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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.




Online Conversation Concert:Bach: Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 3

For the third movement of the cantata Bach set the 2nd verse of Luther’s Chorale for soprano and alto solo, accompanied only by the basso continuo. These bass instruments (in our case, organ and ‘cello) start off the movement with a short introduction, which musicians call a ritornello. The Italian word ritorno means to return, and this little bass part does exactly that, repeatedly throughout the movement. Here it is, along with the entrance of the two solo parts.

Looking at the ritornello itself, you notice that it moves about in pairs of notes, shifting from a lower octave, then leaping up an octave, only to jump back down. The continuo part continues this odd motion throughout the entire movement.

Why would Bach compose in this way? Perhaps Bach was trying to show the congregation, or perhaps the search committee, the two sides of human existence – death and life. Life, represented by the higher notes, is always pulled downward by death, represented by the lower notes. They are intertwined together; death has an inevitable pull on life.

You’ll notice in the score some unusual markings at the beginning of this movement. First of all, the solo voices have added instruments, Cornetto and Trombone I ad lib. Remember I said this was one of Bach’s earliest cantatas? In the 1st chapter I presumed that it could possibly have been a part of a package of materials Bach submitted as a job application in 1708. If so, he must have liked it himself, because he kept it with him, and reused it for Leipzig’s services some 16 years later.

In Leipzig, Bach had the use of a group of cornetto and sackbut (a forerunner of the modern trombone) players, who regularly assisted the Thomaner (the St. Thomas School Choir of Boys, which Bach led as part of his official duties as Thomaskantor from 1723 until his death in 1750). I presume (now this is sheer speculation) that Bach did not have the use of such doubling instruments in 1708, when the cantata was composed. The earliest surviving source material for the cantata, a set of instrumental parts, date from 1724 and 1725 (Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723). The parts have the notation for the doubling instruments written on them, as above. “Ad lib”? That could well mean, “as needed.”

The highlight of the movement occurs near the end, where the soloists sing the text, “…hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen,” which means, “(Death) … held us imprisoned in his realm.” Notice the way Bach has the soprano part, the higher part of the two solo voices, placed beneath the (usually) lower alto part on the word gefangen (imprisoned). The soprano struggles to be heard in that range (a reason instruments were added later), and is further obscured by the alto voice above it, not below. This is on purpose: to illustrate how life is held imprisoned by death.

As the basso continuo line of the ritornello did at the beginning, the two voices represent the duality of human existence, life and the inevitable pull of death. Here, life, represented by the upper voice, the higher soprano voice, is held “imprisoned” below the alto voice, in the realm of death.

The “Hallelujah” of this verse is not joyful, although it is breathtakingly beautiful. A series of suspensions and resolutions are sung by the two solo voices over the ongoing basso continuo
which presents the ritornello, high notes and low notes, life and death, one last time at the very end, returning to the beginning of the movement.

Easter joy? We seem to still be stuck on Good Friday. Yet be patient, Bach has a plan for this cantata, and even in his youthful compositional style, the plan is brilliant. Here’s the entire movement in score and sound. For this performance we hear Kerry Holahan, soprano and Sonya Knussen, contralto, along with organist Mark Frazier, and cellist Chris Moehlenkamp.


Online Conversation Concert : Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 4

The next movement in the cantata is an aria for tenor solo and violin, along with the basso continuo. Even at this early stage in his compositional career Bach was eclectic in his style, borrowing from different sources. In this case, Bach may have turned to the world of opera, for this aria has all the hallmarks of a Baroque operatic staple: the rage aria.

A rage aria is one in which the character sings of their emotional anger, perhaps a jilted lover, or the victim of someone’s greed. The text is the main way we can tell if it is a rage aria, but there are musical characteristics as well. Wild leaps, exaggerated rhythms, and extremes of dynamics often underscore the emotional rage expressed by the singer.

Let’s listen to the opening ritornello of this aria. I think you will be impressed by the agitation in the writing for violin, which is almost non-stop sixteenth notes.



But who is enraged, and why? Martin Luther’s Chorale text says who right at the beginning of the tenor’s part. Jesus Christus Gottes Sohn (Jesus Christ, God’s son), declares the tenor soloist.

The aria’s text expresses Jesus’ anger at death, how death (portrayed in the previous movement) holds humanity in its prison.

Near the end of the aria is one of the most unforgettable moments in the entire cantata – in all of Bach’s music, I think. We hear how Jesus’ atonement has eliminated all of death’s might and power, and that nothing remains but death’s empty form (da bleibet nichts denn Tod’s Gestalt). The violin plays strong chords, while the cello part takes over the raging sixteenth note pattern, like a thunderbolt thrown downward at death. At the word nichts (nothing) Bach stops the music, and inserts rests – silence – into the score. The tenor sings denn Tod’s Gestalt (death’s empty shape) hushed, without the instruments, who respond haltingly with piano dynamics, to illustrate what has become of death as a result of Jesus’ rage. It is only now a pale shadow.



