Christ lag in Todesbanden

20.04.14: Easter Sunday.

Bach sets six of the verses of the chorale in a carefully balanced sequence of choruses (two), duets (two) and arias (two) sandwiched between the opening sinfonia and the closing chorale.

But whilst C 4 sits well in the second cycle, closer analysis reveals a number of characteristics, in addition to the sinfonia, which set it apart. One is the lack of any recitatives within a lengthy work of eight movements. Another is the overt, even obvious manner in which each movement quarries the chorale melody. The variety of ideas and range of inventiveness is wide, but they never disguise the presence of the chorale. Its relentless repetition, particularly of the first phrase would, in less capable hands, threaten to become wearisome particularly as it demands and accentuates the repeated use of the same key and mode, E minor, for each of the eight movements. There is simply not the light and shade of contrasting major and minor keys which, for Bach, had now become the norm.

But when we remind ourselves that Bach was only in his early twenties when he wrote it, and if he intended it as an audition piece, the picture becomes clearer. Would not an ambitious young man wish to demonstrate how skilled and imaginative he was? Would not youth take great pride in the sheer brilliance of its powers of invention and contrive to display them as extrovertly and obviously as possible? At Mühlhausen he may well have expected a more unsophisticated and certainly less well-educated audience than he was later to service at Leipzig. So it makes sense that he would choose to parade his work with explicit uses of the chorale theme and, to similar purpose, some very obvious painting of textual images.

Finally, this work relates a narrative rather more obviously than many later cantatas. It paints Christ dying for our sins and then tells how death overpowers us, a situation brought about by our sinfulness. Christ, however, has since removed death’s sting and in the battle between life and death, the former has triumphed. Christ’s blood on the cross marks our pathway to peace and contentment and now, with the grace of the Saviour, our souls may partake of the true bread of Christ. Second-cycle cantatas have a tendency to be somewhat less preoccupied with strict narrative, concentrating more upon the essence or substance of a particular thesis, moral, ideal or religious theme.

It is, however, interesting to observe that with all this narrative to play with, Bach still chose not to employ the obvious device of recitative. Perhaps it might have been considered too modern a device for a conservative, parochial audition panel!

Much of this becomes understandable if we think of the Young Turk flexing his musical muscles and making efforts to ensure that his human audience both noticed and appreciated his potential. The more mature Bach of later years had no need to flaunt his learning. Increasingly his tone painting and musical expression became both less obvious and reliant upon the striking individual image; more attuned perhaps, to the subtler ears of the Almighty than to those of mankind.

Since the chorale melody dominates every movement it is as well to become thoroughly familiar with it as, indeed, it is assumed Bach’s congregations must have been.



The sinfonia immediately announces the first two notes of the chorale melody, a drooping motive of a falling second and it requires no musical training or knowledge to recognise it. This figure, supported by the unrelenting minor mode of this and all subsequent movements, places immediate emphasis upon the sadness of the crucifixion, a direct contrast to those cantatas which place emphasis upon the more joyous aspects of mankind’s redemption arising from Christ’s sacrifice.

But the artistic dilemma of this work (and many other contemporary religious compositions) is, how does one convincingly reconcile the two contrasting moods (i.e. Christ’s pain and misery and the exuberant joy of salvation) within each movement whilst maintaining appropriate stylistic unity?

Bach was certainly aware of the problem as he attempts to mitigate the expression of tragedy with rounds of Hallelujahs at the end of most movements. It is very probable that he conceived of each one as a transformation of feeling within itself; progressing from the sadness of the sacrifice to a mood of joyous redemption. If so, he set himself an artistic challenge of huge proportions, something he continued to do throughout his composing life.


The second movement is the chorus that 1724-5 Leipzig audiences might have expected to hear first. Except for the Hallelujahs at the end, it takes the form of a chorale fantasia combined with certain elements of the traditional motet. Interestingly, the violas are divided into two sections one of which doubles the altos and the other the tenors. With the further addition of cornet and trombones, all vocal parts were reinforced, helpful to the singers with little time to learn demanding parts.

