Hart Morris’s arrangement of “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” is a Level III piece scored for 3–5 octave handbells. With roots in the Ancient Church and strong theological undercurrents, the piece is well placed on Easter Day or any Sunday during the Easter season.
History of the Hymn Tune CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN
“Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (LSB 458) uses the tune CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN. This tune is similar to CHRIST IST ERSTANDEN, which is used for “Christ Is Arisen” (LSB 459). In fact, Luther’s title for CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN was “The Hymn of Praise ‘Christ Is Arisen’ Improved.” The term improved has reference to the tune, not to the text.
CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN points to a popular German Easter folk song from about the twelfth century called a leise. This folk song, in turn, has its roots in the mighty sequence “Victimae paschali laudes” by Wipo of Burgundy, the Easter sequence in the Roman rite. In early usage, the choir sang the sequence in Latin and the congregation sang the folk song immediately thereafter.
Morris’s New Handbell Setting
Morris’s arrangement of this ancient Easter hymn begins in a somber, chant-like style with subtle, free-ringing upper bells and low, humming singing bells. From there, the piece grows from a simple and straightforward chordal style through the second and third stanzas. It culminates in a triumphant maestoso fourth stanza played over a moving bass line. The arrangement ends with a final “Alleluia” in D major. Listen to the piece below.
Theological Undertones in the Music
The quiet introduction recalls the mysterious tone of the first Easter Day. Listeners remember the women going to Jesus’ tomb at dawn to anoint their Lord’s body. They didn’t know He had risen. We twenty-first-century Christians know how the story ends; as we hear the Easter story, we recognize there is something we know that Jesus’ apostles didn’t know. This creates a wonderful tension as we wait for them to realize that Jesus is alive again!
As Morris introduces the hymn tune, he adds syncopation in the lower bells. This creates dissonance and a sense of urgency that drive the piece forward. The key change in measure 58 adds to the tension before the glorious D major resolution occurs. Full, majestic chords at the end help listeners recall the glory of Jesus’ resurrection and His authority as the Son of God, the Prince of Peace. This triumphant ending reminds listeners that Jesus won victory over sin, death, and the devil. In our Baptism, because of what Jesus did for us, we, too, triumph over the grave!