Cantata BWV 4Christ lag in Todes Banden


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German TextEnglish Text


This cantata is one of the 'biggies': a major and substantial work to celebrate Easter. It is, in fact, generally considered to be one of his earliest cantatas, dating from his Weimar period (1708-1713) -though no record of it from then exists and the earliest performing parts yet found date to 1724 or 1725, which is definitely from the start of Bach's Leipzig period. The fact is, however, that it's not one of Bach's 'dramatic cantatas' that characterises his Leipzig years. Instead, it adopts the relatively antique form of chorale variations: that violin tune that memorably begins the Sinfonia re-appears in every subsequent movement, but in variation.

The text of this Easter Sunday cantata is taken entirely from Martin Luther's Easter hymn of 1524: Bach is basically setting every verse of it here, each of which adheres closely to the imagery found in the two readings of the day.

The opening part of the first chorale is the kind of stuff that will make you want to slit your wrists, but the cantata cheers up considerably after that: Easter will do that to you, with its strange juxtaposition of death and life, hell and heaven. It therefore being difficult to describe this piece's mood in one word, I haven't tried: it's got elements of great sadness and melancholy and also of much joy (in the settings of the 'Hallelujahs' in particular). I come away from it in the end with a sense of great 'monumentalism' -that here is a solid, through-composed set of variations which are dealing with a serious subject and seeing great layers of meaning in it. It doesn't make me jolly; it doesn't make me cry. But it does make me think.

In short: it's a cantata that you can be impressed by, but not one that you will love, I think.

Bach Translations and Notes are copyright © Howard Rogers 2020, All Rights Reserved