Online Conversation Concert
Richard Allen Roe (Photo: Michael G. Stewart)

Online Conversation Concert: Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the Bonds of Death)

Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death), an Easter cantata, and one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most beloved, is also one of his oldest. Composed sometime between the years of 1707 to 1713, scholars are most recently focused on the year 1708 as the date of composition.

Bach would have been 22 years old. Given what we know of Bach’s early years, it seems this cantata was actually part of a tradition in the German church music world at that time: it was part of a job application package. Like the supplemental material we put in nowadays with a resume, when we apply for a job, church musicians in Bach’s time forwarded a recent composition, or Cantate, as part of the application.

The cantata falls into a class of works known as Chorale Cantatas. Chorale is a German word for Hymn. I often use those two words interchangeably, they mean the same thing. What did it mean, in this case, for Bach?

Bach created this cantata by using the words from an Easter Chorale (or hymn) of the same name, written by Martin Luther in 1524. For every verse of that Chorale, Bach composed a new movement of his cantata.

Words were not the only thing that Bach borrowed from Luther’s hymn. He also used the melody in every movement. Perhaps Bach wanted the search committee to be able to recognize Luther’s famous Chorale, and thereby see Bach’s devotion to the Lutheran tradition.

Luther included the word, Hallelujah! at the end of each verse of the Chorale. It is also interesting to see how Bach set not only each verse’s text with unique and different music, but the word Hallelujah! at the conclusion of every verse in unique and different ways.

So, let’s get to the music. I mentioned this was an Easter cantata. In Christian music for Easter, one would expect joyful music, proclaiming the resurrection of the Saviour. However, the opening Sinfonia sounds anything but … joyful. In fact, if you think this music sounds more like Good Friday, I think you’d be right!

Bach had a habit, from an early age, of bringing his congregation to the main event, Easter, in this case, through the life events of Jesus’ last days. And so it seems with the opening of the Sinfonia in Christ lag in Todesbanden: dark, minor chords, a more somber character. The key is E minor, the sound, foreboding and solemn. Important: no oboes, flutes, trumpets, nor timpani, instruments one associates with joyful Easter music, but strings and basso continuo alone.

Hear ChorSymphonica’s performance of the opening of Bach’s Cantata, “Christ lag in Todesbanden.”

Following this unusually somber introduction, the music does change moods a bit, with rising eighth note passages in the first violins and first violas, answered by the second violins and second violas. At the end, a flurry of solo sixteenth notes in the first violin part gives way to a cadence with the entire ensemble coming together in E major.

Minor and somber, moving upwards, ending in major, and joyful? Is this music, the opening to an Easter cantata, supposed to be a preview of a musical depiction of a joyful event? The character of the music is not what one would expect. What exactly was Bach, a 22-year old job applicant, trying to convey?

Hear ChorSymphonica’s performance of the entire Sinfonia (1st Movement) of “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” BWV 4, by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Online Conversation Concert: Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 2

The connection to the Chorale that we discussed last time is very clear in the opening chorus of this cantata. In fact, many people have referred to this type of movement in Baroque era cantatas as a “Chorale Fantasia.”

For such a label to be accurate, one needs to hear the Chorale melody in the ensemble, and usually it’s in the soprano voice of the chorus. Here’s a look at that melody, one that is still in use in many church hymnals today.

Here’s a recording of the first two lines. Since it is still used in hymnals world-wide, perhaps you’ll recognize it.

We encounter the Chorale melody in the soprano section right from the beginning of the movement. In this first section they sing the melody in long notes.

But what about the other choir parts, and the orchestra? What is their role?

The altos, tenors, and basses of the choir sing a varied, rhythmically active complementary part that mimics the Chorale melody’s downward and upward contours. We observe the violas (in this cantata Bach wrote two viola parts, a very old-fashioned way of using the orchestra that he would later abandon) playing along with the altos and tenors of the chorus, a technique called colla parte.

The first and second violins, though, have a repeated, imitative motive that gives the opening section its rhythmic drive.

Perhaps Bach wanted to impress his potential employers (remember, in theory, this is a job application), and so in the second line of Chorale text he abruptly shifts to a very modern way of composing, one that uses an interesting motif that is connected to the text itself: Er ist wieder erstanden (He has been raised), an Easter text. The motive, first in the tenor voice, descends, and then quickly reaches upward, depicting the resurrection.

The basses and altos sing in imitation, but in turn they also will sing this Easter motive. The sopranos, in a range hovering above everyone else, bring back the Chorale melody, again in long held notes (so that it would be easy to recognize).

Since this is a long movement, and we’ve already covered a lot of ground, let’s pause and have a listen to the beginning of this opening chorus of the cantata.

And so the movement continues, each line of the text receiving special treatment. One highlight is: des wir sollen fröhlich sein, (therefore we shall rejoice). In exuberant sixteenth notes both chorus and orchestra convey a joyful celebration.

Remember in the first blog post I mentioned Martin Luther finished each verse of the Chorale with the word “Hallelujah!” Bach devised two unique treatments of that word for this opening movement of the cantata.

First, he lets one section of the choir sing the text and singen “Hallelujah!” (which means: and they sing “Hallelujah!”). While that one section has those words, the other voices actually do just that: they sing “Hallelujah!” Nowhere else in all of Bach’s cantata output do we have such an occurrence.

Second, the ending of the movement focuses on the word “Hallelujah” itself. In a fast segment marked Alla breve (half time) the ensemble makes a flurried version of the last phrase of the Chorale melody (literally the word, “Hallelujah!”) with a syncopated rhythm. Imitating and responding to one another Now all choir parts are singing, “Hallelujah!”. At the very end each voice in imitation descends and then ascends, depicting burial and resurrection.

Here’s the score to the whole movement, which you can follow along while listening to our recording of the movement from June, 2017.