Continuing my very short series on the translations of the two major works I am presenting with my Chamber Choir next month - this post is dedicated to the text of J. S. Bach's cantata #4 "Christ lag in Todes Banden" (The final two words of the title appear in the literature as either "Todes Banden" or "Todesbanden", either are considered correct. I'll use the former in this post, following Neumann 1974).
The cantata, which is cataloged as his 4th of this Genre was actually likely the first. It is thought that the work was composed as an audition piece for the organist position at the Bonifaciuskirche in Mühlhausen in the 1707, likely first performed on Easter in 1707. It differs greatly from his other two Easters cantatas (BWV 31 and 249) with its very dark and austere setting. Both 31 and 249 are orchestrated for a festive Baroque orchestra, including trumpets and timpani. This cantata however is orchestrated for strings only, with double violas (which again is why it is paired so nicely against Handel’s “Dixit”, as we are doing in February). The structure is also very ancient – echoing the early Cantatas of Buxtehude, Telemann, even Schütz – in a style known as omnes versus which is a chorale cantata style in which all verses are set one after the other, i.e. there are seven stanzas in the Lutheran chorale, represented in seven different choral or solo movements. There are actually eight movements in the Cantata if you count the opening orchestral sinfonia.
Christ lag in Todes Banden
Christ Lay in death’s bonds
Für unsre Sünd gegeben,
for our sins given.
Er ist wieder erstanden
He has again risen
Und hat uns bracht das Leben;
and has brought life;
Des wir sollen fröhlich sein,
for this we shall joyful be,
Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein
God praise, and to him thankful be,
Und singen halleluja,
and sing Hallelujah* (Bach sets the word “Hallelujah” after each following verse, although it is not present in the Luther’s chorale).
Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Death no one subue could
Bei allen Menschenkindern,
among all humans
Das macht' alles unsre Sünd,
This does all our sin;
Kein Unschuld war zu finden.
no innocence was to be found.
Davon kam der Tod so bald
Therefore came death so soon,
Und nahm über uns Gewalt,
and seized over us power,
Hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen.
held us in his realm captive.
A more poetic translation of verse 2 would be:
No one among all mortals could conquer death. Our sin causes all this; no innocence was to be found. Therefore death came so soon, seized power over us, and held us captive in his realm.
Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn,
Jesus Christ, God’s son,
An unser Statt ist kommen
in our stead has come
Und hat die Sünde weggetan,
and has sin taken away.
Damit dem Tod genommen
Thereby death taken
All sein Recht und sein Gewalt,
all his privilege and his power.
Da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt,
There remains nothing by death’s image;
Den Stach'l hat er verloren.
the sting has it lost (or – “Death has lost it’s sting”)
Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg,
It was a “strange?” war (a war of “wonder”, or “awesome” war))
Da Tod und Leben rungen,
When death and life wrestled;
Das Leben behielt den Sieg,
life retained the victory;
Es hat den Tod verschlungen.
it has death devoured.
Die Schrift hat verkündigt das,
The scripture has made known this,
Wie ein Tod den andern fraß,
how one death the other consumed; (Meaning, how Christ’s crucifixion has defeated death, and brought us eternal life)
Ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden.
A mockery of – death has become (Death has become a mockery)
Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm,
Here is the true Paschal Lamb
Davon Gott hat geboten,
of which has god commanded;
Das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
that has high on the cross’s stem,
In heißer Lieb gebraten,
in hot love roasted (He is high on the stem of the cross, roasted in burning love.)
Das Blut zeichnet unsre Tür,
The blood marks our door,
Das hält der Glaub dem Tode für,
that holds – faith – death before; (His blood marks our door, and faith holds this up before death)
Der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden.
the slayer can us no more harm.
So feiern wir das hohe Fest
Therefore celebrate we the high feast
Mit Herzensfreud und Wonne,
with heart’s joy and delight
Das uns der Herre scheinen läßt,
that to us the Lord shine lets.
Er ist selber die Sonne,
He is himself the sun,
Der durch seiner Gnade Glanz
who through his grace’s splendor
Erleuchtet unsre Herzen ganz,
illuminates out hearts wholly;
Der Sünden Nacht ist verschwunden..
the sin’s night has vanished.
und leben wohl essen
We eat and live well
In rechten Osterfladen,
on the true Passover bread;
Der alte Sauerteig nicht soll
the old sourdough not shall
Sein bei dem Wort Gnaden,
exist beside the word of grace. (the old “Leaven bread” shall not exist – Biblically,leavened bread (made with yeast) is full of Malice and Wickedness – whereas unleavened bread is full of “sincerity and truth” – which is the bread used at Passover, and in liturgical churches at the Holy Eucharist)
Christus will die Koste sein
Christ will the food be
Und speisen die Seel allein,
and feed the soul alone;
Der Glaub will keins andern leben.
faith will no other live. (Faith will only live on the food which is made from the body of Christ)
Luther draws from 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 and Mark 16: 1-8 for the text of his chorale. A very powerful account of the meaning behind the crucifixion and resurrection.
So, looking back at the text for Dixit Dominus, a parallel can be made to the two texts - an Old Testament prophesy of the coming of the Messiah, and New Testament scripture revealing the defeat of death through the Messiah’s crucifixion. Take “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” and “The power to rule is with you on the day of your strength, in the splendor of the holy one” from Dixit Dominus and compared it with verse 4 above.
These last two posts to me mark the extreme importance of fully understanding the text of the works you are conducting. Even if the conductor is agnostic or atheist (and I know quite a few), it must be understood that the composer likely was NOT, and the text meant enough to him to set it appropriately. To not know the meaning of the text would be as silly as conducting an opera with no concept of the libretto.
Next posts – how the texts are treated by the composers.