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Bwv 4

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Bwv 4

Template:Infobox Bach composition

Christ lag in Todes Banden (Christ lay in death's bonds), also written Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, is a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is one of Bach's earliest cantatas, and was probably intended for a performance at Easter in 1707, related to his move from Arnstadt to Mühlhausen. John Eliot Gardiner describes the work as Bach's "first-known attempt at painting narrative in music".[1]

It is a chorale cantata, a type of composition in which both text and music are based on a Lutheran hymn, in this case the hymn of the same name by Martin Luther. In each of the seven different vocal movements, Bach used the unchanged words of one of the seven stanzas of the chorale, and its tune as a cantus firmus.

History and words

Bach composed the cantata for Easter Sunday early in his career; its style implies a date between 1707 and 1713. It shows similarities to a composition of Johann Pachelbel based on the same Easter chorale.[2]

Bach revived the work during his time at Leipzig. As only copies from this later period are preserved, the date of the original performance is unknown. It is known, however, that Bach performed a cantata of his own composition at Easter in 1707 as a part of his application for the post of organist of Divi Blasii church, Mühlhausen, and this may have been Christ lag in Todes Banden. He was then twenty-two, seven years prior to his sequence of Weimar cantatas, begun in 1714 with Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, and 15 years before he started a complete annual cycle of chorale cantatas in Leipzig in the middle of 1724.


Like nearly all Bach's cantatas, the work was unpublished during the composer's lifetime. It was included in the first volume of the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe complete edition of Bach's work, which was published in Leipzig in 1851.


The prescribed readings for the feast day were from the First letter to the Corinthians ("Christ is our Easter lamb" – 1 Corinthians 5:6–8) and from the Gospel of Mark (the Resurrection of Jesus – Mark 16:1–8). Luther's chorale is an important Easter hymn in German Lutheranism, similar to Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ for Christmas. It stresses the struggle between Life and Death. The third stanza refers to the "sting of death", as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15. The fifth stanza relates to the "Osterlamm", the Paschal Lamb. The final stanza recalls the tradition of baking and eating Easter Bread.

In contrast to the chorale cantatas that Bach composed in Leipzig, the text of the chorale is kept unchanged. Introduced by an instrumental Sinfonia, the seven stanzas are set in seven movements.[2]

Scoring and structure

The cantata in eight movements is scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, two violins, two violas and basso continuo. The 1725 version has a choir of cornett and three trombones playing colla parte with the voices. The voice parts can be sung by soloists or a choir, as the work is a "Choralkonzert" (chorale concerto) in the style of the 17th century; Bach only began composing recitatives and arias for church cantatas in 1714.[2]

  1. Sinfonia: strings and continuo
  2. Versus 1 (chorus): "Christ lag in Todes Banden"
  3. Versus 2 (soprano, alto): "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt"
  4. Versus 3 (tenor): "Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn"
  5. Versus 4 (chorus): "Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg"
  6. Versus 5 (bass): "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm"
  7. Versus 6 (soprano, tenor): "So feiern wir das hohe Fest"
  8. Versus 7 (chorus): "Wir essen und leben wohl"


Luther's tune is based on the 12th-century Easter hymn "Christ ist erstanden" (Christ is risen), which relies both in text and melody on the sequence for Easter, Victimae paschali laudes.[3] A new version was published by Luther in 1524 and adapted by Johann Walter in his Wittembergisch Geistlisch Gesangbuch (1524). Bach's version includes passing notes and modifications to conform rhythmic patterns to a regular time signature.[3]

