The Cantata and Johann Sebastian Bach
The term cantata originally meant, and literally means “to be sung”. In the beginning, the term encompassed all sorts of vocal music, however, the term now carries much more baggage. A cantata normally contains several movements united by a single thought, or theme. There are cantata di chiesa, church cantatas, and canatata di camera, court (secular) cantatas. Bach was an expert at writing cantatas for the church. In fact, he wrote a different cantata for every Sunday and Festival day for at least three years in a row! Bach themed his cantatas on the scripture readings for each Sunday. These readings, set out in advance by the church at large, allow church-goers to experience the entire passion of Christ throughout the liturgical year. Thus, Bach’s cantatas do the same.
Cantata No. 4 - Christ lag in Todesbanden
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden was first performed on an Easter Sunday sometime between 1708 and 1714 in Arnstadt during the early stages of his compositional career. The exact date of composition is not known; however, the text itself proves that the cantata was intended for Easter Sunday.
This work is based solely on a cantus firmus or fixed melody, that is, a tune that is common between all movements. The tune, or cantus firmus of Cantata No. 4 existed well before Bach’s time. It finds its origins in the Gregorian Easter Alleluia Victimae paschali laudes. Martin Luther, often borrowing music from various sources, used this Gregorian chant to invent music for the new Protestant church of the Reformation. To accompany this melody, Luther wrote five verses which he based on Biblical texts, and kept two verses from the original chant. Most importantly, Luther’s text was in German, the language understood by the common people. It was this chorale, titled Christ lag in Todesbanden, that Bach then used as a foundation for this cantata.
The cantata consists of seven verses and an opening sinfonia, all of which contain the cantus firmus. After the sinfonia, the first verse immediately starts with the cantus firmus in the soprano. Verse one then follows a strict development: each line of the cantus firmus is first presented in the Alto, Tenor, and Bass voices. Following that, it is heard soaring above the texture in the Soprano voice. All four voices are not heard together again until verse 4, the center and musical balancing point of the cantata. The final chorus is a simple, four-part harmonization of the chorale melody. The cantata is a good example of Bach’s obsession with math and symmetry, the best example being the cantata’s seven verses that form a symmetrical structure:
SATB - SA - T - SATB - B - ST - SATB
The cantata is littered with musical imagery, word-play, and musical jokes which makes the text inseparable from the music. Although Martin Luther and Bach both believed that church music is intended to be in a language that is widely understood by it’s listeners, singing this music in English would significantly take away from the genius of Bach and his work.
The Sinfonia, or instrumental introduction, to this cantata plays a crucial role in establishing several thematic ideas which are repeatedly used by Bach to tie each of the following verses together. The first of these themes is the most important: the Sinfonia introduces the melody, or cantus firmus, that remains constant from verse to verse. Although Bach subsequently alters the cantus firums from verse to verse, the character and essence of the melody remains constant. Over the course of the enitre cantata, we will hear the melody presented eight times: once in each of the seven verses, and once as it is introduced in the sinfonia. And, amazingly, you will never get board from hearing the same tune eight times!
Another theme to note is the reoccurrence of the descending minor second. Often thought of as the most sombre and sad musical interval, Bach wastes no time in setting the mood of the piece by using a series of five descending minor seconds to open the sinfonia. In verse two, Bach again uses a series of descending minor seconds to musically describe the word 'death'. Although this theme effectively communicates sadness, misery, and death to the listener, it is not the most important aspect of the cantata - we have to remember that this is an Easter cantata and it is actually celebrating the resurrection of Christ and not his death. Which brings us the to the last unifying theme of the cantata...
Hallelujah! Although the sinfonia is for instruments only, its purpose is to introduce the cantus firmus in its entirety. Each verse of Luther's text ends in the word Hallelujah, and although Bach treats the word Hallelujah differently in each verse, he successfully uses rhythm, harmony, and repetitions of the word to musically communicate the excitement and joy of Hallelujah. So, even in the opening sinfonia where the listener does not hear the word, the first violin breaks out of the texture for a glorious moment where the word Hallelujah would be sung.
It is important to remember that in this work, the cantus firmus rules. Bach structures each verse around the all-important hymn tune. The first thing heard in verse one is the first note of the cantus firmus, sung by the sopranos. Bach considers the cantus firums to be so important that in an attempt to highlight the sopranos' entrance, no other voices or instruments are heard until the sopranos have firmly started the melody. The other voices and instruments join the texture one at a time, until everyone is busy with their own seemingly separate and unrelated lines. Once everyone has entered, the sopranos finally move from their initial pitch and continue with the cantus firmus as it soars above the busy texture underneath them.
From this point on, Bach almost mathematically puts the music together. Each new line of the cantus firmus is presented first in the Tenor, then Alto, and then Bass voices until it stuck in the ear. Then, with the authority of having the highest voices, the sopranos again take the cantus firmus and allow it to soar above the texture.
