Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantata No. 4, "Christ lag in Todes Banden," BWV 4 (BCA 54)

    Description by Timothy Dickey

    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.


    1. Sinfonia in E minor
    2. Christ lag in Todesbanden
    3. Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
    4. Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn
    5. Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg
    6. Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm
    7. So feiern wir das hohe Fest
    8. Wir essen und leben wohl

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Phi LPH 030
    2017 ATMA Classique ACD 22406
    2017 CPO 5550982
    2017 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 16010
    2016 BIS BIS 9055
    2016 Sony Classical 88985320832
    2014 Rondeau / Rondeau Productions ROP 4045
    2014 Brilliant Classics 94947BR
    2014 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 13054
    2013 Archiv Produktion 002894791045AB55
    2012 EtCetera Records ETC 1442
    2011 Warner Classics 671962
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94050
    2010 Berlin Classics 0300034
    2009 Mirare 57
    2008 Teldec 69943-7
    2008 Thorofon / Zebralution
    2008 Deutsche Grammophon 459170
    2008 Berlin Classics 018421
    2007 Soli Deo Gloria 128
    2007 Apex
    2007 Archiv Produktion 427128
    2007 Berlin Classics 0184112
    2006 Brilliant Classics 93102
    2006 Brilliant Classics 99697
    2006 Teldec Classics 8573811235
    2005 Chandos 715
    2004 Erato 4614012
    2004 Haenssler 93039
    2003 ECM 1774
    2003 Harmonia Mundi 801694
    2003 Apex 7495742
    2003 Challenge Records 72201
    2003 Haenssler 98459
    2001 Haenssler 92561
    2000 Harmonia Mundi 901694
    2000 Haenssler 92002
    2000 Angel Records 61647
    1999 Teldec 25705
    1999 Teldec 25704
    1999 Leipzig 1812
    1999 Teldec 3984-25706-2
    1998 Vanguard 2001
    1997 Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Music Classics and Jazz
    1997 Archiv Produktion 449 756-2GOR
    1997 Deutsche Grammophon 4530942
    1996 Teldec 11427
    1995 BIS 751
    1995 Erato 98536
    1995 Koch 7235
    1995 Thorofon CTH 2267
    1994 Archiv Produktion 439 368-2AX26
    1994 Teldec 4509-91755-2
    1994 Teldec 4509-91765-2
    1994 Virgin Classics 45011
    1993 Erato 45988
    1993 Archiv Produktion 439374
    1993 Teldec 4509-92627-2
    Brilliant 93102/101
    Brilliant 99704/25
    Brilliant Classics 99704
    Brilliant 99705/35
    Brilliant Classics 99705
    Brilliant Classics 93102-VOL4
    Bach Guild 2542
    Bach Guild 2539
    Edel Records 1813
    Edel Records 1826
    American Bach Soloists
    Archiv Produktion 413646
    Haenssler 98864