These two Easter cantatas will be sung by Chorale Bel Canto on April 2, 2016 at First Friends Church in Whittier. Join us!
BWV 4, Christ lag in Todes Banden (also spelled Todesbanden), “Christ lay in death’s bonds,” is an Easter cantata probably first performed in 1707 at the Divi Blasii Church in Mülhausen. Bach revised it for performances in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche on April 9, 1724 and April 1, 1725.
This is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, composed when he was 22 years old and the organist of New Church in Arnstadt. He wrote his early cantatas, called “chorale concertos,” in the 17th century style established by Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. After 1714, Bach used the recitative and aria form for his cantatas, a form associated with Erdmann Neumeister, a German pastor and hymn writer.
Bach had studied with Buxtehude in Lübeck and, although he never met Pachelbel, his elder brother, Johann Christoph Bach, studied with Pachelbel in Erfurt. Pachelbel died in 1706, and some think that Bach may have wished to honor him with this cantata.
The text of this cantata is a hymn of the same name by Martin Luther first published in 1524 based on the Latin hymn “Victimae Paschali Laudes.” It stresses the struggle between Life and Death. The final stanza refers to the tradition of eating Easter Bread, concluding with “Christ alone nourishes the soul.”
John Eliot Gardiner describes it as “Bach’s first-known attempt at painting narrative in music.” It differs from his later cantatas, which placed less emphasis on the narrative and gave more attention to a particular moral thesis or religious theme. Bach used the symmetrical structure of the seven stanzas of this cantata in his more mature cantatas, but Cantata 4 differs from those later works in that all stanzas are in the same key.
Music historians note that the dilemma Bach and other contemporary religious composers faced was how to reconcile the two contrasting moods—Christ’s pain and the joy of salvation—in one movement. Bach’s solution in this cantata was to end each stanza with a Hallelujah.
The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia, similar to an overture to a Venetian opera of the period. Its somber mood leads in to the first stanza, “Christ lay in death’s bonds,” a chorale fantasia begun by the sopranos. The ending Hallelujah is a faster four-part fugue, recalling 16th century stile antico.
In the second stanza, a duet for soprano and alto, Bach achieves feelings of weeping and deep sadness by using musical suspensions, in which prolonging a note while the underlying harmony shifts from one chord to another, creates the tension of sustained dissonance until resolution into the new chord. The joy of the Hallelujahs is subdued in this stanza, which serves to sustain its tragic tone.
The third stanza is a tenor aria accompanied by violins and continuo. It is in the form of chorale prelude, with the tenor singing the tune while the violins bustle with a life of their own. Bach interrupts the musical flow at one moment in order to paint a particular image of the void where Death once reigned. The tenor’s final Hallelujahs are a joyous celebration of Christ’s victory.
The fourth stanza is the center of the symmetrical structure, sung in four voices accompanied only by the continuo. It continues the story begun by the tenor and depicts the battle between life and death, with life devouring death. The Hallelujahs speak of the mockery life has made of death, and the music conveys this feeling.
Many have compared Stanza Five, a bass solo, to the “Crucifixus” of Bach’s Mass in B minor. Some have described the antiphonal exchanges between the bass and the strings as a parody of the passacaglia-style Venetian opera aria of the previous century. It tells the story of the blood that ensures the individual’s passage to heaven. The bass spans two octaves in the final Hallelujah, the lowest note on the word tode (“death”), followed by a high burst of joy.
Stanza Six, a duet for soprano and tenor accompanied by continuo, has been called a “dance of joy,” and compared to the music of Henry Purcell and the form of the French Overture. The text describes a feast celebrating redemption, with Christ compared to the sun lighting our hearts. Bach often used a large orchestra with trumpets and drums to create this mood, but here he practices restraint, using flowing triplets to symbolize joy and warmth.
The original music for the final Stanza Seven has been lost, and the music that is heard today Bach composed in Leipzig in 1724. Consequently, this music is quite different from that usually heard in Bach’s early cantatas. Christ’s agony is transformed into the individual’s personal deliverance from death, expressed in a final musical sigh.
BWV 6, Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden (“Stay with us, for evening falls”), was first performed at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig for Easter Monday, April 2, 1725. Two hundred and ninety-one years later, Chorale Bel Canto performs it in Whittier on the same day!
In contrast to Cantata 4, Cantata 6 is one of Bach’s mature cantatas, written 17 years later. In the Lutheran liturgical calendar, the prescribed readings for this day were Peter’s sermon to Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43) and Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25). The librettist is unknown, but he incorporated texts from Philipp Melanchthon, Nikolaus Seinecker and Martin Luther. The theme is a request for the light of Christ to shine upon sinners in order to protect them from the darkness of sin and ignorance.
Music historians comment upon the relationship of Cantata 6 to Cantata 4, noting that C 6 comes immediately after Bach’s revision of C 4. The lack of poetic quality in the text of C 6 suggests to some that Bach may have lost his librettist and been forced in a crisis to accept someone new.
C 6, different from the preceding cantatas in this cycle, is the first of four cantatas that begins with a choral movement that is not a chorale fantasia. Some speculate that Bach may have been experiencing creative burnout at this point, others that he might have enjoyed the opportunity to explore more deeply the mood and themes of the text, which is a characteristic of his later cantatas, in contrast to the narrative emphasis in C 4 discussed above.
This cantata has six movements. It begins with a chorus that reminds one of a sarabande or the closing music of Bach’s St. John Passion.
Bach often used the sarabande, a lively dance that originated in Spain and was often banned as risqué. By Bach’s time, the sarabande had evolved into a slow and stately dance, considered the most noble of dance forms. The mood of this opening movement evokes quiet contemplation at the close of day, with a throbbing repetition of bleib bei uns (“tarry awhile”).
The second movement is an alto aria da capo, accompanied by an oboe da caccia, a Baroque instrument tuned a fifth lower than the oboe proper. The key shifts from minor to major. These establish a shift toward optimism, but the mood remains somber. One critic notes: “He works like a visual artist, mixing his paints in order to achieve just the right degree of light and shade.”
The third movement is a chorale for solo soprano, asking Jesus to remain and shine his light upon us as evening approaches. Bach accompanies the soprano with a piccolo cello—added for a later performance, says musicologist Christoph Wolff—which is able to play difficult parts in the upper register. The use of the upper voices creates a feeling of buoyant optimism.
In the fourth movement, a recitative for bass, the depth of the voice warns us that “the darkness has taken over in many places,” and we are responsible. This and the final two movements are in the key of G minor, ending the piece in a serious tone.
The penultimate movement five is a tenor aria the picks up the theme established in the third movement. It is a plea to Jesus: “Let us look upon You, so that we do not walk on the paths of sin. Let the light of Your word shine brightly on us and continually bring You to mind.” Using a relentless rhythm, Bach paints the picture of one trodden down by those sins that the light of Christ has yet to reach.
The final chorale leaves us in a mood of serious contemplation, asking, “Reveal Your strength Lord Jesus Christ, You who are Lord of Lords; protect Your poor Christianity, so that it praise You eternally.”