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Bach at the Keyboard

Bach was only 22 when he landed his third church job, as organist of St Blasius in the city of Muehlhausen. His audition was on Easter Sunday of 1707 – imagine the stress! – and there’s a good chance that his audition piece was this very cantata.

If so, Bach hit a home run: the Muehlhausen city council met a month later, and no one even discussed any other musician. His second interview was on the 14th of June. The very next day, Bach signed his contract.

For this cantata, Bach used a text by Martin Luther. Unlike some of his later Easter Sunday works, it’s not a bright, joyous piece – but it’s not by any means dark. It’s celebratory, all right, but in a reserved, pensive way.

Bach opens with the chorus, the sopranos carrying the melody and the violins adding florid decorations. He keeps the mood relatively somber until the text says "des wir sollen fröhlich sein" ("thus we should be joyful"). Finally, then, he starts to open things up.

Bach was both a sensitive musician and a devout one: he wrote the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, or glory only to God) at the end of every sacred manuscript. Thus he didn’t hesitate to use word-painting to illuminate the religious meaning of this cantata. He writes scales around "Menschenkinder" and "Tod," ("mankind" and "death") and assigns strong chords to the words "Recht" ("rule") and "Gewalt" ("power"). He paints the phrase "Tods Gestalt" ("death’s empty shell") in a dim, hazy light. His voices chase each other as "Tod und Leben ringen" ("death and life battled"), and "ein Tod den andern fraß" ("one death ate the other").

Then Bach drives home his point. A low part for the bass and a surprisingly dissonant orchestral part represent the Passion – and then rising scales in the violins symbolize the Resurrection. He ends with an elegantly direct setting of the gospel lesson for the day, "Christus will die Koste sein" ("Christ will be the sustenance").

Bach must have thought this cantata was effective, because he didn’t let it gather library dust forever. In his harried, overworked Leipzig days, he revived it not once, but twice – for Easter Sunday of 1724, and again on Easter of 1725.

1. Sinfonia  
2. Coro [Versus I]

Christ lag in Todesbanden
Für unsre Sünd gegeben,
Er ist wieder erstanden
Und hat uns bracht das Leben;
Des wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein
Und singen halleluja,

2. Chorus [Verse 1]

Christ lay in the bonds of death,
For our sin was given;
He is risen again
And has brought us life;
Thus we should be joyful,
Praise God and be thankful to Him
And sing hallelujah,

3. Duetto [Versus II]

Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Bei allen Menschenkindern,
Das macht alles unsre Sünd,
Kein Unschuld war zu finden.
Davon kam der Tod so bald
Und nahm über uns Gewalt,
Hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen.

3. Duet [Verse 2]

Death could capture no one
Among all mankind;
[But] As a result of our sin,
There was no innocence to be found.
Thereby death quickly came,
And seized power over us,
Held us captive in his kingdom.

4. Aria [Versus III]

Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn,
An unser Statt ist kommen
Und hat die Sünde weggetan,
Damit dem Tod genommen
All sein Recht und sein Gewalt;
Da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt,
Den Stachel hat er verloren,

4. Aria [Verse 3]

Jesus Christ, God’s own Son,
Has come to our abode
And has cleared away the sins,
Thereby from death is taken
All his rule and all his power;
Here nothing remains but death’s shell,
He has lost his sting.

5. Coro [Versus IV]

Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg,
Da Tod und Leben rungen,
Das Leben behielt den Sieg,
Es hat den Tod verschlungen.
Die Schrift hat verkündigt das,
Wie ein Tod den andern fraß,
Ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden.

5. Chorus [Verse 4]

It was a wondrous struggle,
When death and life battled;
Life seized the victory,
It has devoured death.
The Scripture has proclaimed,
How one death ate another;
Death has been made a mockery.

6. Aria [Versus V]

Hie ist das rechte Osterlamm,
Davon Gott hat geboten,
Das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
In heißer Lieb gebraten,
Das Blut zeichnet unser Tür,
Das hält der Glaub dem Tode für,
Der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden.

6. Aria [Verse 5]

Here is the true Easter lamb,
Of which God has commanded;
It is high on the cross’s trunk
Burning in ardent love;
The blood makes a sign on our door,
That the faith regards as death,
The murderer can no longer harm us.

7. Aria (Duetto) [Versus VI]

So feiren wir das hohe Fest
Mit Herzensfreud und Wonne,
Das uns der Herr erscheinen läßt,
Er ist selber die Sonne,
Der durch seiner Gnaden Glanz
Erleuchtet unsre Herzen ganz,
Der Sünden Nacht ist verschwunden.

7. Aria (Duet) [Verse 6]

So let us celebrate
With heartfelt joy and pleasure
the high feast the Lord lays before us;
He is himself the sun,
And through His graceful brilliance,
He fully illuminates our hearts;
The sin-filled night has vanished.

8. Choral [Versus VII]

Wir essen und leben wohl
In rechten Osterfladen,
Der alte Sauerteig nicht soll
Sein bei dem Wort der Gnaden,
Christus will die Koste sein
Und speisen die Seel allein,
Der Glaub will keins andern leben.

8. Chorale [Verse 7]

We eat and thrive
On this true Easter wafer;
The old leavening shall not
Remain in the grace of the Word;
Christ will be the sustenance
He alone will feed the soul,
Faith will live on nothing else.

Translation by David Roden – may be reproduced under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA license
This article was first published in WKSU Classical on 8 April 2012.

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