Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 5, 2008

Bach Cantata #4 (Part 2)

A Musical Celebration of the Resurrection: An Overview of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Easter Cantata, Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Part 2)

Note: This is a continuation of the previous post.

An Analysis of the Cantata

Perhaps it may seem unusual to thoroughly analyze the source texts and tunes that are behind a Bach cantata. Why not look solely at the cantata’s music itself? However, one must understand Bach’s theology before appreciating Bach’s music. As a devout confessional Lutheran, Bach’s primary goal was never to merely produce aesthetically pleasing music that tickled the parishioners’ ears. His goal was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in song. As such, he did not hesitate to look to the Scriptures or the church’s worthwhile traditions as he moved forward musically. In his own day, Bach was an example of the motto that many church musicians follow today: “Relying on its past, the church moves confidently into the future.” Our study of the cantata’s textual origins will help us to better understand and appreciate the musical symbolism Bach uses to depict his theology and beliefs. The text’s roots help us to understand why it was the obvious choice for Bach to use in this Easter cantata.

Bach wrote Cantata No. 4 early in his career (1707-08 ) and revised it more than a decade and a half later.[1] Except for the opening orchestral sinfonia, each movement of this cantata uses the text of one of the seven stanzas from Luther’s Easter hymn. In this sense it is a true “chorale cantata.”[2] Time and space prevent us from analyzing each movement for its word painting and symbolism; this essay will restrict the analysis to the orchestral sinfonia and the opening chorus of the cantata.

One Christological emphasis in the Lutheran Church is the distinction between the humiliation of Christ (from conception and birth to death and burial) and his exaltation (from the descent into hell and resurrection to his return at the end of time).[3] Cantata No. 4 captures the dramatic change between these two states, particularly between the dead, buried Christ and the risen and victorious Lord. The cantata also depicts the sorrow of the believer who is confronted with Jesus’ death and the joy of the believer at the news of Christ’s resurrection.[4]

Those who are not familiar with the cantata may be surprised at first to hear the somber and slow sinfonia. Easter music ought to be lively and joyful! Just as shocking is the title: Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands. Bach’s mournful beginning reminds the listener that the resurrection follows on the heels of the crucifixion; we cannot celebrate the joy of Easter without the sadness of Good Friday.

The use of chromaticism was often intended to be a sign of mourning in Bach’s music.[5] We have a few examples of this in the opening sinfonia. Notice the bass notes in the first two measures and the soprano notes in the third and fourth measures. In both instances the half-step downward motion could depict the tears of the believer as he mourns before the sight of Jesus’ tomb. This is especially effective when the soprano notes in measures three and four are played without additional accompaniment from the rest of the orchestra. Bach then uses this device to lead into a musical “quotation” of the first phrase of the hymn. A good portion of the remainder of this movement gives a growing sense of anticipation as the soprano line rises in measures ten through twelve. The anticipation, theologically speaking, is of the resurrection, the news of which will not be announced until part way through the first choral movement.

The first phrase of the chorus also uses a number of musical devices to highlight the humiliation of Christ and his burial. The entrance of voices is significant here. Beginning with the soprano line, each succeeding voice enters in sequence: alto, tenor, and bass. The voices’ downward entrances suggest Jesus’ burial, for the notes move deeper and deeper until we hear a low E from the bass, two and a half octaves below the original starting note of the sopranos (which they are still singing). The chromatic steps used in the alto and bass voice entrances again hint at the believers’ mournful realization of Jesus’ death.

The chromaticism becomes even more effective in the music that accompanies the next phrase of the text, translated in the appendix, “For our offenses given,” or in the H.W. Gray score of the cantata, “It was our sin that bound him.”[6] Each time the lower three voices sing those words for the first time, Bach uses chromatic steps to some degree. This device is especially effective in the bass voice, where the unusual downward chromatic steps highlight the Christian’s mournful realization, “It was our sin that bound him.”

At the next phrase, a significant change occurs with the entrance of the voices. Instead of the soprano entering first, it comes in last after the lower three voices. The text at this point reads, “This day hath he arisen.” It is possible that this change in entrances is meant to musically depict the resurrection. Our attention is drawn upward (resurrection) and not downward (burial). The word “arisen” (German erstanden) also grabs our attention by the upward motif sung in the lower three voices: first tenor, then bass, then alto. The motif occurs before the soprano’s next entrance of the cantus firmus and so the listener is drawn to the repeating, rising pattern symbolic of the resurrection.

