J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, “Christ lay in death’s bonds” (Cantata BWV 4)

Composed for use on Easter Sunday, Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of Bach’s best-known church cantatas. It is also one of his earliest, probably written in 1708 when Bach was organist at St. Blasius church in Mühlhausen.

A distinctive feature of this work is that it uses — unaltered — all 7 stanzas from a Lutheran hymn. First published in 1524. Luther’s hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden was a loose German paraphrase of an 11th-century Latin hymn, one which we sing every Easter (in English): “Christians, to the Paschal victim” (#97).

In addition to adapting the Latin text for use in congregational singing in German, Luther and his colleague Johann Walter also adapted the original plainchant melody into a regular metrical tune that would fit the rhythmic pattern of their new German hymn. (You can read the original Latin of this hymn and an English translation here.)

The plainchant in Latin of the Easter hymn will be familiar to our parishioners, having sung it every year in English.

Monks of Triors Abbey, Châtillon-Saint-Jean in the Drôme, Rhône-Alpes, France

For a quick comparison, here is how Luther and Walter adapted that chant into a hymn tune. The piano rendition below by Andrew Remillard repeats the melody 4 times, to sing four stanzas of the hymn.

Bach made some slight but significant modifications to that sturdy tune (as conductor John Eliot Gardiner points out in the video below). But in this cantata, the melody shows up — sometimes complete, sometimes in fragments — in all 8 movements of the work. After an opening instrumental Sinfonia, the 7 vocal movements all end with vigorous “Alleluias,” signalling that, yes, this is the Day of Resurrection!

In the days before Easter of 2020, when much of the world was in lockdown, John Eliot Gardiner recorded this short introduction to the cantata. His remarks from his front garden were broadcast on the BBC on Easter Sunday, prior to the presentation of a video recording of a live performance of the work by the Monteverdi Choir with the English Baroque Soloists.

The text to the cantata with an English translation is available here. A score can be downloaded here.

Below is a complete performance of the cantata sung by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. This recording is of a live performance on the cantata in the Georgenkirche, Eisenach, in April 2000, part of the Choir’s year-long “Bach Pilgrimage.”