To the right is a triumphal illustration of the Resurrection reproduced from the front of a 1769 Luther Bible. This is an appropriate image to adorn a discussion of some music inspired by the Resurrection (and by Martin Luther’s musical endeavors). Since the sixteenth century, a great deal of music celebrating the significance of the first Easter has been based on a venerable melody rooted in the Reformation project of reinvigorating congregational song, as well as stimulating an unprecedented flowering of liturgical music for the organ.
As early as 1524, German congregations were singing a tune and German text based on a Gregorian chant melody, Victimae paschali laudes. We sing the same text (which dates to the 11th century) in English translation as a sequence hymn on Easter Sundays; the melody of our setting (#97 in The Hymnal) is close to the original plainchant version. Either Luther or his contemporary Johann Walter took that more meandering melody, made it more metrically regular, and gave it a German name, Christ lag in Todesbanden, “Christ lay in death’s bonds.”
The first verse of Luther’s version displays the connection between Christ’s sacrificial suffering and the resurrection, a connection evident in all the verses of the hymn.
Christ lay in death’s bonds
handed over for our sins,
he is risen again
and has brought us life
For this we should be joyful,
praise God and be thankful to him
and sing allelluia,
In addition to naming the hymn text and tune, Christ lag in Todesbanden is the title of one of the most powerful works based on this melody: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 4. The work is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, probably intended for a performance at Easter in 1707 (when Bach was a stripling of 22!). John Eliot Gardiner describes the work as Bach’s “first-known attempt at painting narrative in music.” Christ lag in Todesbanden is a chorale cantata with a remarkable arch-like structure. In each of the seven vocal movements of the work, Bach used the words of one of the seven stanzas of the Luther’s chorale, and in each movement the Christ lag melody guides and undergirds the vocal lines. As Gardiner observes, “Bach shows himself equal to the task of matching music to words, alert to every nuance, scriptural allusion, symbol and mood. Not content merely to mirror the text, one senses him striving to bring to it an extra dimension, following Luther’s own ideal in which music brings the text to life, and in doing so, drawing on a whole reservoir of learning to date.”
There are many recordings of Christ lag in Todesbanden, some on YouTube (although perhaps illegally, so I won’t embed them here, but will suggest that the performances by Helmut Rilling and Andrew Parrott are better than most of the others). One of my favorite CDs of this work is the recording by the Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki is a committed believer, and the liner notes to his CDs always contain theologically informed insights, as do (so it is said) his performances.
There is also a wonderful 2-CD set recorded by the Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, featuring six cantatas (including #4) written for Easter Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. This is volume 22 in the Choir’s “Bach Pilgrimmage” series; in the year 2000, they performed all 200 of Bach’s cantatas on the Sundays for which easy was written. The performances of these Easter cantatas were recorded in at St George’s church, Eisenach, the town of Bach’s birth, and the church in which he was baptised (the original font is apparently still there).
Parishioners will really good ears and memories may recall the choir’s offering of a different setting of Christ lag in Todesbanden a few years ago. We sang a much earlier five-part setting by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). I had been familiar with Bach’s cantata since high school, but not until singing Praetorius did I realize how powerful (and popular) this melody is.
Finally, on a CD called simply Christ lag in Todesbanden, organist Johannes Strobl plays settings of this splendid tune by three German Baroque composers (Heinrich Scheidemann, Georg Böhm, and Franz Tunder), and throws in some roof-raising additions by Matthias Weckmann, Dietrich Buxtehude, Nicolaus Bruhns, and (of course) Johann Sebastian Bach.
Happy Easter, and happy listening!
We eat and live well
on the right Easter cakes,
the old sour-dough should not
be with the word grace,
Christ will be our food
and alone feed the soul,
faith will live in no other way.