The aria then quickly returns to the original character for the text Den Stachel hat er verloren (Death has lost its sting). In the “Hallelujah!” that follows the tenor joyfully takes over the 16th notes from the violin part. The aria finishes with the opening ritornello.

We hear Jason Rylander, tenor, and Regino Madrid, violin.


Online Conversation Concert : Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 5

In the earlier movements of this cantata we have seen the young Bach, perhaps composing for a job application, use music to express theological topics, topics that (to Bach) were embedded in Martin Luther’s Chorale text. This approach, music as theological expression, is a significant part of Bach’s compositional style.

We see it in the early stages, and perhaps in a more youthful way, here in this cantata. For example, we have seen an opening Sinfonia that reminds us of the solemnity of Good Friday, unusual for an Easter cantata. We have seen the instruments of the first movement play rapid sixteenth notes while the chorus sings of Easter joy. We have seen the two sides of human existence, life and death, represented by the soprano and alto solo voices, and also by the leaping from an upper octave to a lower octave in the basso continuo in the 2nd verse. We have seen death become a pale shadow of death, after Jesus Christ has addressed the cause. No doubt you already know, or will discover other examples of this tendency towards theology and Christian spirituality in his music. After all, he is known as the “5th Evangelist.”

The combining of the musical and the theological continues in the next movement, a chorus. In this movement the Chorale melody is given to the altos, which is very unusual in Bach’s music. The movement starts with the tenors, joined by the sopranos and then the basses. They sing an imitative motive, which is based on the Chorale melody. Soon the altos arrive with the actual Chorale melody. The instruments play in unison with the chorus voices, which is what musicians call colla parte. This orchestration gives the movement a very ancient, motet-like texture and feel.

The text of this verse tells us of a wunderlicher Krieg (marvelous war) when life and death struggled. The nature of the verse is already strongly theological, and young Bach was truly up to the task in his musical setting. There are many examples to show, but two really stand out to me.

First, at the words Die Schrift hat verkündigt das, Wie ein Tod den andern fraß (Scripture has proclaimed this: how one death another devoured), Bach uses imitation in a way that reflects the text. He writes a three-part canon. One part after another enters, only to disappear one at a time, giving the impression that each voice part is consumed (fraß) by the next, until there is nothing left, death has destroyed itself.



Secondly, how Bach set “Hallelujah!” in this verse is quite remarkable. The altos have been singing the Chorale melody the entire time, and here is no exception.



The sopranos and basses sing an unusual accompaniment, one that emphasizes the final syllable of the word by making two notes out of it, almost laughing. Perhaps influenced by the earlier line of text, Ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden (Death has become a mockery), their singing could even be described as mocking death.



Finally the tenor part adds the most interesting detail: they sing a Kreutz-Motiv (Cruciform, or Cross Motive) to the word “Hallelujah!” exactly ten times in a row.

A Kreutz-Motiv is a collection of four notes (ideal in this case, since “Hallelujah!” has 4 syllables), laid out in a particular way to form two intersecting planes. The planes are made by first connecting the 1st and the 4th notes, then the 2nd and the 3rd notes are connected with the second plane.

The significance of ten “Hallelujahs,” especially when paired with cruciform motives, is part of Bach’s great genius. The impression on Bach’s listeners must have been enormous.

Here’s the audio excerpt from this moment in our 2017 performance along with the page of the score, where this “Hallelujah!” occurs.



And finally our performance in total, with a score.



Online Conversation Concert : Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 6

The next movement of the cantata, is an aria for bass solo and orchestra. The Chorale melody is present in varied forms in both the solo voice and the 1st violin parts.

The aria is perhaps the most theologically oriented movement in the entire cantata.

In the last chapter I wrote about how pervasive theology is in Bach’s compositional style. I mentioned the ending of the previous chorus with 10 “Hallelujahs,” set to cruciform motives in the tenor part, among other theologically oriented elements.

Why the number 10? The study of numerology, both in Bach’s music and in biblical studies, can sometimes lead to fascinating, even wild conclusions. Was Bach a numerologist at this early age? Was Bach ever a numerologist at any age?

It may be total coincidence, but the number 10, reflected in the 10 signs of the cross (cruciform motives) sung by the tenors at the end of the last movement, may have a strong biblical theme that bridges into the next movement, the aria for bass and orchestra. Let me try to illustrate this thinking.

The text to this aria, Verse 5 of Luther’s Chorale, is about the Christian ritual of Eucharist. The text shows how Martin Luther saw its basis in the Hebrew tradition of Passover. That tradition was chronicled in the 2nd Book of Moses, Exodus, Chapter 12. In that passage of Old Testament scripture specific instructions were given to God’s People, instructions for how to prepare the Passover meal, how to roast the lamb.

Where’s the connection to the number 10?

