The Easter tradition in the age of J.S. Bach

The Easter season is synonymous with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Whether religious or not, many people make the musical versions of the Biblical Passion narrative part of an annual tradition. With his St Matthew Passion and St John Passion, Bach composed two of the greatest liturgical works for Good Friday. Less well known is his Easter Oratorio, intended for Easter Sunday. The suffering in the Passions give way here to joyful tones: exuberant choirs and jubilant soloists sing the marvel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

written by Aurélie Walschaert

Bach composed the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden also for performance during the Easter season. It is one of his earliest surviving cantatas. At the other end of the spectrum is his Mass in B Minor, his last large-scale composition and an impressive synthesis of two centuries of church music. Already in 1817, the Swiss critic Hans-Georg Nägeli declared that it was ‘the greatest musical work of all times and all people’.

Kommt, gehet und eilet

In the various ecclesiastical functions that Bach held, and especially in Leipzig, where he spent the last 27 years of his life, he was asked to write music that reflected the church calendar. Alongside the Sunday services, other feast days also required appropriate music. For the Easter period, Bach composed not only his famous St Matthew Passion and St John Passion, but shorter works as well: the Easter Oratorio BWV 249 and the cantatas Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4 and Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret BWV 31.

The Easter Oratorio was first heard on Sunday, 1 April 1725 in Leipzig, under the title Kommt, gehet und eilet. The timpani rolls and trumpet calls from the opening movement contrasted greatly with the dramatic final chorale in the St John Passion that had been heard only two days earlier. In the oratorio, made up of eleven movements, gives voice to four of Jesus’ most faithful disciples: Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe, Peter and John, and their joy at contemplating Christ’s resurrected body. In contrast to Bach’s other religious works, this composition is more closely aligned with the Italian dramatic oratorio: he did not use an evangelist to tell the story or overarching chorales, but placed the words directly in the mouths of the characters. The narrative is preceded by two contrasting instrumental introductions: a triumphant Sinfonia, followed by a pastoral Adagio.

Bach did not need to write much new music for this oratorio. Instead, he drew on the cantata Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen BWV 249a, which he had written only two months earlier in honour of the 43th birthday of Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weißenfels. Of that cantata, only the text survives, but presumably the music was based on a concerto grosso written during the period when Bach was living in Köthen. For the text of the festive cantata, Bach turned to his favourite librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known by the name Picander. It is very likely that Picander also wrote the text for the Easter Oratorio, and that Bach wrote the music for the cantata and simultaneously reworked it for his Easter Oratorio. After the first performance of the Easter Oratorio in 1725, Bach continued to revise it: in 1738, a new version appeared, this time with the addition of the title ‘oratorio’, and around 1740, he expanded the third movement from a duet for tenor and bass into a four-part choral work.

The triumph of life over death

In contrast to the jubilant mood of Bach’s Easter Oratorio, the atmosphere in the Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4 is more solemn and contemplative. Unlike in his later cantatas, here Bach based himself exclusively on the seven couplets from the hymn of the same name written by Martin Luther in 1524, the most important Easter hymn in the Lutheran liturgy. The melody of the chorale is the only musical theme, and serves as the mirror around which the variations are built in perfect symmetry. Each verse is given its own combination of instruments and voices. And each one ends with a hope-filled Alleluia, as the triumph of life over death.

Bach is thought to have written the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4 in 1706, although the exact occasion for the composition is shrouded in mystery. The same is true for his Mass in B Minor BWV 232: no one knows why Bach composed this large-scale work at the end of his life. Although the manuscript is undated, research has shown that he put the finishing touches to it in 1749. But for the origin of this work, we need to go back to 1733. At that time, Bach wrote a ‘short Mass', made up only of a Kyrie and Gloria, in order to curry favour with Frederick Augustus II, elector of Saxony. His attempt ended up being put on the back burner due to internal political strife, and it was not until 1748 that Bach returned to this work. He added a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

Back expanded his Mass in B Minor into a major composition that is comparable to a concerto grosso. Between the Kyrie and the final Dona nobis pacem, there are nine arias and duets, fourteen ensemble pieces for four to eight voices and a wide range of instrumental solos, all in an impressive variety of styles. Moreover, in this Mass Bach included not only music from his 35-year career, but he also combined techniques and styles from two centuries of church music, from the strict, sober contrapuntal stile antica of the Renaissance period to the gallant style that was on the rise in his own day. Perhaps Bach saw this work as a synthesis of his ability, or as a way to preserve a number of his best works from being forgotten, by providing them with universal Mass texts.

Bach never gave the work a title. Later, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel catalogued the Mass under the title DieGroße Catholische Messe (The Great Catholic Mass). It was not until the Romantic era, when Bach’s oeuvre was once again in demand thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, that the title Hohe Messe – by which the work is mostly known today – was added to Bach’s magnum opus.

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