Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4

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Christ lag in Todes Banden
Chorale cantata by J. S. Bach
Resurrection of Jesus on the title page of a Luther Bible, 1769
Occasion First Day of Easter
Composed 1707 ?
Movements 8
Chorale "Christ lag in Todes Banden"
Vocal SATB soloists and choir
  • cornetto
  • 3 trombones
  • 2 violins
  • 2 violas
  • continuo

Christ lag in Todes Banden (Christ lay in death's bonds),[1] also written Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4,[a] is a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is one of his earliest cantatas, and probably intended for a performance at Easter in 1707, related to his application for a post at Mühlhausen. John Eliot Gardiner describes the work as Bach's "first-known attempt at painting narrative in music".[2]

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

Composition history[edit]

Christ lag in Todes Banden survives in a version from the 1720s when Bach was working in Leipzig.[3] He incorporated the work into his second cycle of Leipzig cantatas, the so-called chorale cycle based on Lutheran hymns. This cantata fits the cycle in the sense that it is based on a chorale, but its style is different from the others and it is generally accepted that it was originally composed much earlier. Its style implies a date between 1707 and 1713. It throws light on which composers who influenced the young Bach. In particular, it shows similarities to a composition of Johann Pachelbel based on the same Easter chorale.[4]

There is documentary evidence suggesting that this Easter Sunday cantata was premiered in 1707. It is known 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.[5] He was then twenty-two. The work is generally seen as remarkably accomplished for this early stage of his career. He was already demonstrating similar ingenuity in keyboard music, but it is a significant milestone in his vocal music, being seven years before his sequence of Weimar cantatas, begun in 1714 with Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, and 17 years before he started a complete annual cycle of chorale cantatas in Leipzig in the middle of 1724 with O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20. There are, however, a few cantatas surviving from either the Mühlhausen period or, like this one, possibly from his years at Arnstadt, and these early works include some fine writing. Christoph Wolff suggests that Bach may have composed other cantatas that early cantatas which he did not think worth preserving.[6]

Bach also wrote other settings of the tune, including two chorale preludes, BWV 625 and BWV 718.

Readings and chorale[edit]

Martin Luther who wrote the text of the hymn and derived the melody from a traditional older tune, around 1529

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 most 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.[4]

Scoring and structure[edit]

Bach structured the cantata in eight movements: a sinfonia and seven movements corresponding to the stanzas of the hymn. The title of the original parts reads: "Feria Paschatos / Christ lag in Todesbanden / a.4. Voc: / Cornetto / 3 Trombon. / 2 Violini / 2 Viole / con / Continuo / Di Signore Joh.Seb.Bach".[7] Bach scored the work for four vocal parts, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, a choir of cornetts and three trombones, two violins, two violas and basso continuo .[8]

The 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.[4] The string accompaniment is in line with the limited instrumental forces which were normally available to the young Bach. Brass parts appear to have been added in the 1720s, an instrumental choir of cornetts and three trombones (playing colla parte with the voices). Possibly this use of brass reflects the original scoring, as it looks back to 17th century polychoral writing. One of the other early cantatas, Gott ist mein Konig, BWV 71, is also richly scored, similarly evoking a tradition associated with Heinrich Schütz.

In the following table of the movements, the scoring and keys follow the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. The time signature is provided using the symbol for common time (4/4) and alla breve (2/2). The continuo, playing throughout, is not shown.

Movements of Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
No. Title Type Vocal Brass Strings Key Time.
1 Sinfonia 2Vl 2Va E minor common time
Versus 1
  • Christ lag in Todes Banden
  • Helleluja
Chorus SATB Co 3Tb 2Vl 2Va E minor
  • common time
  • cut time
Versus 2 Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt Aria Duetto S A Co Tb E minor common time
Versus 3 Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn Aria T 2Vl E minor common time
Versus 4 Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg Chorus SATB E minor common time
Versus 5 Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm Aria B 2Vl 2Va E minor 3/4
Versus 6 So feiern wir das hohe Fest Aria Duetto S T E minor common time
Versus 7 Wir essen und leben wohl Choral SATB Co 3Tb 2Vl 2Va E minor common time


Comparison of the tunes of three Easter hymns: Victimae Paschali Laudes, Christ ist erstanden and Christ lag in Todes Banden


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.[9] A new version was published by Luther in 1524 and adapted by Johann Walter in his Wittenberg hymnal for choir, Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn (1524). Bach's version includes passing notes and modifications to conform rhythmic patterns to a regular time signature.[9]


