Bach, Master of the Cantata
When they think of the cantata, most music historians think first and foremost of Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote more than 200-at least, that's the number that still exist. We think that about two-fifths of the total number of sacred cantatas and more than half of the secular cantatas written by Bach were lost. Do the math: if there are about 34 secular cantatas and about 200 sacred cantatas surviving, then approximately how many total cantatas did Bach write?
34 = 1/2x,
so there were probably at least 68 secular cantatas.
With this number, it is easy to see why music historians associate Bach with the cantata.
So what is a cantata anyway? The word comes from the Italian word "cantare," meaning "to sing." This indicates that cantatas always used voices. In Bach's day, these were multi-movement works, accompanied by an orchestra. Almost all of Bach's cantatas use a choir. All of them use one or more soloists. Many, including all three discussed here, were written for specific feast days in the Lutheran Church calendar.
Bach wrote cantatas for every position he held (review the Bach's life and times section above), although the composition of cantatas was a major component of his job at Leipzig. Here, he was expected to produce about 60 cantatas a year on average.
Many of Bach's sacred cantatas (including No. 1 and No. 140, discussed below) can be categorized as "chorale cantatas," meaning for one or more of the movements, Bach uses a chorale melody. Chorales were originally written for the congregation, and thus have simple melodies composed of simple rhythms and primarily step-wise motion. The chorale is the main Lutheran contribution to the world of sacred music. Since Bach was writing primarily for a Lutheran audience/congregation, it is no surprise that he would have used this familiar repertoire in composing new works for them to hear.
© 2003 Carol Traupman-Carr
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