Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir perform Bach and Handel. Recorded live on June 22, 2014 during the Versailles Festival at the Palace of Versailles.


Miriam Allan, soprano
Esther Brazil, soprano
Katy Hill, soprano
Emilia Morton, soprano
Emma Walshe, soprano
Rory McCleery, alto
Ben Alden, tenor
Sean Clayton, tenor
Peter Harris, tenor
Alexander Ashworth, bass
Rupert Reid, bass

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  1. Johann Sebastian Bach: Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
  2. George Frideric Handel: Dixit dominus, HWV 232

English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir
Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4

Christ lag in Todes Banden (“Christ lay in death’s bonds” or “Christ lay in the snares of death”), BWV 4, (sometimes Christ lag in Todesbanden) is a cantata for Easter by Johann Sebastian Bach. One of his earliest church cantatas, it was probably intended for a performance in 1707, an early work in the genre to which he later contributed complete cantata cycles for all occasions of the liturgical year. It was related to his application for a post at a Lutheran church at Mühlhausen. John Eliot Gardiner describes it as Bach’s “first-known attempt at painting narrative in music”.

It is a chorale cantata, a style in which both text and music are based on a hymn. In this instance the source was Martin Luther’s hymn of the same name, the main hymn for Easter in the Lutheran church. The composition is based on the seven stanzas of the hymn and its tune, which was derived from Medieval models. In the format of chorale variations “per omnes versus” (for all stanzas), in each of the seven vocal movements Bach used the unchanged words of a stanza of the chorale, and its tune as a cantus firmus. After an opening sinfonia, the variations are arranged symmetrically: chorus–duet–solo–chorus–solo–duet–chorus, with the focus on the central fourth stanza about the battle between Life and Death. Although all movements are in E minor, Bach achieves structural variety and intensifies the meaning of the text through many other musical forms and techniques.

Christ lag in Todes Banden is Bach’s first cantata for Easter – his only extant original composition for the first day of the feast and his earliest surviving chorale cantata. He later repeatedly performed it as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, beginning in 1724 when he first celebrated Easter there. Only the performance material from Leipzig is extant. It is scored for four vocal parts with a choir of one cornetto and three trombones doubling the voices at times, plus a string section of two violins, two violas and continuo. This exemplifies a 17th-century “Choralkonzert” (chorale concerto) style; the lost scoring of the earlier performances was perhaps similar.

Gardiner calls Bach’s setting of Luther’s hymn “a bold, innovative piece of musical drama”, and observes “his total identification with the spirit and letter of Luther’s fiery, dramatic hymn”.


