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Christ lag in Todes Banden (also spelled Todesbanden)[a] (“Christ lay in death’s bonds”[2] or “Christ lay in the snares of death”)[3], BWV 4,[b] is a cantata for Easter by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. One of his earliest church cantatas, it was probably intended for a performance in 1707, an early work in the genre to which he later contributed complete cantata cycles for all occasions of the liturgical year. It was related to his application for a post at a Lutheran church at Mühlhausen. John Eliot Gardiner describes it as Bach’s “first-known attempt at painting narrative in music”.[4]

Christ lag in Todes Banden is a chorale cantata, a style in which both text and music are based on a hymn. In this instance the source was Martin Luther‘s hymn of the same name, the main hymn for Easter in the Lutheran church. The composition is based on the seven stanzas of the hymn and its tune, which was derived from Medieval models. In the format of chorale variations per omnes versus (for all stanzas), in each of the seven vocal movements Bach used the unchanged words of a stanza of the chorale, and its tune as a cantus firmus. After an opening sinfonia, the variations are arranged symmetrically: chorus–duet–solo–chorus–solo–duet–chorus, with the focus on the central fourth stanza about the battle between Life and Death. Although all movements are in E minor, Bach achieves variety and intensifies the meaning of the text through many musical forms and techniques.

Christ lag in Todes Banden is Bach’s first cantata for Easter – in fact his only extant original composition for the first day of the feast – and his earliest surviving chorale cantata. He later repeatedly performed it asThomaskantor in Leipzig, beginning in 1724 when he first celebrated Easter there. Only this second version survives: it is scored for four vocal parts with a choir of one cornetto and three trombones doubling the choral voices, plus a string section of two violins, two violas and continuo. This exemplifies a 17th-century “Choralkonzert” (chorale concerto) style; the lost scoring of the earlier performances was perhaps similar.

Gardiner calls Bach’s setting of Luther’s hymn “a bold, innovative piece of musical drama”, and observes “his total identification with the spirit and letter of Luther’s fiery, dramatic hymn”.[4]