This is one of only six motets in Bach's catalog of 1,128 compositions.
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J.S. Bach remains among the most prolific and influential composers of sacred music. For all his influence, however, Bach too found inspiration in those who came before him. Today, we are looking at a rare example of Bach working backwards in style to produce a motet.
Motets were one of the most popular styles of choral music written during the Renaissance. These pieces are highly diverse in style and construction, but they share certain elements. Motets are usually written for unaccompanied choruses, sung a cappella, with religious texts. If you’ve ever heard a work by Palestrina, you’ve probably heard a motet.
While the motet was a big deal in Palestrina’s day, by Bach’s time it wasn’t the most popular. Still, Bach took on the challenge after hearing Johann Crüger’s “Jesu Meine Freude,” a 17th-century motet with lyrics from German poet Johann Franck. It is hard to overstate how rare a Bach motet really is. Among Bach’s collection of 1,128 compositions, only six of them were motets.
Bach took Crüger’s piece and expanded on it to create a piece in 11 movements. Each movement alternates lyrics, with the odds taking up Franck’s poetry and the evens drawing from the Epistle to the Romans. The complex juxtaposition of the texts is countered by a symmetry in the music that makes several of the movements mirror each other.
It is thought that the hymn was composed to educate simultaneously about both choral singing and theology. In order to intensify the meaning behind each movement, Bach used a method called word painting. Also known as tone painting, this is a style in which the music attempts to reflect the meaning of the lyrics literally.
This rendition is made all the better by the exceptional singers of Vox Luminis. Vox Luminis is an ensemble that specializes in English, German, and Italian pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries. Their YouTube channel is just brimming with fine sacred music from the heyday of religious composition.
Click here to hear more stunning sacred music from Vox Luminis.