Bach’s “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend”: Five Settings of a Lutheran Hymn

First published in 1648, the Lutheran hymn, Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (“Lord Jesus Christ, be present now!”), provided a fertile source for J.S. Bach. Bach created at least five wildly contrasting settings of the melody, each of which relates to a specific aspect of the text. The melody is by an anonymous composer. (It has been erroneously attributed to Wilhelm, Duke of Saxe-Weimar). Beginning with an ascending triad, the hymn represents a passionate invocation, which was traditionally sung in Lutheran churches as the minister entered the pulpit to deliver a sermon. 

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 332

Let’s begin by listening to Bach’s four-part harmonization of the melody in its most straightforward chorale form:

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 632

In this bright, jubilant chorale prelude from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”), the ascending arpeggio which opens the melody takes on a life of its own, blossoming into continuous embellishment:

Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 655

Here, the melody provides the seed out of which a joyful organ trio develops. A vibrant contrapuntal conversation unfolds between the two keyboard voices and the third bass voice, played in the foot pedal. The Netherlands Bach Society observes that the music is infused with “a dash of Italian verve,” as “the jubilant upper parts are effectively propelled along by a Vivaldian quick-paced bass line.” In the final moments, the hymn melody emerges majestically in the bass line. The atmosphere relates to the hymn’s third stanza, which references a host of angels, “eternal joy and blissful light.”

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 709

This solemn and meditative music relates to the hymn’s second stanza, “Lord, lead us in thy holy Ways.” The soprano line floats above three lower voices, which contain fragments of the original chorale melody. The earliest of the settings, Bach composed this music before 1710:

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 726

Bach must have had the exalted, earth-shattering last stanza in mind when he created this final setting. It is a four-part chorale, interspersed with exuberant keyboard flourishes. As with the first setting we heard (BWV 332), it was intended to accompany the congregation’s singing. But for this final stanza, the heavens seem to open up, with thrillingly daring harmonic surprises.

a translation of the full text:

Lord Christ, reveal thy holy Face,
And send the Spirit of thy Grace,
To fill our Hearts with fervent Zeal
To learn thy Truth, and do thy Will.

Lord, lead us in thy holy Ways,
And teach our Lips to tell thy Praise,
Increase our Faith, and raise the same
To taste the Sweetness of thy Name.

Till we with Angels join to sing
Th’eternal Praise of Thee, our King;
Till we shall see Thee Face to Face,
And all the Glories of thy Grace.

To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Be Honour, Praise, and Glory giv’n,
By all on Earth, and all in Heav’n.

Featured Image: First page of manuscript of Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 655a

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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