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Reich + Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4

I. Sinfonia

II. Versus 1: "Christ lag in Todes Banden" (chorus)

III. Versus 2: "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (soprano and alto)

IV. Versus 3: "Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn" (tenor)

V. Versus 4: "Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg" (chorus)

VI. Versus 5: "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm" (bass)

VII. Versus 6: "So feiern wir das hohe Fest" (soprano, tenor)

VIII. Versus 7: "Wir essen und leben wohl" (chorus)

            Placed early in Bach’s creative life on stylistic grounds, this cantata is generally agreed to have been the one he presented as an audition piece when, at the age of twenty-two, he was invited to apply for the post of organist at the church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen, the major city in the region of his birth. If there were nothing else to support this hypothesis, the audition took place on Easter Sunday, 1707, and Christ lag in Todes Banden is an Easter cantata. But also, this is evidently a display piece – a sequence of variations on a chorale deriving from Martin Luther himself, and a work seemingly devised to rival and exceed a cantata on the same chorale by one of the most esteemed composers of the preceding generation, Johann Pachelbel, who had died the year before. Of course, Bach got the job. Indeed, the city authorities, knowing their man in advance, did not consider any other candidate.

            The opening sinfonia, for strings and continuo, is short and in E minor, the work’s enduring key. We might think it odd that music about the Resurrection, which any Christian would have to account an occasion for joy, should be in this severe tonality – and odder still that the first violin repeats a falling minor second, evocative of tears and grief, to introduce the chorale theme. This preludial passage, however, is still in the Good Friday world of death, which the arrival of the chorus, very soon, will turn to Easter. And the key does not need to change, because the tune stays the same, and also the tone, of seriousness.

            With the chorus comes elaborate counterpoint, surmounted by the chorale melody moving more slowly in the top, soprano line, its phrases like the ribs of vaulting in a high Gothic church, such as St. Blaise was and is. (John Augustus Roebling was baptized there, and may have remembered the architecture when he came to design Brooklyn Bridge.)

            This big opening chorus takes us into a symmetrical form: chorus – duet – solo – chorus – solo – duet – chorus. The first duet is for soprano and alto, with the falling minor second now given the words “Den Tod” (Death) – by no means the only instance of tone painting in the piece – and the chorale taken mostly by the upper voice, against counter-melody and faster rotation from the continuo.

            The third verse is for tenor, with voluble violin accompaniment.

            Then comes the central chorus, with close-knit counterpoint almost in the manner of a round and the slower lines of the chorale now in the alto part.

            After this is a solo for the bass, with strings, requiring the singer to show agility and poise over a range of almost two octaves.

            Next soprano and tenor twine together, exchanging positions in canonic interplay.

            Bach’s original setting of the final verse is lost. In 1725 he revised the cantata for Leipzig, adding brass instruments and, for finale, a harmonization of the chorale.

            Sacred words; voices and instruments; canons; simultaneous different speeds: many of the elements are here assembled that will go on into the next work.


Steve Reich (b. 1936)


            Reich in the 1970s found his music resonating with traditions from West Africa and Indonesia. Then he started to wonder what he might learn from a culture to which, as a Jewish musician, he was more directly heir. To find out, he made himself a student all over again – of Hebrew, the Torah, and cantillation (the traditional Jewish ways of chanting sacred texts) – and set out on another journey, to Israel. Once again he learned a lot. Once again his creativity was recharged. And once again he gained confirmation from the fact that contemporary and traditional cultures, western and non-western, were leading him to the same conclusions. Tehillim (1981), his first explicitly Jewish piece, is his symphony of psalms.

            The title is the Hebrew word for ‘psalms’ (itself a Greek term), and a few verses from the Biblical Book of Psalms provide the text for the entire thirty-minute composition. Reich notes in the score that his tuned tambourines without jingles may approximate the sound of the tof mentioned in the first verse he chooses from Psalm 150, and that his other small percussion instruments – maracas, crotales, and hands (clapped) – are similar to those that had a place throughout the middle east in Biblical times. So the essential sound of Tehillim – of voices (including the instrumental voices of woodwinds and strings) with percussion – is archaeological.

            Not so the music. Reich remarks also that one of his reasons for choosing psalm texts was the fact that the ancient tradition of psalm singing has been lost (except among Yemenite Jews). He was therefore free to invent his own melodies, and he made them in his own way, so that they keep up an ebullient mobility, rebounding between different modes and meters. They do so partly because of their self-similar structure, in which small groups of notes keep reappearing transposed or otherwise changed. The voices dance on, all the time singing the same things in different orders and perspectives, and gaining more rhythmic liveliness from jostling against the percussion.

            The work is in four parts, each defined by its text and associated melody. Techniques of canon – for two voices, then for four – are introduced in the first part. Then without a break, but with the arrival of a new melody, the second section offers the new sound of voices in two-part and three-part harmony. After that there is a pause before the third and fourth sections begin intermingling canonic and harmonic conceptions. All the time the textural complexity broadly increases, though nearly always keeping at the center the ancient combination of voices and percussion.