Cantata BWV 4, "Christ lag in Todes Banden"
Cantata BWV 4, "Christ lag in Todes Banden," is surely one of the most popular and best known of all of Bachs sacred cantatas. Written around the same time as Cantata 106, it is another example of a chorale cantata by Bach. All movements, including the opening sinfonia, make use of the chorale tune and/or text in some fashion. The chorale was written by Martin Luther, and is based on the Catholic chant "Victimae paschali laudes." You can see the similarities in the shape of the melodies below. "Victimae" is traditionally written and sung in the d Dorian mode, the same mode Luther originally used for his chorale, although Bach transposes it in the cantata.
Cantata 4 was written for Easter Sunday, though the date of the first performance is not clear. Stylistically, the work appears to have been written around 1707-1708, and it may be Bachs earliest surviving sacred vocal composition. Some have suggested that this may have been written as an audition piece for Bachs Mühlhausen position (Schulenberg).
Below is a summary of the movements of Cantata 4:
The final movement requires some explanation. Most scores include a traditional 4-part chorale setting here. The oldest surviving score for Cantata 4 dates from 1724; this score includes the 4-part chorale setting. However, this kind of setting does not occur in cantatas from early in Bachs career. It is likely, therefore, that this movement is an addition, or perhaps a substitution for another final movement, added for a Leipzig performance (Wollny).
Youll notice from the chart above that every movement is in E minora bit unusual. More commonly, at least in his later works, Bach will include some movements in related keys (in this case, perhaps G major or B minor), just for some variety. In addition, youll note that every movement uses text from Luthers chorale; there are no poetic interpolations, such as we see in Cantata 140 ("Wachet auf"). Finally, Bachs orchestra for Cantata 4 is not particularly colorful. The cornet and trombones exists merely to double the voicesa common practice well into the later decades of the 18th century (for example, in numerous sacred choral works by Mozart). They do not act independently of the voices, and therefore do not add any particular color to the orchestra. With little variety in the timbres, text, or key, Bach must look elsewhere for musical interest in Cantata 4the texture and methods of incorporating the chorale tune into the 8 movements.
You can see the structure Bach sets up for Cantata 4. Looking only at the vocal parts, you can see choral movement-duet-solo, leading to a choral movement in the middle; the reverse occurs from here out: solo-duet-choral movement.
The sinfonia which opens the cantata is very brief, a mere 14 measures for strings and continuo. The string parts include violin I and II, and viola I and II. (The split viola parts continue in all movements which include the upper stringsmovements I, V, and VII.) The chorale is not found in its entirety; rather, motives from the opening phrases are scattered throughout the sinfonia. Most notable is the E-D#-E-F# in the bassline, which follows the opening pitches (up one whole step) of the chorale tune. One might be surprised at the somber tone of the sinfonia, since the cantata is written for Easter, the most joyous of Christian holy days. But recall the text: Christ lay in the bonds of death. The joy of Easter, however, begins with the sorrowful scene of his death on the cross and his entombment.
The first choral movement is a chorale fantasy with the chorale tune appearing in very long notes in the soprano (doubled by cornet), while the lower voices (doubled by trombones) propel the music forward with much more activity. Because of the short sinfonia, there is no need for an instrumental introduction in this movement; instead, Bach starts immediately with the voices. In fact, he starts with the chorale tune in the soprano (marked in red), unaccompanied for a brief moment. The continuo line is active, sometimes performing independently like a walking bass line (marked in orange), other times doubling the choral bass (marked in green). The alto part is an elaboration of the chorale melody (marked in pink), which is hidden through rhythmic and melodic elaborations. The violas parts essentially double and enhance the vocal alto and tenor parts, while the violin parts further activate the texture with a virtually continuous exchange of sixteenth-note snippets (marked in blue).
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