The violins retain their independence however, and their flickering semi-quaver motives introduce a slightly more Italianate concerto-like feel to the motet vocal style. Even at this early stage in his career Bach was experimenting with the combination of diverse stylistic elements.

In retrospect, this movement might even be seen as a ‘trial run’ for the chorale fantasias, which were to become such a feature of the second cycle. Around the soprano cantus firmus, the lower voices develop their entries with material derived from the chorale melody. However, the last phrase—and sing Hallelujah—is given, in notes of normal value, to each of the four voices overlapping in the order T, B, A, S. This marks the beginning of the alla breve coda, which is triumphant in every sense; nearly thirty bars of swirling hallelujahs at double speed and punctuated, at the end, by jabbing violin octaves! Bach has, within the movement, made the journey from Christ, in the throes of death to the expression of human joy and gratitude which these circumstances ultimately brought about.

Thus Bach boldly creates, within this chorus, a transformation of mood wholly central to the conception of the entire cantata.

Soprano/alto aria.

Next we hear a powerfully expressive duet, the first of two. Schweitzer considers that the reiterated octaves of the bass line express ideas of ‘power and force’. The text is about Death being overpowered and rendered impotent and certainly the relentlessness of the bass conveys the impression of a powerful trampling. In passing, though, it is interesting to note how Bach can employ a bass line, descending by step with octave leaps, to very differing expressive purposes.


The Air from the third Orchestral Suite and the Gavotte from the French Suite in G, both of course in the major, are but two of a number of examples.

Deeply moving, and of great structural significance is the deployment of the falling two-note figure, derived from the chorale and here echoing the opening bars of the Sinfonia. Combined with the octaves, it is also consistently heard in the bass line. Above it, the soprano and alto almost vie with each other to see who can make it sound the more expressive and, having repeated it twice, the soprano stretches the motive into her version of the chorale’s first phrase, almost as if to remind us of its proper shape. The weeping idea, groaning suspensions and the relentless minor mode combine to ensure that the feelings of death and sadness predominate and the artistic problem of transmutation of mood is at its most acute. Consequently the hallelujahs, again moulded from the last chorale phrase but now in notes of double value, are a rather muted affair, largely staying in character with the tragic temper of the movement.

These are, perhaps, the efforts of the unredeemed dead to look beyond their condition towards some beacon of hope. But whilst still lying in death and crushed by sin it is an attempt doomed to failure and undeserving of blatant celebration.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is, perhaps, the most immediately attractive and ebullient of all the movements. The bustling and virtually continuous violin semi-quavers represent the joy that comes from Christ’s casting aside of Death’s sting, leaving behind nothing but his silhouette. In the battle between them, Jesus has conquered and this is obviously now grounds for celebration.

It is an uncomplicated ‘chorale prelude’, with the tenor singing the phrases virtually unembellished whilst the violins enjoy an almost jovial life of their own. The movement demonstrates a point that is characteristic of the younger Bach, a distinct interruption of the musical flow in order to paint a particular image. The violins double-stop extrovertly on a phrase, which calls forth Death’s name while the musical energy continues, unabated, as the basses take on, for the only time in the movement, the incessant semi-quavers (bars 24-26). But the next phrase grinds virtually to a halt on the words—nothing remains of Death but his shadow. For a moment time stands still, there is no relentless motion and we have a glimpse of the void where Death once reigned. The dramatic depiction of the moment takes momentary precedence over the music’s established progression.

Violin and tenor over continuo.

The point is not that this doesn’t work or may be inferior to Bach’s later more subtle approach. It is, however, more conspicuous and of the immediate moment. He achieves a marvelous instant of drama, the temporary hiatus of the music’s drive made all the more powerful because of the constant activity preceding and following it. The image is forthright and egalitarian, contrasting with expressions of a private and personal faith often to be found in later works.

The tenor’s final Hallelujahs are very different from those of the previous movement. They, by contrast, convey a convincing celebration of the victory over death. For the first time in the aria the tenor takes up the joyous semi-quavers which propel him inevitably to his final cadence.