Passover marks the end of the 10 plagues and the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. In particular, preparation for the 10th plague involved placing a sign (Luther’s interpretation was making the sign of the cross), a marking made from the blood of the Passover lamb on the door, thus prompting God to “pass over” duly marked houses without visiting the plague on that house.

The opening passage of the bass aria begins with a lamento bass, a chromatically descending line of half-notes and quarter-notes. After two measures the figure changes to a moving eighth-note passage that seems to repeat, churning around and around, perhaps to give a musical illustration of turning while roasting lamb on a spit over an open flame, which is the method described in Exodus 12.

The text goes on to mention the blood of the lamb that marks our door, Das Blut zeichnet unser Tür. Bach turns to cruciform motives again, in both the voice part and the 1st violin’s response.

For the penultimate line of text, Der Würger kann uns nicht, nicht, nicht mehr schaden (The murderer can harm us no more), the 1st violin plays a 16th note figure reminiscent of the
4th movement “rage aria.”

The ending “Hallelujah!” is written as a dialog between the solo voice and the 1st violin. Bach again turns to cruciform motives in the voice and, in an extended way, in the 1st violin part as well. The very end brings back the “rage” of 16th notes in the 1st violin.

To arrive at these conclusions, there are some filters that need to be applied. Not only are we interpreting Bach’s music here, but Bach was interpreting Martin Luther (who wrote the Chorale on which the cantata is based). Luther was interpreting the 2nd Book of Moses from the Old Testament. The filter formula could be something like (I am forever indebted to Professor Michael Marissen for this way of thinking):

Moses’ Exodus Luther’s Moses Bach’s Luther Our Bach

Here’s Our Performance from June, 2017 , with along with a score. Soloist: William Heim.


Online Conversation Concert : Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 7

The next movement is a duet for soprano and tenor, accompanied by the basso continuo. So feiern wir das hohe Fest mit Herzensfreud und Wonne (So we celebrate this high feast with heartfelt joy and bliss) wrote Luther in his Chorale. Luther is referring to the joyful Easter feast for which Bach’s cantata was created.

The character of this duet, connected to the text of the 6th verse, could not be more different than the earlier duet, or any of the music in the cantata. It is rhythmically buoyant, in both the vocal parts and the continuo. The range of the solos, including the highest notes for soprano and tenor in the entire cantata add a sparkle that is much more in the expected character of joyful Easter celebrations.

The words Wonne, Sonne, Gnaden, Herzen (bliss, sun, grace, hearts) receive an extended melisma with a triplet rhythm, a way of composing that really sets the words apart and gives them an extra measure of joyfulness. This joyful character reaches its climax with the “Hallelujah!” at the conclusion of the movement.

In our recording we hear Kerry Holahan, soprano, and Jason Rylander, tenor, accompanied by
Christopher Moehlenkamp, violoncello, and Mark Frazier, organ.



Online Conversation Concert : Christ lag in Todesbanden, Part 8

Wir essen und leben wohl im rechten Osterfladen (We eat and live well on true Easter bread) is the first line of the final movement, a slim and simple chorale setting. Scholars have long been perplexed about this movement, since the young Bach had previously in the cantata exhibited great musical and hermeneutical skill, creating settings that promote a deeply Lutheran influenced theological point of view. It seems a cantata for the hohe Fest (high feast) of Easter would need more elaborate setting of the final verse.

The speculation is justified; the surviving source materials which transmit the cantata to us, namely a set of orchestra parts dated around 1724 or 1725, created by Bach for a revival performance of the cantata in Leipzig, include the final chorale in a different handwriting from the previous movements. This is the case in all the surviving parts, vocal and instrumental, except in the cornetto and trombone parts, which were added for this Leipzig revival of the work.

What could this mean? There is a theory, borne out by many other cantatas in the early 18th Century, that the opening movement’s music was repeated, with words from the final verse of the Chorale.

That approach makes limited sense, though. The 16-note writing in chorus and orchestra at the opening chorus’ text Des wir sollen freudig sein (therefore we should be joyful), which as I noted earlier, marvelously expresses the character of the word freudig (joyful), would now be coupled with the text Christus will die Koste sein (Christ wants to be the food). The musical text painting, so well accomplished earlier, would be made to carry almost humorous affect, with 16-notes at the word Koste (food or fare). Will we have some internal, digestive activity by consuming Eucharist? Certainly this would not be in keeping with an earnest and serious attempt by a younger composer to impress a search committee, or any potential listener.

Nevertheless, you might be amused by the attempt, so I’ve included it here. The one serious flaw is that very line; otherwise, it certainly could be considered a possible solution.

As for the slim, conservative, “Leipzig-style” chorale setting that is transmitted in the source material, it does show a more mature hand at harmonization, particularly in the more chromatic moments.

We present you with a score to the entire cantata, along with our complete performance from June, 2017.