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About this Piece

Composed: before 1735

Length: c. 20 minutes

Orchestration: mixed chorus and continuo

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

For 45 of the 50 years Bach made a living as a musician, his job was to provide Lutheran church music, first as a teenage soprano, then as a church organist, and finally as Cantor of St. Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he was composer, music director, contractor, school principal, and teacher. His approach to his job was inventive and eclectic, particularly when he worked with an eye toward prospects involving nearby Catholic royalty.

To Bach's contemporaries "motet" meant a simple vocal work without independent instrumental parts (though instruments sometimes doubled the voices). Motets often began the Sunday service, and were typically sung by inexperienced singers. In a 1730 memo to the Leipzig town council, Bach mentioned boys in his school who were "motet singers, who need further training in order to be used eventually for figured music," by which he meant the more elaborate and demanding music of the cantatas. But Bach's own motets, like all his music, are quite demanding, and he likely did not use them in church services. It is not clear exactly what their purpose was. One of them is known to have been sung at a prominent person's funeral, but theories about specific occasions for his other motets, including Jesu, meine Freude, have not held up over the years.

Most 18th-century Lutheran church music is based on hymns, called "chorales," that dated from the previous two centuries and were familiar to everyone. In Jesu, meine Freude, the odd-numbered movements are settings of verses of Johann Franck's 1653 chorale of the same name, while the even-numbered movements set excerpts of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The eleven movements have an overarching symmetry, much of it not apparent, or important, to the listener, though it's worth noting that the first and last movements are identical harmonizations of the chorale, the second and tenth movements work with the same musical material, the central sixth movement is an elaborate fugue, and Bach reduces the texture to three voices in the fourth and eighth movements.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.