Other vocal genres, along with opera, such as the cantata and oratorio were developing in the early years of the Baroque. This page discusses the cantata. There are two terms that are used in the beginning of this page that I would like you to pay particular attention to: cantata da camera (chamber cantata) and cantata da chiesa (church cantata). These terms are applied to cantatas written as chamber music (music for performance in smaller settings and before smaller audiences) in the middle of the Baroque and distinguish whether the piece was secular or sacred.

By the late Baroque, the genre of cantata had become more substantial. The cantatas of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries were longer, involved more instruments and singers, and were usually performed for larger audiences. We don’t use the terms camera and chiesa when talking about these later Baroque cantatas. Cantatas of that timeframe were simply understood to be sacred or secular depending on the occasion for which they were composed.


A cantata (literally “sung,” past participle feminine singular of the Italian verb cantare, “to sing”) is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.

The meaning of the term changed over time, from the simple single voice madrigal of the early 17th century, to the multi-voice “cantata da camera” and the “cantata da chiesa” of the later part of that century, from the more substantial dramatic forms of the 18th century to the usually sacred-texted nineteenth-century cantata, which was effectively a type of short oratorio. Cantatas for use in the liturgy of church services are called church cantata or sometimes sacred cantata, others sometimes secular cantata. Johann Sebastian Bach composed around 200 cantatas. Several cantatas were, and still are, written for special occasions, such as Christmas cantatas.

Historical Context

The term originated in the early seventeenth century simultaneously with opera and oratorio. Prior to that all “cultured” music was vocal. With the rise ofinstrumental music the term appeared, while the instrumental art became sufficiently developed to be embodied in sonatas. From the beginning of the 17th century until late in the eighteenth, the cantata for one or two solo voices with accompaniment of basso continuo (and perhaps a few solo instruments) was a principal form of Italian vocal chamber music.

A cantata consisted first of a declamatory narrative or scene in recitative, held together by a primitive aria repeated at intervals. Fine examples may be found in the church music of Giacomo Carissimi; and the English vocal solos of Henry Purcell (such as Mad Tom and Mad Bess) show the utmost that can be made of this archaic form. With the rise of the da capo aria, the cantata became a group of two or three arias joined by recitative. George Frideric Handel’s numerous Italian duets and trios are examples on a rather large scale. His Latin motet Silete Venti, for soprano solo, shows the use of this form in church music.

Differences from Other Musical Forms

The Italian solo cantata tended, when on a large scale, to become indistinguishable from a scene in an opera, in the same way the church cantata, solo or choral, is indistinguishable from a small oratorio or portion of an oratorio. This is equally evident whether we examine the unparalleled church cantatas of Bach, of which nearly 200 are extant (see List of Bach cantatas), or the Chandos Anthems of Handel. In Johann Sebastian Bach’s case many of the larger cantatas are actually called oratorios; and the Christmas Oratorio is a collection of six church cantatas actually intended for performance on six different days, though together forming as complete an artistic whole as any classical oratorio.

Listen: Cantatas

A sacred cantata by Dieterich Buxtehude: Dialogus inter Christum et fidelem animam


From the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 by Johann Sebastian Bach: 10. Chorale: Jesus bleibet meine Freude


Cantatas were in great demand for the services of the Lutheran church. Sacred cantatas for the liturgy or other occasions were not only composed by Bach but also by Dieterich Buxtehude, Christoph Graupner, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Georg Philipp Telemann, to name a few. Many secular cantatas were composed for events in the nobility. They were so similar in form to the sacred ones that many of them were parodied (in parts or completely) to sacred cantatas, for example in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.