The style of this famous cantata clearly places it in the early part of Bach's career; it was probably composed for the Easter celebration in Mühlhausen in either 1707 or 1708, when Bach was in his early twenties. During Bach's early years as cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, he presented the church with nearly five complete cycles of music for the weekly Sunday worship service, and the cantata, based on Martin Luther's Easter hymn "Christ lag in Todesbanden," was recopied and revived for this Leipzig repertory. Despite what would have been a decidedly old-fashioned style by the time of Bach's arrival in Leipzig, the composer seems to have surmised that it would make the same powerful impression at that time as it still does in ours.
Christ lag in Todesbanden shows no signs of the simplifying reforms and stylistic internationalization (as advanced by Erdmann Neumeister) so prevalent in this genre of Lutheran church music around the beginning of the eighteenth century. Nor is there evidence of Italianate operatic recitatives and arias. Rather, the successive movements stolidly expound the successive strophes of Luther's chorale.
Luther's 1524 melody (with echoes of the Gregorian hymn "Pange lingua gloriosi") permeates the musical substance of each movement. In the Lutheran service, the cantata would have been performed immediately following the weekly Gospel text, understood as an element of the worship immediately pertinent to its theological content, and perhaps even commenting upon it like the sermon that followed.
After an opening sinfonia (which contains strong motivic echoes of the chorale), Bach sets the first verse of text in the form of an extended chorale prelude, with passages of imitation crowned by the chorale melody sung as a cantus firmus in the highest voice. Though this austere, even archaic, structure produces a somber tone, the movement closes (as does each verse) with an exuberant Allelujah. The second verse, which describes the ancient power of death, adopts an appropriately forceful tone derived from octave leaps in the melody. The third chorale verse, sung as a cantus firmus by a tenor solo, has an accompaniment for obbligato violin.
The structure of the cantata is based on a symmetrical layout, Chorale--Duet--Solo--Chorale--Solo--Duet--Chorale, and the central fourth movement becomes the focal point of the whole work. This vibrant contrapuntal movement depicts the "wondrous battle" between life and death which Luther's text asserts was won by Christ's death. There follows a bass aria replete with rhetorical gestures, such as a famous melodic leap down a diminished twelfth when the vanquishing of Death occurs. Verse six invites all present in the worship service to celebrate the holy festival of this victory; the phrases of this duet dance above a festive dotted-rhythm in the accompaniment. The final verse is set homophonically, in hymn style, appropriate for congregational participation.