Of particular interest in verse one, is Bach's setting of the word "fröhlich" which means 'joyful'. In a successful attempt at musically painting the word fröhlich, Bach uses long strings of quick and bouncy notes to communicate this joy!
Also of interest is the final 'Hallelujah' section. As always, the tenor begins with the cantus firmus, and subsequently passes it from voice to voice. However, unlike the previous lines, the soprano joins in the fun, and then all four voices are singing almost in unison for the first time since the beginning of the work. And then, a surprise ending! Suddenly the Tenors take off at double speed in a jubilant "Hallelujah" dance, and then as expected, the other voices join in too. It is then a train-wreck until the end of the piece however in the most positive of senses! Each voice interrupts one another with intercessions of Hallelujah after Hallelujah! Hearing this explosion of joy after the quiet, dry, and sombre 40 days and 40 nights of Lent must have been truly amazing!
The verse about death! The accompanying texture thins for this verse and all we are left with is the basso continuo: the cello and organ. Just as in the opening Sinfonia, the first notes we hear from the cello are the repetitions of the descending minor second, and then the voices come in singing about death on the minor second as well. Multiple repetitions of this motif are heard especially in the 'walking' cello line. Listen how the cello, soprano, and alto all use this two-note figure.
It is unknown whether Bach intended verses two, three, five, and six to be for solo singers or not. Normally Bach clearly indicated his intentions in his manuscripts by using words such as 'aria', 'recitative', or 'duet'. In this case however, those words are not present. It has been left up to conductors and performers to make this judgement call. Sometimes logistical and other factors play a determining role, however, the more people who can sing this fantastic music, the better!
The victory anthem! The violin energetically begins this verse in an almost dance-like fashion. The quicker speed, the energy of the violin, and the unison males’ voices all aid in communicating the text. The forward momentum comes to surprising halt when the men sing the word "nichts" which means 'nothing' and literally nothing is heard for a whole beat until the men sing, very slowly, of Death and its form. The remainder of the verse resumes with the triumph and victory it started with.
The Battle! Most important: the cantus firmus. Who has it? The Altos! All the other voices are caught up in the battle. The tenors begin this verse with a section of the melody, however, before they are done, the sopranos interrupt with a different section of melody. And, yup, you guessed it, the basses want in on the action so they interrupt as well. Thus begins the battle. It all comes to a head when the entire choir begins to sing "Wie ein Tod den andern fraß" which means ' One death devoured another'. The sopranos, tenors, and basses all sing the same material, only at slightly different times, giving the impression of a musical 'black hole'. Each part then gets 'devoured' and stops singing.
Bach then sets the words "Ein Spott" or 'a mockery' with such wit. In the same way a child mocks his peer, Bach sets this text in such a way as to mock the devil. Picture in your mind a child on the playground making fun of another child - what is he singing? "na Nana Nana na!". Can you hear it? Bach certainly did - he uses that childish tune and puts the words "ein spott" with it. The effect? A Mockery - the exact meaning of the words.
The Passover analogy. In this verse Luther's text uses distinct imagery and unfamiliar metaphors to present-day English speakers. Lines such as 'roasted in burning love' leave us somewhat confused. We need to remember however that poetry and culture where much different in Germany 400 years ago!
Listen for four words in this verse:
1) Kreuzes (Cross) - on this word, Bach put notes on the page in such a way that they made the shape of a cross; we therefore hear a small embellishment when the men sing this word.
2) Tode (Death) - Bach sets this word on one of the lowest notes a Bass can sing...
3) Würger (Murderer) - Bach sets this word on a very high pitch, and has the string section play with agitation
4) Nicht (no [more]) - here again, the vocal line suddenly stops when this word is sung
The Celebration! This vocally challenging duet embodies a celebratory feel due to Bach's use of the triplet figure. It dances forward, letting nothing prevent it from reaching the pinnacle Hallelujah section, sealing the message in our minds that Christ has won the battle against sin.
In Communion. The term 'communion' should be interpreted in two different senses here. The text makes reference to us 'eating...true Easter bread' and certainly the benefit of Christ's death and resurrection is made available to us through the sacrament of Communion. The term also refers to the fact that Bach intended for the listening congregation to join in singing this final verse. The musicians and the listeners join together in song.
Verse seven is a simple, four-part harmonization of Luther's Chorale tune. Although this is the final verse of the cantata, this was likely the starting point for Bach when he decided to write this work.
In the style of a hymn, this chorale presents an odd dilemma to the performing choir. A simple hymn is not an ideal finish to a grand cantata. The addition of the audience or congregation singing would add the necessary energy and sparkle that could make a humble hymn become a grand ending, however concert goers certainly do not expect to be put on the spot and be asked to join in singing the final portion of a concert.
The compromise: a slightly romanticised version of the humble ending. Instead of singing the Chorale in true hymn style, some dramatic pauses and dynamic variances can be added to bring the necessary definitive ending the work deserves.