The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – Introduction

In an age that considers the past increasingly useless and increasingly irrelevant to informing its present, the heritage of older art is equally devalued and decreasingly meaningful. And in English-speaking places, especially those in North America, the effort to avail oneself of expressions formed into another language becomes more and more frail.

The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, a religious musician from the central German state of Thuringia who lived from 1685 to 1750, are amongst the prominent omissions. These compositions have several attitudes prevailing against them: they are old, they are in German, they are for ecclesiastical use, and they are works of art.

The cantata is a formulation of the Baroque age. The Lutheran church cantata is a product of the German Baroque. Its impetus devolves from Luther’s retention of music in the regular liturgical service, and its content derives from the theological priorities of that time.

The time itself is less important than the priorities of the theology, which are, in effect, priorities of ethics expressed through principles of religious guidance and practice. The inclusion of the music in the services is now less important than the nature of that music itself, which, when listened to, is found to be of astonishing variety, innovation, and illumination. The cantatas are both devotional and didactic. Many offer surpassing interpretations of the nature and spirit of life; and many are of absorbing musical interest, both expressively and formally.

The cantata was usually performed before the sermon; or, if the work were in two parts, the first before, the second after, the sermon. It was performed Sundays and feast days. A new cantata was expected for each performance. The sermon related to the Gospel for the day.

The cantata, as implied by its name, is a musical piece that is sung, distinct from the sonata, which is a musical piece that is sounded, namely, by an instrument or instruments.

Giovanni Domenico Lombardi - Concert  with Two Singers

Giovanni Domenico Lombardi – Concert with Two Singers

Cantatas generally comprise several movements, in varying number. The most common forms of this singing are the structured aria—usually with the opening section repeated, and so termed da capo—and the unstructured recitative. The aria (literally, an air, or tune), an elaborate composition for solo voice or voices, normally explores a concept or situation; it is often accompanied by a solo instrument, either with or without the balance of the orchestral forces. The recitative (literally, a recitation) normally provides commentary or connective information, by means of a speech-like declamatory solo (or sometimes, multiple) vocal style; it usually is accompanied sparsely by continuo—essentially the harmonic bass of the music—, and sometimes more elaborately by instruments from the orchestra. The most common forms of singing for the choir are the chorus—usually a complex piece, but also one that, like the aria, explores a concept or situation; and the chorale—almost invariably based on a melody known to the congregation, and so a piece that unites the import of the work in itself and in the context of the service, and that makes plain the essence of the overall communication. Often this chorale melody is the musical basis for the entire cantata.

Women were not permitted to participate as ecclesiastical musicians. The soprano parts were assigned to boys; the alto parts to counter-tenors. Two results of this practice were that soprano parts tended to be simple relative to the balance of the music, and alto parts, because the male alto has a particularly expressive quality, often were favoured with music of a particularly intensive nature.

In addition to the solo singers and chorus—most cantatas have both, but some have one or the other—an orchestra is used. Typically this is comprised of strings, supported by a keyboard instrument (often the organ) that provides harmonic continuity (the continuo), to which frequently are added oboes, sometimes flutes or recorders, and occasionally a bassoon or trombones. Pieces that are particularly festive or dramatic also have added trumpets, horns, and timpani.

Oboe family: musette, oboe, oboe d'amore, English horn, oboe de caccia, heckelphone. (Image: Wikipedia)

Oboe family: musette, oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn, oboe de caccia, heckelphone. (Image: Wikipedia)

The oboes were of three types: the plaintive oboe we know today, an oboe d’amore (of love) that had a yearning quality in its timbre, and an oboe da caccia (of the hunt) that had a hint of the clarion in it. Trombones are amongst the most ancient of instruments, and were not used for solos but rather to fill out or emphasize musical lines and harmonies. All trumpets and horns were valveless, and thus all notes were generated by the control of the lips (the embouchure) and so required considerable expertise to play well and in tune.

As with the counter-tenor, the oboe, being the alto of the woodwinds utilized, also often was assigned music of particularly intense quality.

One hundred and ninety-nine of Bach’s sacred cantatas have survived. To obtain a preliminary sense of the value of the cantata, as practiced by Bach, it is useful to take the best of them to set the reference points for today. These cantatas are defined as ‘best’ by applying, anachronistically, the aural appeal of the music throughout the cantata, without ignoring but without primary regard to the integrative aspects of the forms and organization employed, the nature and quality of the text, and the meditative effectiveness of the theology presented.


A CulturalRites article on Cantata 84 is available here.


3 thoughts on “The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – Introduction

  1. Pingback: Notes on the Melancholy Metaphysics of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann | CulturalRites

  2. Pingback: Mozart: Symphony 35–2. Andante pt. 2 | scoresome

  3. Pingback: The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – BWV 84 | CulturalRites

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