The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia that introduces the first line of the melody.[10] 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.[11] The strings are in five parts: two violins, two violas and continuo (a combination described by Richard Taruskin as "archaic"[12]). 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.[4] 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".[2] Bach could follow "Luther’s ideal in which music brings the text to life". The musicologist Julian Mincham remarks: "The variety of ideas and range of inventiveness is incredible but never disguises the presence of the chorale."[13]


The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia that introduces the first line of the melody.[10]

Versus 1[edit]

The first stanza, "Christ lag in Todes Banden" (Christ lay in death's bonds)[1] 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".[2] The style recalls the 16th-century stile antico, although the harmony and orchestral writing is up-to-date.[12]

Versus 2[edit]

The second stanza, a duet between the soprano and alto, "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (No one could defeat death)[1] 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), and the word "gefangen" (imprisoned) is marked by a sharp dissonance of the soprano and alto.[2]

Versus 3[edit]

In the third stanza, "Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn" (Jesus Christ, God's Son),[1] the tenor is accompanied by two obbligato violins, which first illustrate how Christ slashes at the enemy. The music stops completely on the word "nichts" (naught). 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.[2]

Versus 4[edit]

The fourth stanza, "Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg, da Tod und Leben rungen" (It was a strange battle, that death and life waged)[1] is sung by four voices, accompanied only by the continuo. The altos sing the cantus firmus, transposed by a fifth to B, 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.[2]

Versus 5[edit]

Stanza five, "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm" (Here is the true Easter-lamb),[1] is sung by the bass alone, accompanied at first by a descending chromatic line in the continuo. The strings then resume the chorale, while the bass sings the final victorious Hallelujas, spanning two octaves.[2] 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".[12]

Versus 6[edit]

Stanza six, "So feiern wir das hohe Fest" (So we celebrate the high festival),[1] 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.[2] 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.[12]

Versus 7[edit]

Tune of stanza 7

Bach's first four-part setting of the final stanza, "Wir essen und leben wohl" (We eat and live well),[1] is lost; it may have been a repeat of the opening chorus.[12] The one he added in 1725 is now used.[2] It is a simple chorale harmonization that the congregation might have sung.[12]


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 edition of Bach's complete works, which was published in Leipzig in 1851.

Selected recordings[edit]

Nadia Boulanger who directed two of the earliest recordings of the cantata

Judged by the number of recordings, it is one of Bach's more popular cantatas.[14] Before the Second World War, when there were few Bach cantatas on disc, it was recorded twice under the direction of Nadia Boulanger. There are a number of recordings from the decades immediately after the war. 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.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded Christ lag in Todes Banden in 1971. With its use of original instruments, this version has a good claim to being the first "historically informed" recording of the cantata, and is also significant for being made at the start of the first project to record all Bach's sacred cantatas, "J. S. Bach - Das Kantatenwerk" on Teldec. Christ lag in Todes Banden has since been included in other "complete sets" (including Rilling's which, although it started later than the Teldec set, was the first to complete).[15]

The entries in the following sortable table are taken from the listings by Aryeh Oron on the Bach-Cantatas website.[14] Some recordings rely on choir without (or with few) solo voices. Choirs are roughly marked as large by red background to One voice per part (OVPP) by green background, orchestras from large (red) to period instruments in historically informed performances (green).

