Baroque Praise Music

It sounds like praise music to me.

I am lucky to have Jesus,
Oh how tightly I hold him,
Because he refreshes my heart,
When I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus who loves me,
And gives himself to me as my own,
Ah, I will never leave Jesus,
Even if my heart is breaking.

Jesus remains my joy,
My heart’s comfort and essence,
Jesus is there through all suffering,
He is my life’s strength,
The desire and sunshine of my eyes,
My soul’s treasure and bliss;
Therefore I will never leave Jesus,
Neither from my heart nor from my face.

That’s a rather direct translation translation of the lyrics found in a section of J. S. Bach’s 1723 cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147. In English, Bach’s chorale is most commonly known as the hymn, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Bach’s text for the chorale came from an earlier, much longer hymn (Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne) composed by Protestant pastor Martin Janus in 1661:

Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe,
O wie feste halt ich ihn,
Dass er mir mein Herze labe,
Wenn ich krank und traurig bin.
Jesum hab ich, der mich liebet
Und sich mir zu eigen gibet;
Ach drum lass ich Jesum nicht,
Wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

Jesus bleibet meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Trost und Saft,
Jesus wehret allem Leide,
Er ist meines Lebens Kraft,
Meiner Augen Lust und Sonne,
Meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne;
Darum lass ich Jesum nicht
Aus dem Herzen und Gesicht.

As is the case with so many German hymns, the most common English translations are significantly different than the original. Most English-language hymnals carry these words for Bach’s tune:

Jesu, joy of 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.

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.

I prefer the German. By comparison, the traditional English text sounds high-brow and ethereal. The German is very direct, personal and down to earth. Like I said, it sounds like praise music. Or at least what good praise music ought to sound like.

My wife is translating German hymns into English for the bilingual German Methodist congregation with which we are affiliated. It’s a very enriching experience for the both of us since she shares with the results with me. The process forces one to engage with the text of the hymn in a new way, It also connects the translator with the history behind the hymns and the previous translations that have entered English-language hymnody.

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