Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 3, 2008

Bach Cantata #4 (Part 1)

At last week’s WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts (a.k.a. WELStock ’08), the opening concert included three movements from my all-time favorite Bach cantata, Christ Lag in Todesbanden, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.” Don’t let the title deceive you, it’s actually an Easter text (hymn #161 in Christian Worship, the hymnal of the WELS). In one of my previous music classes at Santa Clara University (in fall of 2005), I prepared an essay about this cantata. I thought that I would share it with you this week in two separate installments. Some of the original essay’s formatting doesn’t translate well into a blog post, so I won’t post the entire paper, but you will be able to read a good portion of it. Here is the first segment.


A Musical Celebration of the Resurrection: An Overview of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Easter Cantata, Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Part 1)


No composer is identified with the cantata musical form more strongly than the great Lutheran composer of the Baroque Era, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). During his years as cantor of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany, Bach was responsible for performing a cantata for each Sunday of the church year. Approximately 200 of the estimated 300 or more cantatas that he wrote have survived to this day. The influence of Bach’s liturgical music can still be felt in Lutheran Churches today. The modern Lutheran “Hymn of the Day” concept is really no different that the original purpose of a Bach cantata – a specific hymn text and tune are assigned to a particular Sunday of the Church year and are chosen to reflect the appointed lessons of the day. Any study of either Lutheran music history or of Bach’s works would be incomplete without a careful look at the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.

One cantata of Bach’s that is particularly special to this essayist is the Easter Cantata, BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden.[1] While this cantata does has some distinctive features, it nevertheless exemplifies the characteristics of most of Bach’s church cantatas: a specific work assigned to a specific day, musical word painting that reflects the text of what is being sung, several movements of varying musical forces, and the inclusion of a chorale text and melody performed in a variety of ways. This essay will explore the textual and musical considerations that contributed to the development of this cantata, and then will study the cantata text and music so that we can gain greater appreciation for the way that Bach portrayed his Christian faith through this musical composition for the church.

Text and Tune Origins

All of the major Lutheran hymnals in use today[2] appoint Martin Luther’s Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden, as the Hymn of the Day to be sung on Easter morning. Guenther Stiller notes that this hymn “was the hymn of the day in Leipzig from time immemorial.”[3] When the time came for Bach to prepare a cantata for the festival of the Resurrection of our Lord, there was no question as to which text and tune would be crafted into an Easter cantata.

Luther’s seven-stanza text and accompanying tune was hardly without roots. When the text was first published in 1524 in Eyn Enchiridion oder Handbuechlein, the title gave away its origins: Christ ist erstanden: Gebessert.[4] According to the title, Luther’s text was intended to be an improvement (gebessert) of an older Easter hymn, Christ ist erstanden, usually translated “Christ is arisen.” The most likely reason for Luther to call his Easter hymn and improvement over the older Christ ist erstanden is that his chorale melody is clearly based on the older tune. Luther probably didn’t have in mind that his text was an improvement of the older text, “since only slight traces of the original text are found in Luther’s hymn.”[5]

This predecessor hymn that inspired Luther’s newer version dates back to approximately 1100 A.D. Before the end of the fifteenth century, it had already been firmly established as a standard Easter addition in the Roman Mass among German-speaking regions of Europe. Four versions dating to the twelfth century have been found, and 17 versions from as early as the fifteenth century have also been discovered, varying from five short lines to eleven stanzas long. Luther himself is quoted to have said about this hymn, “After a time one tires of singing all other hymns, but the Christ ist erstanden one can always sing again and again.”[6] The accompanying tune is believed to be as old as the text, although no confirmed evidence of the tune can be found prior to two fifteenth century manuscripts.[7]

If we continue to search and study, we discover that the roots of Bach’s Easter cantata are even deeper than this medieval German hymn! All of the resources previously footnoted connect Christ ist erstanden to the Latin sequence hymn, Victimae Paschali laudes, usually translated, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim.” This hymn has been attributed to Bishop Wipo, who served in France around the ninth century.[8] Its accompanying tune is assumed to be affiliated with the text since its inception. Together, this text and tune was used as a sequence hymn sung between the Epistle and Gospel during the services of Easter Week, and also during Easter Matins as a part of a liturgical drama that was utilized.[9]

Finally, the point can be safely argued that the text’s ultimate roots go as far back as the first century to Saint Paul and even to the B.C. era of the Old Testament. Certain phrases of Luther’s hymn are clear allusions or paraphrases from the Passover account in Exodus 12 and significant “Easter” verses from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, particularly in chapters five and fifteen.

Note: The essay continues in the next post.

[1] Literally translated: “Christ lay in (the) bonds of death.” In most modern American Lutheran hymnals, this chorale text is translated with the title, “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands.”

[2] These would includes the ELCA’s Lutheran Book of Worship, the LC-MS’s Lutheran Worship, and the WELS’s Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal.

[3] Bouman, Herbert, Daniel Poellot and Hilton Oswald, translators. Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, 239. St. Louis: Concordia, 1984.

[4] Aufdemberge, C.T. Christian Worship: Handbook, 189. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1997.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Polack, W.G. The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, 143. St. Louis: Concordia, 1942.

[7] Aufdemberge, 172.

[8] Backer, Bruce. Lutheran Worship, Fourth Edition, 136. New Ulm, MN: DMLC Graphic Arts, 1988.

[9] Stulken, Maryilyn Kay. Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, 234-235. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.



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