  1. Sinfonia: The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia a work in the style of an overture to a contemporary Venetian opera, with chordal passages and occasional polyphony. It introduces the first line of the melody, The mood is sombre, recalling the “Death’s bonds” of the first line of the hymn: Christ’s death on the cross and burial.
  2. Versus 1 (Polyphonic chorale fantasia): The opening stanza, “Christ lag in Todes Banden” (Christ lay in death’s bonds) is treated as a chorale fantasia. Without instrumental opening, the movement begins with the chorale tune sung by the soprano in very long notes, with all other parts entering after the soprano began. The alto line is derived from the chorale tune, while the viola parts principally reinforce the alto and tenor voices. The violin parts are independent and, as Traupman-Carr notes “further activate the texture with a virtually continuous exchange of sixteenth-note snippets”. The figure in the violins known as suspiratio (sigh) reflects “Christ’s suffering in the grip of death”. The final Halleluja is faster, giving up the fantasia format for a four-part fugue and in motet style, with all instruments doubling the voices. The style of the movement recalls the 16th-century stile antico, although the harmony and orchestral writing is of Bach’s time.
  3. Versus 2 (Duet, with “walking bass” in continuo): The second stanza, Aria Duetto, is a duet of soprano and alto, “Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt” (No one could defeat death), over an ostinato continuo. It deals with “humanity helpless and paralysed as it awaits God’s judgement against sin”. Bach has the music almost freeze on the first words “den Tod” (death), and the word “gefangen” (imprisoned) is marked by a sharp dissonance of the soprano and alto. In the Halleluja, the voices imitate each other on long notes in fast succession, creating a sequence of suspensions.
  4. Versus 3 (Trio sonata): The third stanza, “Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn” (Jesus Christ, God’s Son), is a trio of the tenor, two obbligato violins and continuo. The tenor sings the chorale melody almost unchanged. The violins illustrate first how Christ slashes at the enemy. The music stops completely on the word “nichts” (nothing). The violins then present in four notes the outline of the cross, and finally the tenor sings a joyful “Halleluja” to a virtuoso violin accompaniment.
  5. Versus 4 (Polyphonic and imitative, woven around chorale melody): “Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg, da Tod und Leben rungen” (It was a strange battle, that death and life waged), is the center of the symmetrical structure. It is sung by the four voices, accompanied only by the continuo. The alto sings the cantus firmus, transposed by a fifth to B-Dorian, while the other voices follow each other in a fugal stretto with entries just a beat apart until they fall away one by one. In the final Halleluja in all four voices, the bass descends nearly two octaves.
  6. Versus 5 (Homophonic with elaborate continuo line): Stanza five, “Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm” (Here is the true Easter-lamb), is sung by the bass alone, accompanied at first by a descending chromatic line in the continuo which has been compared to the Crucifixus of the Mass in B minor, but changing to “a dance-like passage of continuous eighth notes” when the voice enters. For every line of the stanza, the bass sings a chorale tune, then repeats the words in counterpoint to the part of the tune repeated in the strings, sometimes transposed. Taruskin describes this: “With its antiphonal exchanges between the singer and the massed strings … this setting sounds like a parody of a passacaglia-style Venetian opera aria, vintage 1640”. The bass sings the final victorious Hallelujas, spanning two octaves.
  7. Versus 6 (Duet, using trio sonata texture with extensive imitation): “So feiern wir das hohe Fest” (So we celebrate the high festival), is a duet for soprano and tenor accompanied only by the ostinato continuo. The chorale is shared by the voices, with the soprano singing it in E minor, the tenor in B minor. The movement is a dance of joy: the word “Wonne” (joy) is rendered in figuration that Gardiner finds reminiscent of Purcell. Bach incorporates the solemn rhythms of the French overture into this verse, reflecting the presence of the word feiern (celebrate) in the text. It may be the first time that Bach used these rhythms.
  8. Versus 7 (Four-part chorale setting (Leipzig version)): Bach’s original setting of the final stanza, “Wir essen und leben wohl” (We eat and live well), is lost; it may have been a repeat of the opening chorus. In Leipzig, he supplied a simple four-part setting.

Dixit Dominus

Dixit Dominus is a psalm setting by George Frideric Handel (catalogued as HWV 232). It uses the Latin text of Psalm 110 (Vulgate 109), which begins with the words Dixit Dominus (“The Lord Said”).

The work was completed in April 1707 while Handel was living in Italy. It is Handel’s earliest surviving autograph. The work was written in the baroque style and is scored for five vocal soloists (SSATB), chorus, strings and continuo. It is most likely that the work was first performed on 16 July 1707 in the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, under the patronage of the Colonna family.

Movements and Text

  1. Chorus Latin: Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis, donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum. English: The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy foot-stool.
  2. Aria (alto solo) Latin: Virgam virtutis tuae emittet Dominus ex Sion: dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum. English: The Lord shall send the rod of thy power out of Sion: be thou ruler, even in the midst among thine enemies.
  3. Aria (soprano solo) Latin: Tecum principatus in die virtutis tuae, in splendoribus sanctis. Ex utero ante luciferum genui te. English: In the day of thy power shall the people offer thee free-will offerings with an holy worship.
    The dew of thy birth is of the womb of the morning.
  4. Aria (chorus) Latin: Juravit Dominus et non paenitebit eum: English: The Lord swore, and will not repent:
  5. Aria (chorus) Latin: Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech. English: Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedech.
  6. Aria (soloists and chorus) Latin: Dominus a dextris tuis, confregit in die irae suae reges. English: The Lord upon thy right hand, shall wound even kings in the day of his wrath.
  7. Aria (chorus) Latin: Judicabit in nationibus, Implebit ruinas, conquassabit capita in terra multorum. English: He shall judge the nations, fill the places with destruction, and shatter the capitals in many lands.
  8. Aria (soprano duet and chorus) Latin: De torrente in via bibet, propterea exaltabit caput. English: He shall drink of the brook in the way, therefore shall he lift up his head.
  9. Aria (chorus) Latin: Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. English: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now; and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.


M. Özgür Nevres
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