Luther’s Easter Hymn (Stanza 1)

“Christ Lag in Todes Banden” (1524) by Dr. Martin Luther

Translator’s Preface

In 1607 Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) had Part 2 of his Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion) published in Jena. The philosophy behind this 9-part collection of over 1200 hymn arrangements can be best described by comparing it with the work of Praetorius’ acquaintance and fellow Lutheran, Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672).

Schütz loved to compose original musical interpretations of biblical texts. He was a Hebrew scholar, so his Psalmen Davids sammt etlichen Motetten und Concerten mit 8 und mehr Stimmen (1619) (Psalms of David, together with Several Motets and Concertos for 8 or More Parts) is representative of his style. He is also famous for his Historia der freudenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi (1664) (History of the Joyful Birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Mary’s Son), available on the popular “Christmas Vespers” album, which also contains one of his Psalm settings. His music is not only extraordinarily beautiful, but, in the words of Martin Luther, it “make[s] the text come alive” (Erlangen Ausgabe [1854], 62:307). Some believe that he surpassed even Bach and Handel as an interpreter of texts (The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church).

However, since Schütz’s is “specialty” music, it is much more difficult and less “catchy” (since the musical phrasing does not repeat as in hymn verses). It is therefore less portable for the average layperson, who, although he would doubtless enjoy the music, would hardly recognize it and thus would have difficulty remembering or repeating it.

Michael Praetorius was the son of a staunch confessional Lutheran pastor. His father repeatedly lost pastoral positions in his congregations due to his firm confessional stance; he also lost the same pastoral position twice. Michael himself later regretted not becoming a theologian; he even penned a couple theological treatises, which have been lost. He often signed his work “MPC,” which everyone understood as “Michael Praetorius Creuzburgensis” (Michael Preatorius of Creuzburg), but which he interpreted as “Mihi patria coelum” (Heaven is my fatherland), which words can be viewed on the title pages of his volumes of Musae Sioniae.

Michael viewed the chorale or hymn as the musical treasure and heritage of the Lutheran church. It was the hymn which allowed God’s redeemed people to participate in a meaningful way in the divine service, giving understandable, clear, correct, edifying, aesthetically pleasing, unifying, and memorable expression of their faith in Jesus Christ. And so rather than occupy most of his time with original musical interpretations of biblical texts, he occupied his time with hymns. His goal was to make Lutheran hymns as lively, exciting, interesting, and enjoyable as possible.

That he succeeded is evidenced by the fact that his settings of such hymns as “In dulci jubilo” and “Psallite” are still often performed around Christmas to the delight of audiences today. Indeed, Praetorius is probably best known for his settings of Christmas hymns. The album “Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning” is a Lutheran staple. I myself took extreme pleasure in singing his arrangement of “Parvulus Nobis Nascitur” (A Little Child is Born for Us) with eleven other men in college. In general Praetorius’ arrangements are recognizable even to Lutherans of today, because we still sing many of the same hymn tunes he set to music. His music is portable for the layperson.

One of the hymns that often gets overlooked in the Lutheran church today is Martin Luther’s theologically rich Easter hymn, “Christ lag in Todes Banden” (“Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” in Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal). In Christian Worship, the original 7-stanza hymn was trimmed down to just 4 stanzas, and the original melody was apparently perceived as borderline dirgeful, since it was recast with a new tune (and the remaining 3 stanzas were thankfully restored) in the Christian Worship: Supplement, “with the hope of reviving its use within the church.”

But Part 2 of Michael Praetorius’ Musae Sioniae contains a setting of “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” and after hearing it, the listener will hardly want Luther’s text to be set to any tune other than the original.

What follows is a translation of stanza 1 of “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” the stanza employed in Praetorius’ setting. It was a translation undertaken with this setting specifically in mind.

Perhaps an outline of this translation process might be of interest. First I went back to the eight volumes of Part 2 of Musae Sioniae published in 1607 (one volume for each of the eight voice parts). I transcribed the old music into modern notation using musescore, free composition and notation software for Macs.

Next I entered Luther’s original text into the modern score. I took note of the words and concepts that Praetorius stressed with music:

Christ lag in Todes Banden
für unser’ Sünd’ gegeben,
der ist wieder erstanden
und hat uns ’bracht das Leben,
deß wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und [ihm] dankbar sein
und singen Alleluja. Alleluja!

I especially noted two of these stressed words—”’bracht” (brought) and “loben” (praise). With “’bracht” I noticed that Praetorius’ notation seemed to denote a from-point-A-to-point-B, “over the river and through the woods” sort of bringing. Christ’s entire mission from heaven to earth and back again; his life, death, resurrection, and ascension; his compassion, miracles, forgiveness, sweat, blood, tears, cries, and ultimate triumph are all there in the “’bracht” notes.

With “Gott loben,” the stress is clearly on “loben,” and the music for “loben” takes on a lilting character. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep the “Gott” (God) in any translation of that phrase while retaining the stress—”Gott LO-ben”—so I decided to translate in such a way that highlighted the “loben” to match the musical lilt, and put the object of the praise, God, elsewhere.

I also noted the contrasts in the stanza—between lying (“lag”) and standing (“erstanden”), and between death (“Todes”) and life (“das Leben”). My final note was of the original rhyme scheme, not only the A-B-A-B-C-C-D structure, but also the fact that for the C-C Luther was not afraid to rhyme “sein” with “sein,” and so I was not going to be afraid to rhyme “be” with “be.”

Next I composed an expanded prose paraphrase, so that my translation would not become too artificial:

Christ Jesus lay in the tomb, firmly in death’s hold;
He had suffered death, had given up his life for all our sins.
This same Jesus is now risen and lives again!
And he has brought also to us release from death, life eternal.
For this let us be joyful,
Sing praises to God and be grateful to him
And sing Alleluia: Alleluia!

Next, after experimenting with various rhymes and synonyms, I arrived at the product below. My only regret in the final product is that I don’t think I captured the emphasis Praetorius places on Christ’s imprisonment in death being “for our sins.” The thought itself remains in the translation, but it does not receive the same emphasis. Praetorius’ original emphasis serves to maximize the joy expressed in the second half of the stanza.

Finally, I created a new master copy of Praetorius’ arrangement with the English text, so that it could be sung by a typical American Lutheran church choir (as long as that typical church choir has at least 8 strong voices, one for each of the 8 voice parts). You can access that score here.

I realize that this translation is out of season. If people are thinking about Praetorius at this time of year, they are thinking about his Christmas music. But Praetorius’ music requires much preparation, especially for the typical American Lutheran church choir. Besides, every Sunday, including the Sundays in the Advent and Christmas seasons, is a mini-Easter. I present what follows, as Luther and Praetorius did, to the glory of the triune God, especially to my Savior from sin, Jesus Christ, whose bodily resurrection guarantees my justification and life eternal at his side. Heaven is my true homeland.

Christ Lay in Our Sin’s Prison

Christ lay in our sin’s prison;
His life to death he’d given.
But now he stands arisen;
To us he’s brought his heaven.
For this let us joyful be,
Let’s sing to God and thankful be.
Praise him with Alleluias. Alleluia!