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Sermon: Bach Vespers – April 12, 2015

The Rev. George Detweiler

Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

(Note: The musical information in this meditation is from John Eliot Gardiner’s book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven)

Bach was 22 when he wrote this cantata for his audition in Mühlhausen. This was his second or perhaps third cantata, but the first in which he attempted to paint narrative in music. The success of this cantata and of the audition moved him from the role of a virtuoso organist to that of a daring composer of figural music, and, I would add, ardent promoter of the theology of Martin Luther.

Unlike many of his later cantatas, in this one he uses the hymn tune of the same name as the basis for every movement, and the seven movements are based on the seven stanzas of the hymn. This is his most frequently performed cantata; it is the only one in which I have ever sung. (And I wonder how many of you out there have sung it?)

The hymn was written by Martin Luther but based on the Latin sequence hymn for Easter: Victimae Paschali. The tune is based on an 11th century German hymn–Christ ist erstanden (Christ is arisen)–that was based on Victimae Paschali. If you want to look up these hymns tonight, they are numbers 370, 371 and 372 in our hymnal, although the originals had more stanzas than what is to be found in these modern books.

My hunch is that Luther was dissatisfied with the omission from Christ is arisen of Victimae’s reference to “death and life contending in conflict stupendous.” In Luther’s hymn, four of the seven stanzas make reference to the power of death and its power over us being broken by Christ. One of those stanzas (not in our hymnal I assume because it isn’t politically correct) is about the war between life and death, where Christ’s death swallowed up death and made a mockery of it.

Overall, Luther’s hymn uses imagery from the Hebrew scriptures and turns the story of Easter into a tribal saga (Gardiner), that brings dramatically to life the events of Christ’s physical and spiritual ordeal. Bach sets the seven stanzas with only musical commentary and little changing of Luther’s words. There are no recitatives and no arias.

Luther’s narrative begins with a backward glance at Christ in the shackles of death but then announces the resurrection and its effects. In the second movement/stanza, the music conjures up humanity in the grip and fear of death. Death stalks us: twice the music freezes on the word “death” (den Tod).

In the third stanza Christ defeats death. All that is left is the form of it. Here Bach inscribes the sign of the cross musically over and around the words “death’s form” (Tods Gestalt).  But it is in movement/stanza four that there is the war between death and life, a war which Christ wins by dying, thereby swallowing up death and making a mockery of death. This is the core of the hymn and of the cantata.

This struggle between the forces of life and death, hope and despair, grace and sin, is central to Luther’s belief, and Bach’s. It illustrates Luther’s (and Bach’s) ability to connect complex theological concepts with everyday experience and make them more accessible. Bach uses the cantata to draw the listener into the drama of faith, this struggle between the forces of life and death.

In movement 5, the bass sings of the paschal lamb upon the cross, and that blood marking our doors, as it did the people of Israel in the passover. Bach has each instrumental voice pause symbolically on a sharp at the word Kreuz (“cross” in English), while he inscribes musically the four points of the cross, as does the bass the second time he sings the word Kreuz.

Death was very real to Bach. He lost both his parents before the age of 10, and an important mentor–his father’s cousin Johann Christoph Bach–just a couple years before this cantata was written. In addition, the memory of the Thirty Years War and the plagues that went with it was very much alive in the German culture of Bach’s time.

This cantata is Bach taking up Luther’s theological language to echo 1 John 1:1-4. He had seen and heard and believed in the eternal life that was with the Father and revealed to us, and he was declaring it through his setting of Luther’s resurrection hymn.

It was Bach’s faith in the message that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” that enabled him to face death with hope and live life with joy, hope and joy that he shares with us through this cantata this evening.