Bach: Chorale Cantata


In music, a chorale cantata is a sacred composition for voices and instruments, principally from the German Baroque era, in which the organizing principle is the words and music to a chorale. Usually a chorale cantata is in multiple movements or parts. Most chorale cantatas were written between approximately 1650 and 1750. By far the most famous are by J. S. Bach, especially the cantatas composed in his second annual cycle of cantatas, started in Leipzig in 1724.


The chorale cantata developed out of the chorale concerto, an earlier form much used by Samuel Scheidt in the early 17th century, which incorporated elements of the Venetian School, such as the concertato style, into the liturgical music of the Protestant Reformation. Later the chorale cantata developed into three general forms:

  1. a form in which each verse (strophe) of the chorale was developed as an independent movement;
  2. a form in which the chorale appeared in some of the movements, perhaps only two, and the other parts of the cantata used other texts; and
  3. the version pioneered by J. S. Bach, in which the first and last movements use the first and last strophes of the chorale, but the inner movements—perhaps aria and recitative—use paraphrases of the actual chorale text. Typically the beginning and ending movements use all the instrumental and vocal forces, while the interior movements are for smaller groups.

Most compositions in this genre were never published. It was common at the time for composers to write for local performances; often the composer and the music director at a church were the same person, and the music was written, copied, and performed in short order, and remained in manuscript. Probably over 95% of all compositions of this type have been lost.


Composers of chorale cantatas included: