instrumentalists required for a historically informed version of a Bach cantata, but I would suggest no fewer than three first violins on the flowing triplet figure. Add to that at least one second violin, one viola, one cello, and a string bass. If there is a good bassoon player available, and if the orchestra is not going to be too big for a good balance with the choir, add that wonderful double-reed timbre to the continuo line. The oboe doubles the triplet melody of the first violins, and the trumpet doubles the soprano line of the choir.

Orchestral parts are available from a number of publishers. The Kalmus parts are inexpensive but do not include the necessary keyboard realization of the continuo line. A wonderful continuo (keyboard) part for the entire cantata is available from Breitkopf & Hartel. Also, the octavo "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" from E. C. Schirmer (#2757) includes a simple keyboard realization that does not double the violin melody.

This chorale movement is most often heard with each group of triplets grouped together under one bow for the strings:

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This is the easiest way to approach it and gives a very calm and dreamy effect, but it is not the articulation found in Bach's score. Experienced instrumentalists may want to experiment with Bach's bowings:

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At first this may sound quite "choppy," but with a little practice Bach's bowing yields a very effective sound.

Carl Stam ( is the director of the Institute for Christian Worship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the part-time minister of music at Louisville’s Clifton Baptist Church. Since 1995, he has distributed a weekly e-mail devotional on worship and prayer, Worship Quote of the Week (


Reformed Worship 45 © September 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.