2017-04-30 Notes from the Bench


“Christ lag in Todesbanden” by Johann Sebastian Bach

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate



Christ lag in Todesbanden,
für unsre Sünd’ gegeben,
der ist wieder erstanden
und hat uns bracht das Leben.
Des wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und dankbar sein
und singen: Halleluja!



Christ lay in Death’s dark prison,
It was our sin that bound Him;
This day hath He arisen,
And sheds new life around Him.
Therefore let us joyful be
And praise our God right heartily.
So sing we Hallelujah!





Today’s setting of “Christ lag in Todesbanden” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is one of the forty-six organ chorale settings he completed for the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). Bach originally conceived his “Little Organ Book” to include a much larger collection of chorale settings, 164 in total, that would incorporate the chorales sung through the entire liturgical year. The majority of the settings Bach completed were written between 1708 and 1717 while he served as the organist for the ducal court of Johann Ernst in Weimar. Bach developed the chorale melodies within this collection in a variety of ways and added motivic accompaniment to each chorale; with four-part contrapuntal treatment, as trios, canonically, and with varying degrees of embellishment. In addition to being a collection of music for the Lutheran church service, the Orgelbüchlein was also viewed as a pedagogical manual and treatise on composition.

“Christ lag in Todesbanden” is, despite the first impression of its title, an Easter hymn written by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Walther (1496-1570). The text references the struggle between life and death and celebrates what Jesus accomplished through his Resurrection. The subsequent stanzas (not quoted here) touch on common Easter-tide themes: Christ’s atonement for sin, the defeat of death, the comparison of Jesus as the Pascal Lamb with the sacrifice of the Jewish Passover, and allusions to themes found in the Book of Exodus and the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt.

This hymn has been the basis for many other composers’ compositions. Bach used this hymn as the basis for his Cantata No. 4 by the same name and the organ chorale prelude heard today. This setting is in four parts with the cantus firmus (melody) in the soprano with little alteration. Bach follows his own harmonization of this chorale closely, accompanying it with a single motif that is derived from the final four descending notes of the cantus firmus and distributed between the alto, tenor and bass parts.

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