The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – BWV 4, for Easter Day – Loss and Redemption

An early and masterful work, composed in 1707, Cantata 4 is for the first day of Easter (Good Friday), and has as its subject the death of Christ after his crucifixion on Calvary. The ensuing Sunday, which is the third day of Easter, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after the Crucifixion. The overriding theme of the cantata is redemption. Easter is fundamental to the Christian year, and the whole of the liturgical year of worship is arranged around it. Bach uses a 1524 text by Martin Luther, and sets it with a vocal quartet supported by a choir and an orchestra of strings, cornet, and trombones.

The Gospel for the day is Mark 16: 1-8: And when the sabbath was past … very early in the morning … they came unto the sepulchre … saw that the stone was rolled away … Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified : he is risen ….

If one accepts that the essence of the piece reveals to a contemporary listener a meditation on the ambivalence of the meaning and purpose of death and the precarious quest to understand redemption, and that the whole of this exploration is presented through an octagonal, musical prism of perceptions, its relevance will begin to be apparent.

Andrea Mantegna: The Lamentation of the Dead Christ, ca. 1480.

Andrea Mantegna: The Lamentation of the Dead Christ, ca. 1480.

The opening sinfonia, which is of deep expressiveness (Christ in the bonds of Death), is richly scored for strings alone. In it is introduced the chorale melody that is retained in all the seven verses that follow. The briefness of this introduction makes more pungent its plangency. This sinfonia is followed by a chorus full of gravity, on the first verse of Luther’s hymn, set over a splendid bass line, and concluding with an alla breve (that is, in doubled pace) hallelujah that is luminescent (Christ risen).

A duet, for soprano and alto, over another remarkable bass line (Death was formerly triumphant), and recalling the opening sinfonia, gives the second verse. The third verse, for tenor solo, again with a fine bass line (Christ overpowering Death), is quick and brilliantly agitated. The solo quartet (Life swallows Death), with continuo only, sings the fourth verse. (This movement, incidentally, is virtually identical to the solo quartet that is the third movement in Cantata 71, written for an entirely different purpose: the dedication of the town council inauguration of Mühlhausen in 1708.) Bach scholar Alfred Dürr considers the fourth verse the “central axis” of the work, as it makes plain the “clear symmetry” of the musical structure.

The bass, solo, gives the fifth verse, an impressive composition (Faith makes Death impotent), richly scored for the strings, with hard work for the soloist, and a remarkable passage on the words dem Tode für (before Death). The sixth verse, a duet for soprano and tenor, concludes in joyous triplets (sin vanquished by Christ) on ‘hallelujah.’ And the chorale (restoration of wellness and grace), on the concluding seventh verse, finishes with a particularly fine cadence.

The work moves the misery of loss to the majesty of redemption.

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