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Sunday Music Musings May 1, 2021

May 1, 2021

One of the best known Lutheran Easter chorales is Christ lag in Todesbanden. Based on the medieval Easter sequence Gregorian chant, Victimae, paschali laudes (“Christians to the paschal victim” HYMNAL #183), it is a strong robust minor key tune, the Germans’ idea of “cheerful.” The chorale arrangement is credited to the great Baroque composer Johann Walther (1496-1570), in whose 1524 Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn it was first published. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) used this as the basis of his famous Cantata #4. It is often confusing to English speakers how a text “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” is an Easter Cantata. But the whole hymn describes an epic Game-of-Thrones type battle between death and life! And life does win. Many, many Baroque composers set this as a chorale-prelude. The prelude is J.S.Bach’s setting from the The Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book).  

The offertory is the second verse Christ lag in Todesbanden, Cantata #4 which the 22 year-old Bach composed during his time in Arnstadt. This soprano/alto duet explores how the world was stuck captive in death, and the two voice parts intertwine and beat up against each other. The happy ending is telegraphed in the Halleluja, though!

Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Nobody could overcome death
Bei allen Menschenkindern,
among all the children of mankind.
Das macht’ alles unsre Sünd,
Our sin was the cause of all this,
Kein Unschuld war zu finden.
no innocence was to be found.
Davon kam der Tod so bald
Therefore death came so quickly
Und nahm über uns Gewalt,
and seized power over us,
Hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen.
held us captive in his kingdom.

Our hymn of the day is Hymn #178, (Alleluia No.1) which during regular times we sing as the Easter Day communion hymn, ringing bells. I am happy to use it today with my two cantors and the lovely descant. According to, “Donald E. Fishel (b. Hart, MI, 1950) composed both text and tune “rather spontaneously” during the summer of 1971 in a house on Church Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The hymn was first sung in services of the Word of God Community in Ann Arbor, a charismatic Roman Catholic congregation that Fishel had then recently joined; he later served that community as publications editor of Servant Music (1973-1981). Fishel received a bachelor’s degree in instrumental music education from the University of Michigan in 1972 and a degree in computer science from Eastern Michigan University in 1983. Since then he has worked in the computer industry.”

The postlude is based on this tune as well, and is a new “pandemic” rep for me. Jeffrey Honoré is a Catholic musician serving as liturgical music director of St. Matthias Parish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he directs the archdiocesan choir. He is an organist, trombonist and voice teacher. He received the Vatican II Award for Distinguished Service in 1999. The tune is set out in the trumpet over joyful rapid toccata-like figurations in the hands.

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