This page will give you an overview of Bach’s approach to the composition of cantatas. In some of these sections, you will find the names of specific cantatas or cantata movements that serve as an example of the characteristics discussed. You won’t be tested on any of those examples; our goal is to get a general sense of Bach’s approach.
The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are among his most significant and celebrated compositions. While many have been lost, at least 209 of the cantatas composed by Bach have survived.
As far as we know, Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas date from 1707, the year he moved to Mühlhausen (although he may have begun composing them at his previous post at Arnstadt). Many of Bach’s cantatas date from the years between 1723 (when he took up the post of Thomaskantor, cantor of the main churches of Leipzig) and 1745 (when the last one was probably written). Working especially at the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, it was part of his job to perform a church cantata every Sunday and Holiday, conducting soloists, the Thomanerchor and orchestra as part of the church service. Works from three annual cycles of cantatas for the liturgical calendar have survived. These relate to the readings prescribed by the Lutheran liturgy for the specific occasion. In his first years in Leipzig, starting after Trinity of 1723, it was not unusual for him to compose a new work every week.
In addition to the church cantatas, he composed sacred cantatas for functions like weddings orRatswahl (the inauguration of a new town council), music for academic functions of the University of Leipzig at the Paulinerkirche, and secular cantatas for anniversaries and entertainment in nobility and society, some of them Glückwunschkantaten (congratulatory cantatas) and Huldigungskantaten(homage cantatas).
His cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir, but he also wrote solo cantatas for typically one soloist and dialogue cantatas for two singers. The words for many cantatas combine Bible quotes, contemporary poetry and chorale, but he also composed a cycle of chorale cantatas based exclusively on one chorale.
Structure of a Bach Cantata
A typical Bach cantata of his first year in Leipzig follows the scheme:
- Opening chorus
- Recitative (or Arioso)
The opening chorus (Eingangschor) is usually a polyphonic setting, the orchestra presenting the themes or contrasting material first. Most arias follow the form of a da capo aria, repeating the first part after a middle section. The final chorale is typically a homophonic setting of a traditional melody.
Bach used an expanded structure to take up his position in Leipzig with the cantatas Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, and Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76, both in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon (post orationem) and during communion (sub communione), each part a sequence of opening movement, five movements alternating recitatives and arias, and chorale. In an exemplary way both cantatas cover the prescribed readings: starting with a related psalm from the Old Testament, Part I reflects the Gospel, Part II the Epistle.
Bach did not follow any scheme strictly, but composed as he wanted to express the words. A few cantatas are opened by an instrumental piece before the first chorus, such as the Sinfonia of Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29. A solo movement begins Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, BWV 120, because its first words speak of silence. Many cantatas composed in Weimar are set like chamber music, mostly for soloists, with a four-part setting only in the closing chorale, which may have been sung by the soloists. In an early cantata Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172, Bach marked a repeat of the opening chorus after the chorale.
The chorale can be as simple as a traditional four-part setting, or be accompanied by an obbligato instrument, or be accompanied by the instruments of the opening chorus or even expanded by interludes based on its themes, or have the homophonic vocal parts embedded in an instrumental concerto as in the familiar Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, or have complex vocal parts embedded in the concerto as in Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, BWV 186, in a form called Choralphantasie (chorale fantasia). In Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, for the 1st Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, he shaped the opening chorus as a French overture.
Singers and Instrumentation
Typically Bach employs soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists and a four-part choir, also SATB. He sometimes assigns the voice parts to the dramatic situation, for example soprano for innocence or alto for motherly feelings. The bass is often the vox Christi, the voice of Jesus, when Jesus is quoted directly, as in Es wartet alles auf dich, BWV 187, or indirectly, as in O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60.
In the absence of clear documentary evidence, there are different options as to how many singers to deploy per part in choral sections. This is reflected in the recordings discussed below. Ton Koopman, for example, is a conductor who has recorded a complete set of the cantatas and who favours a choir with four singers per part. On the other hand, some modern performances and recordings use one voice per part, although Bach would have had more singers available at Leipzig, for example, while the space in the court chapel in Weimar was limited. One size of choir probably does not fit all the cantatas.
The orchestra that Bach used is based on string instruments (violin, viola) and basso continuo, typically played by cello, double bass (an octave lower) and organ. A continuous bass is the rule in Baroque music; its absence is worth mentioning and has a reason, such as describing fragility.
The specific character of a cantata or a single movement is rather defined by wind instruments, such asoboe, oboe da caccia, oboe d’amore, flauto traverso, recorder, trumpet, horn, trombone, and timpani. In movements with winds, a bassoon usually joins the continuo group.
Festive occasions call for richer instrumentation. Some instruments also carry symbolic meaning such as a trumpet, the royal instrument of the Baroque, for divine majesty, and three trumpets for the Trinity. In an aria of BWV 172, addressing the Heiligste Dreifaltigkeit (most holy Trinity), the bass is accompanied only by three trumpets and timpani.
In many arias Bach uses obbligato instruments, which correspond with the singer as an equal partner. These instrumental parts are frequently set in virtuoso repetitive patterns called figuration. Instruments include, in addition to the ones mentioned, flauto piccolo (sopranino recorder), violino piccolo, viola d’amore, violoncello piccolo (a smaller cello), tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet), and corno da tirarsi.
In his early compositions Bach also used instruments that had become old-fashioned, such as viola da gamba and violone. Recorders (flauti dolci) are sometimes used to express humility or poverty, such as in the cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39.
Some cantatas are composed for only one solo singer (Solokantate), as Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 for soprano, sometimes concluded by a chorale, as Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56 for bass.
Some cantatas are structured as a dialogue, mostly for Jesus and the Soul (bass and soprano), set like miniature operas. Bach titled them for example Concerto in Dialogo, concerto in dialogue. An early example is Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152 (1714). He composed four such works in his third annual cycle, Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57 (1725), Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49, (both 1726), and Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 58 (1727).
Text of Bach’s Sacred Cantatas
Within the Lutheran liturgy, certain readings from the Bible were prescribed for every event during the church year; specifically, it was expected that an Epistel from an Epistle and Evangelium from a Gospel would be read. Music was expected for all Sundays and Holidays except the quiet times (tempus clausum) of Advent and Lent; the cantatas were supposed to reflect the readings. Many opening movements are based on quotations from the Bible, such as Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, from Isaiah 60:6. Ideally, a cantata text started with an Old Testament quotation related to the readings, and reflected both the Epistle and the Gospel, as in the exemplary Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76. Most of the solo movements are based on poetry of contemporary writers, such as court poet Salomon Franck in Weimar, orGeorg Christian Lehms or Picander in Leipzig, with whom Bach collaborated. The final words were usually a stanza from a chorale. Bach’sChorale cantatas are based exclusively on one chorale, for example the early Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, and most cantatas of his second annual cycle in Leipzig.