The fifth movement reverts to the form of a traditional motet without instrumental doubling of the upper lines. This time the alto has the phrases of the chorale (an untypical event but see also the fantasia of C 2 (chapter 3) and the other three voices weave around it sometimes, as in the opening bars, imitating each other with clear statements of the chorale melody in diminution. The sheer bustling energy coveys the idea of the war between life and death, inevitably won by the former. This stanza completes the story begun by the tenor of the vanquishing of the devil; in this great battle Life has literally devoured Death.

But perhaps the most notable feature is the ending. The text refers to the ‘mockery’ that has been made of death and somehow the music conveys this feeling. The final hallelujahs resound to a marvelous soprano phrase transforming the now sequenced two-note figure into a gradually settling arc of scornful victory.

Bass aria.

The opening continuo line in the bass aria provides a further example of the overt underlining of a single image. It is a descending chromatic scale, tonic to dominant.


Bach used this as a harmonic generator on many occasions (e.g. the keyboard Fantasia in C minor, fugue 6 from Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier, the Double Violin Concerto and frequently in the Musical Offering). However, it is also true that Bach associates this idea with death in general (he was not alone in this; see Purcell’s Dido’s Lament) and the crucifixion in particular. Furthermore, the much later Crucifixus from the B Minor Mass uses the same idea, also in triple time and in the same key, surely not a coincidence.

But in C 4 Bach does not employ the figure as an organic structural device. It only comes twice and it is most unusual to find a Bach opening theme so little used and undeveloped. It is placed there as a reminder of the cross and Christ’s blood upon it.

One wonders whether Bach’s idea of using this phrase, albeit so sparingly, even determined his decision to select E minor as the pervading key of the entire work!

The bass intersperses chorale phrases with extended melodic lines which are less constrained, telling the story of both the blood that ensures our passage to heaven and the vanquishment of Death. Bach’s interest in underlining dramatic moments is particularly apparent in two instances. The lowest note (e#) is extended on the word Tode—Death—It is followed by a high d and a burst of angry semi-quavers on the strings for der Würger—the murderer or, literally, one who chokes (bars 65-74).

Soprano/tenor aria.

The penultimate movement is a second duet, this time for soprano and tenor. The voices sing each chorale phrase, increasingly overlapping and taking turns to lead. Note the virtually continuous dotted rhythm in the continuo which Schweitzer calls the ‘rhythm of solemnity . But the allusion may be a little more complex.

The text refers to the feast of celebration where the Lord is metaphorically alluded to as a Sun lighting our hearts. The dotted rhythms may suggest the French Overture which has connotations of stately grandeur and celebration. This is the kind of image which Bach liked to set with a large orchestra including trumpets and drums; but here he has no such forces and in any case to introduce them in the middle of a cantata would be unprecedented.

Consequently this celebration, the feast and recognition of the light of the Lord, is a rather muted affair. But the signs are still there, subtle though they might be. The restrained dignity of the bass line is important; but a more telling point is the way in which each vocal phrase transforms itself from the bare crotchets of the hymn melody into streams of flowing triplets. These are the symbols of joyousness and radiance and they dominate the movement, culminating in a cascade of rolling hallelujahs. Celebration and joy are to be found here albeit within the context of restrained, civilised festivity.

The transformation from depiction of the pain of Christ’s sacrifice to the joyous fact of our redemption which Bach had hitherto conveyed over complete movements, now takes place within single, distinct melodic phrases!

But it is still a relatively unpretentious affair, without the need for the blazing of trumpets and drums in order to make its point. The emphasis surely is upon personal rather than communal redemption and celebration. Readers should note the similarities between this and the duet from C 91 which shares many of its characteristics.


The final chorale, now so familiar to the congregation, employs within its dignified setting the metaphors of the healthy meal and Jesus feeding the soul. Christ’s public agony has been fully transformed into our private deliverance. All available instruments, including the brass recalled from the first chorus, double the vocal lines. The cantata ends on a final, sighing Alleluia.

This is a fascinating work not, perhaps, entirely above criticism. But as an example of Bach’s early brilliance and a guide to his artistic development, it is invaluable. It also allows us a glimpse of the genesis of the chorale/fantasia proper.

©John Mincham


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