Recordings of Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
Title Conductor / Choir / Orchestra Soloists Label Year Choir type Orch. type
Les Grandes Cantates de J. S. Bach Vol. 8 Werner, FritzFritz Werner
Heinrich-Schütz-Chor Heilbronn
Pforzheim Chamber Orchestra
Erato Records 1961 (1961) Chamber
Bach Cantatas Vol. 2 – Easter Richter, KarlKarl Richter
Münchener Bach-Chor
Münchener Bach-Orchester
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Archiv Produktion 1968 (1968) Bach Bach
J. S. Bach: Das Kantatenwerk – Sacred Cantatas Vol. 1 Harnoncourt, NikolausNikolaus Harnoncourt
Concentus Musicus Wien
Teldec 1971 (1971) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas Gardiner, John EliotJohn Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Stephen Varcoe Erato 1980 (1980) Period
Die Bach Kantate Vol. 13 Rilling, HelmuthHelmuth Rilling
Gächinger Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Hänssler 1980 (1980) Bach
J. S. Bach: Oster-Oratorium Parrott, AndrewAndrew Parrott
Taverner Consort
Taverner Players
Virgin Classics 1993 (1993) OVPP-RP Period
J. S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol. 1 Koopman, TonTon Koopman
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Antoine Marchand 1994 (1994) Period
J.S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 1 Suzuki, MasaakiMasaaki Suzuki
Bach Collegium Japan
BIS 1995 (1995) Period
J. S. Bach: Christ lag in Todesbanden; Lobet den Herrn; Himmelskönig sei willkommen Pierlot, Philippe Philippe Pierlot (de)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Ricercar Consort
Ricercar 1995 (1995) Chamber Period
Bach Edition Vol. 20 – Cantatas Vol. 11 Leusink, Pieter JanPieter Jan Leusink
Holland Boys Choir
Netherlands Bach Collegium
Brilliant Classics 2000 (2000) Boys Period
J. S. Bach: Actus Tragicus – Cantatas BWV 4, 12, 106 & 196 Junghänel, KonradKonrad Junghänel
Cantus Cölln
Harmonia Mundi France 2000 (2000) OVPP Period
Bach/Webern: Ricercar Poppen, ChristophChristoph Poppen
Hilliard Ensemble
Münchener Kammerorchester
ECM 2001 (2001) OVPP Chamber
Aus der Notenbibliothek von Johann Sebastian Bach, Vol. II Hengelbrock, Thomas Thomas Hengelbrock
Hänssler 2001 (2001) Period
J. S. Bach Early Cantatas Volume I Purcell Quartet Chandos 2004 (2004) OVPP Period
Bach J. S: Cantatas Vol 22 Gardiner, John EliotJohn Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Soli Deo Gloria 2000 (2000) Period

Recent performances[edit]

In 2000 the cantata was performed at Eisenach, in the church where Bach was baptised, as part of the Monteverdi Choir's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage (the live recording was released in 2007). The Monteverdi Choir also performed the cantata in 2013 in the Royal Albert Hall. This performance, which had audience participation, was part of a nine-hour "Bach marathon".[16]

The cantata was successfully staged by English Touring Opera in 2012.[17] It was paired with the opera The Emperor of Atlantis and arranged by Iain Farrington for the same instrumental forces as the opera (chamber ensemble including instruments not available to Bach such as saxophone).[18]


  1. ^ "BWV" is Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, a thematic catalogue of Bach's works.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Dellal, Pamela. German "BWV 4 – Christ lag in Todesbanden" Check |url= scheme (help). Emmanuel Music. Retrieved 31 March 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gardiner, John Eliot (2007). "Cantatas for Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday / Georgenkirche, Eisenach" (PDF). pp. 4–8. Retrieved 16 April 2011. 
  3. ^ Isoyama, Tadashi (1995). "Cantata No. 4: Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4)" (PDF). pp. 6–7. Retrieved 23 September 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d Dürr, Alfred (1981). Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach (in German) 1 (4 ed.). Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag. pp. 230–234. ISBN 3-423-04080-7. 
  5. ^ Wolff, Christoph (1994). "Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4" (PDF). pp. 10, 15–16. Retrieved 23 September 2015. 
  6. ^ Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: the learned musician. OUP. 2001
  7. ^ Grob, Jochen (2014). "BWV 4 / BC A 54a" (in German). Retrieved 23 September 2015. 
  8. ^ Bischof, Walter F. "BWV 4 Christ lag in Todes Banden] text, scoring". Retrieved 13 September 2015. 
  9. ^ a b "Chorale Melodies used in Bach's Vocal Works / Christ ist erstanden". Retrieved 13 September 2010. 
  10. ^ a b Dickey, Timothy Dickey. "Cantata No. 4, "Christ lag in Todes Banden", BWV 4 (BCA 54)". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 September 2015. 
  11. ^ Traupman-Carr, Carol (2002). "Cantata BWV 4, Christ lag in Todes Banden". The Bach Choir of Bethlehem. Retrieved 23 September 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Taruskin, Richard (2010). Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Oxford History of Western Music 2. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 343–347. ISBN 978-0-19-538482-6. 
  13. ^ Mincham, Julian (2010). "Chapter 42 BWV 4 & BWV 42, each commencing with a sinfonia.". Retrieved 16 April 2010. 
  14. ^ a b Oron, Aryeh (2015). "Cantata BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden". Retrieved 23 September 2015. 
  15. ^ For details of other sets see Gardiner, Koopman, Leusink, and Suzuki.
  16. ^ Hewett, Ivan (2013). "Bach Marathon, Albert Hall, Review". Retrieved 4 May 2015. 
  17. ^ Church, Michael (October 2012). "The Emperor of Atlantis/Christ lag in Todesbanden, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio, London". The Independent. Retrieved 3 May 2015. 
  18. ^ "English Touring Opera to perform" (Press release). English Touring Opera. Retrieved 3 May 2015. 


External links[edit]