Think of a task you have to complete weekly. Perhaps it’s a report you have to generate for work, or something you have to do around the house. Now imagine that your weekly duties involve the performance of a musical piece complete with solo songs, instrumental interludes, and a chorus at the end. Imagine that you must compose this music, find the musicians to perform it, and run the rehearsals. This is the type of thing that Johann Sebastian Bach did weekly when he worked at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig after he took over the position of Kantor in 1723.
The job was a prestigious one, which was likely why Bach felt it so important to move his growing family from Cöthen to Leipzig. It was the most challenging position he had taken thus far in his life, having worked at Cöthen, Weimar, Mühlhausen, and Arnstadt before this. Some of the advantages of working as Kantor for the church included working in a small yet robust city with a stable local government, and good educational opportunities for Bach’s own children. But he was expected to do a lot in exchange for this stability. Bach was in charge of providing music for the four churches in the area: St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, St. Matthew, and St. Peter. The cantata was a staple of the Lutheran service, and it was Bach’s duty to make sure one was ready for each Sunday service and also for holy days throughout the year. Bach could have performed some already existing cantatas, but preferred to write his own. He also had the opportunity to use singers and musicians that he himself had trained at the St. Thomas School.
The German cantata, not to be confused with the Italian cantata — which was a secular genre — has no set ensemble, but instead may feature a single soloist and continuo, a small group of soloists both vocal and instrumental, or even soloists and choir. Just as there is no set ensemble for a cantata, there is also no set formula.
Some of Bach’s larger church cantatas begin with a choral movement accompanied by the entire ensemble. Some of the smaller cantatas feature recitatives and arias sung by the soloist(s). There are two types of recitatives. The first type, called “secco” or “dry,” features the voice accompanied by only the continuo instruments. A recitative of this type has a rather thin texture, but the collaboration of soloist and continuo allows for more rhythmic flexibility in the vocal line. The other type of recitative is called “accompagnato” or “accompanied” because instruments of the orchestra support the voice. There is little rhythmic flexibility, but the texture of the music is fuller and thicker. In Bach cantatas, recitatives are usually paired with arias, florid song-like pieces. In each pair, the recitative often has more lines of text but is shorter in duration, while the aria tends to be longer despite its briefer text. Florid passages in the vocal line and repetitive phrases and sections account for this.
There is evidence to suggest Bach may have written five complete year-long cycles of cantatas, one for every Sunday. Unfortunately, only about 200 cantatas survive, but these cantatas are some of Bach’s most famous works. LACO’s upcoming Discover concert will take a closer look at one of the most famous cantatas from this collection, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. While employed at St. Thomas Church, Bach also wrote secular music for the Collegium musicum, a group of amateur musicians who attended the University in Leipzig. Among these works are some secular cantatas, the most famous being the Coffee Cantata. (Bach, a very productive composer, loved his coffee!) Historical sources say Bach may have written as many as forty of these secular cantatas, however, only about twenty survive.
The popular genre during the High Baroque period was the opera, but Bach composed none. He had a particular talent for writing vocal music, however, and the cantata provided him a chance to write vocal music that was both dramatic and narrative. If you have the opportunity to attend this concert, and learn more about Cantata 140, I hope you appreciate the kind of work that went into this kind of piece, and how fortunate we are that this work, and so many survived.