Another musical change that occurs in connection with this portion of the text is that the melody is quoted briefly but distinctly in all of the lower voices, whereas it had previously been sung only in the soprano. All voices, representative of all Christians, are now proclaiming the great good news of the resurrection, rather than sobbing at the tearful news of Jesus’ death.

After the phrase, “And sheds new life around him,” the choir is tacit for a time as the orchestra continues to play. This places an interesting division between the first announcement of the resurrection (“This day hath he arisen…”) and the believer’s response (“Therefore let us joyful be…”). Perhaps this is meant to distinguish between Jesus’ vivification (becoming alive once again) and his actual resurrection appearances to his disciples. Given that the section after the orchestral interlude is much more generous in its use of sixteenth notes and, therefore, contains a much more joyful sound than the previous choral section, it is also possible that Bach was distinguishing between the proclamation of the Easter gospel and the joyful response that the Easter news brings to Jesus’ disciples. This essayist is inclined to favor the latter explanation.

Runs of sixteenth notes are a prominent feature in the first phrase after the orchestra’s interlude. The joyful sound of these quickly moving notes naturally compliment the specific word sung on the sixteenth notes: joyful (German froehlich). Once again the soprano enters last instead of first to depict the risen Christ.

Although there is another brief orchestral interlude, this section does not seem to cause a division in the piece as the previous section does. The interlude is a bit shorter than the previous one. This interlude also continues the sixteenth-note motifs from the choir’s voices, so that the impression is given that this section is really a continuation of the previous choir section, not a break between sections.

The text for the remainder of the movement reads, “And praise our God with solemn glee, so sing we Hallelujah!” As the final phrase is sung, the voices that are not quoting the melody are engaged in continual acclamations of “Hallelujah!” All uses of “Hallelujah” and “Alleluia” have been omitted in the Divine Service throughout the previous forty days of Lent and their corresponding Sundays.[7] The “fast of the ears” is broken as Christians celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave.

The closing “Hallelujah” section is truly impressive and awe-inspiring (not to mention a challenge for any choir). Only a composer of Bach’s caliber could make a minor key sound so joyful! The gravity of the minor mode combined with the joyful sixteenth notes continuously proclaiming “Hallelujah” capture both the weight and the joy of our Lord’s resurrection.[8] This event is our justification,[9] our acquittal from sin’s guilt before God! Truly this calls for the highest praise from the believer!

[1] The historical information for Cantata No. 4 was taken from the website,, although it could undoubtedly be gathered from many other Bach resources as well.

[2] All of Bach’s church cantatas for choirs contained movements based on chorale tunes, but this “chorale cantata” specifically uses the same hymn tune each movement. Many of Bach’s other chorale cantatas combined free arias and recitatives with other movements based on the hymn tune after which the cantata titled. Cantata No. 80, Ein Feste Burg, is an example. Christ lag in Todesbanden is unique in that every movement is based on the same chorale melody.

[3] The second article of the Apostles’ Creed summarizes the stages of the humiliation and exaltation well. The terminology is based on Paul’s words in Philippians 2:8-9.

[4] In many ways, this cantata accomplishes musically what the Easter Vigil accomplishes liturgically. The Vigil begins in darkness reminiscent of Good Friday. Stronger and stronger references to the resurrection are made until the announcement is finally made, “Christ is risen!” and the mood of the service changes from somber anticipation to solemn awe and reverent joy.

[5] The essayist is using knowledge gained over several years of organ lessons, reading, and musical workshops. Because of this, it is not possible to cite a specific book or article that demonstrates what Bach intended with each musical device that he used in his music. Other musical interpretations are the essayist’s personal conclusions which reflect his own study of this cantata.

[6] From this point forward in the essay, I will refer to the translation in the H.W. Gray version of Cantata Four, rather than the translation in the appendix

[7] The Sundays in Lent are usually not considered part of Lent proper, since every Lord’s Day is considered a celebration of the Resurrection. However, the Lenten Sundays still maintain a more somber and reflective tone than the Sundays of the other season in the church year.

[8] This is one of the reasons why I appreciate the translation that is used in the H.W. Gray edition of this cantata, especially this phrase: “And praise our God with solemn glee.” Solemn and glee are words not normally combined, but together they communicate the reverence due our Lord and the heartfelt joy that the resurrection gospel gives to God’s people.

[9] cf. Romans 4:25.




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