The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia that introduces the first line of the melody. The seven stanzas are treated in seven movements as chorale variations "per omnes versus" (for all stanzas), with the melody always present as a cantus firmus. The strings are in five parts: two violins, two violas and continuo (a combination described by Richard Taruskin as "archaic"[4]). The sequence of the seven stanzas shows symmetry: chorus – duet – solo – chorus – solo – duet – chorus. Unlike Bach's later cantatas, all movements are in the same key, E minor. All stanzas end on the word Halleluja. [2] John Eliot Gardiner calls Bach's setting of Luther's hymn "a bold, innovative piece of musical drama" and observes "Bach drawing on medieval musical roots (the hymn tune derives from the eleventh-century plainsong Victimae paschali laudes) and of his total identification with the spirit and letter of Luther’s fiery, dramatic hymn".[1] Bach could follow "Luther’s ideal in which music brings the text to life". Julian Mincham remarks: "The variety of ideas and range of inventiveness is incredible but never disguises the presence of the chorale."[5]

The first stanza is treated as a chorale fantasia. The soprano sings the cantus firmus in unadorned long notes, while the lower voices sing free counterpoint. A figure in the violins known as suspiratio (sigh) reflects "Christ’s suffering in the grip of death".[1] The style recalls the 16th-century stile antico, although the harmony and orchestral writing is up-to-date.[4]

The second stanza, a duet between the soprano and alto, "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (No one could defeat death) deals with "humanity helpless and paralysed as it awaits God’s judgement against sin". Bach has the music almost freeze on the first words "den Tod" (death), the word "gefangen" (imprisoned) is marked by a sharp dissonance of the soprano and alto.[1]

In the third stanza the tenors are accompanied by two obbligato violins, which first illustrate how Christ slashes at the enemy. The music stops completely on the word "nichts" (naught remained ...). The violins then present in four notes the outline of the cross, and finally the tenors sing their joyful "Halleluja" to a virtuoso violin accompaniment.[1]

The fourth stanza, "Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg, da Tod und Leben rungen" (It was an awesome war when death and life struggled) is sung by four voices, accompanied only by the continuo. The altos sing the cantus firmus while the other voices follow each other in a fugal stretto with entries just a beat apart, until they fall away one by one. In the final Halleluja in all four voices, the bass descends nearly two octaves.[1]

Stanza five is sung by the basses alone, accompanied at first by a descending chromatic line in the continuo. The strings then resume the chorale, while the basses sing the final victorious Hallelujas, spanning two octaves.[1] Taruskin writes of this verse, "With its antiphonal exchanges between the singer and the massed strings ... this setting sounds like a parody of a passacaglia-style Venetian opera aria, vintage 1640".[4]

Stanza six is a duet for soprano and tenor accompanied only by the continuo. It is a dance of joy: the word "Wonne" (joy) is rendered in figuration that Gardiner finds reminiscent of Purcell.[1] Bach incorporates the solemn rhythms of the French overture into this verse, reflecting the presence of the word feiern (celebrate) in the text. It may be the first time that Bach used these rhythms.[4]

Bach's first four-part setting of the final stanza is lost; it may have been a repeat of the opening chorus.[4] The one he added in 1725 is now used.[1] It is a simple chorale harmonization that the congregation might have sung.[4]


This cantata is significant as an early composition of Bach for Easter, and it has been frequently recorded. Different recordings make different choices regarding whether to use just one voice per part or larger groupings.

Robert Shaw recorded the cantata in 1946 and again in 1959. Günther Ramin conducted the Thomanerchor in 1950. Fritz Lehmann conducted the choir of the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik Frankfurt with soloists Helmut Krebs and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, also in 1950, the anniversary of Bach's death. Karl Richter and his Münchener Bach-Chor recorded it first in 1958 and again in 1968. A second recording of the Thomanerchor was conducted by Kurt Thomas with the Gewandhausorchester and soloists Agnes Giebel, Marga Höffgen, Hans-Joachim Rotzsch and Theo Adam in 1959.



The first source is the score.

General sources are found for the Bach cantatas. Several databases provide additional information on each single cantata:

  • Cantata BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden history, scoring, sources for text and music, translations to various languages, discography, discussion, bach-cantatas website
  • Emmanuel Music
  • Christ lag in Todes Banden history, scoring, Bach website (German)
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Alberta
  • Cantata No. 4, "Christ lag in Todes Banden," BWV 4 Allmusic
  • Bach Choir of Bethlehem
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