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Bach cantata

Cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach

Top 10 Bach cantata related articles

The cantatas composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, known as Bach cantatas (German: Bachkantaten), are a body of work consisting of over 200 surviving independent works, and at least several dozen that are considered lost. As far as known, Bach's earliest cantatas date from 1707, the year he moved to Mühlhausen, although he may have begun composing them at his previous post in Arnstadt. Most of Bach's church cantatas date from his first years as Thomaskantor and director of church music in Leipzig, a position which he took up in 1723.

Working for Leipzig's Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, it was part of Bach's job to perform a church cantata every Sunday and holiday, conducting soloists, the Thomanerchor and orchestra as part of the church service. In his first years in Leipzig, starting after Trinity of 1723, Bach regularly composed a new cantata every week, although some of these cantatas were adapted (at least in part) from work he had composed before his Leipzig era.[1] 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. He probably composed his last cantata in 1745.

In addition to the church cantatas composed for occasions of the liturgical year, Bach wrote sacred cantatas for functions like weddings or Ratswahl (the inauguration of a new town council). His secular cantatas, around 50 known works, less than half of which surviving with both text and music, were written for academic functions of the University of Leipzig, or anniversaries and entertainment among the nobility and in society, some of them Glückwunschkantaten (congratulatory cantatas) and Huldigungskantaten (homage cantatas).

Bach's cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir, but he also wrote solo cantatas (i.e. for one soloist singer) and dialogue cantatas for two singers. The words of Bach's cantatas, almost always entirely in German, consist mostly of 18th-century poetry, Lutheran hymns and dicta. Hymns were mostly set to their Lutheran chorale tune. His chorale cantata cycle contains at least 40 chorale cantatas, each of these entirely based on text and tune of such hymn.

Bach cantata Intro articles: 11

Titles of the cantatas

Although the German term Bachkantate (Bach cantata) became very familiar, Bach himself rarely used the title Cantata in his manuscripts. In Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56, he wrote Cantata à Voce Sola e Stromenti (Cantata for solo voice and instruments). Another cantata in which Bach used that term is Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, BWV 84. Typically, he began a heading with the abbreviation J.J. (Jesu juva, "Jesus, help"), followed by the name of the celebration, the beginning of the words and the instrumentation, for example in Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191. Bach often signed his cantatas with SDG, short for Soli Deo Gloria ("glory to the only God" / "glory to God alone").[2]

Bach often wrote a title page for the autograph score and copies of the original parts. For example, he titled the parts of Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 38, using a mix of languages to describe the occasion, the incipit, the precise scoring and his name: "Dominica 21. post Trinit / Aus tieffer Noth schrey ich zu dir. / â / 4. Voc. / 2. Hautbois. / 2. Violini. / Viola. / 4. Tromboni / e / Continuo. / di / Signore / J.S.Bach".[3] The occasion for which the piece was performed is given first, in Latin: "Dominica 21. post Trinit" (21st Sunday after Trinity Sunday, with Trinit short for Trinitatem). The title follows, given in German in the orthography of Bach's time. The scoring and finally his name appear in a mix of French and Italian, the common languages among musicians at the time, partly abbreviated.

Bach cantata Titles of the cantatas articles: 7

BWV number

Bach wrote more than 200 cantatas, of which many have survived. In the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV), Wolfgang Schmieder assigned them each a number within groups: 1–200 (sacred cantatas), 201–216 (secular cantatas), and 217–224 (cantatas of doubtful authorship). Since Schmieder's designation, several of the cantatas he thought authentic have been redesignated as "spurious." However, the spurious cantatas retain their BWV numbers. The List of Bach cantatas is organized by BWV number but sortable by other criteria.

Bach cantata BWV number articles: 3

Structure of a Bach cantata

A typical Bach cantata of his first year in Leipzig follows the scheme:

  1. Opening chorus
  2. Recitative
  3. Aria
  4. Recitative (or Arioso)
  5. Aria
  6. Chorale

The opening chorus (Eingangschor) is usually a polyphonic setting, with 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 is a sequence of an opening movement, five movements with alternating recitatives and arias, and a 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 and Part II the Epistle.[4]

Bach did not follow any strict scheme 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 first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, he rendered the opening chorus as a French overture.

Bach cantata Structure of a Bach cantata articles: 22

Singers and instrumentation

Schlosskirche in Weimar (c. 1660, burned 1774) where Bach composed and performed church cantatas monthly from 1714 to 1717
Thomaskirche in 1885, one of the two Leipzig churches where Bach composed and performed church cantatas almost weekly from 1723 to 1726


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. Joshua Rifkin is well known is an advocate of this approach, although it has yet to be followed through in a complete set of cantatas. Nonetheless 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 continuo bass is the rule in Baroque music; its absence is noteworthy and often has a special reason, such as describing fragility.

The specific character of a cantata or a single movement is rather defined by wind instruments, such as oboe, 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 accompany 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, organ, 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. Alto recorders (flauti dolci) are sometimes used in connection with death and mourning as in Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106.

Solo cantata

Some cantatas are composed for a solo singer (Solokantate), as Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51, for soprano, sometimes concluded by a chorale, as in Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56, for bass.

Dialogue cantata

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).[5]

Bach cantata Singers and instrumentation articles: 49

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 or Georg Christian Lehms or Picander in Leipzig, with whom Bach collaborated. The final words were usually a stanza from a chorale. Bach's Chorale 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.

Bach cantata Text of Bach's sacred cantatas articles: 10

Periods of cantata composition

The following lists of works (some marked as questioned) rely mainly on Alfred Dürr's Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach. Usually the cantatas appear in the year of their first performance, sometimes also for later performances and then in brackets.


Bach moved to Mühlhausen in 1707 when he was 22 to take up an appointment as the organist of St. Blasius church (Divi Blasii). There is evidence suggesting that he composed a cantata as an audition piece for Mühlhausen, and this may have been Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4. One or two more surviving cantatas may have been composed while Bach was at his previous post in Arnstadt, for example, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

A couple of the surviving cantatas can be firmly dated to his time in Mühlhausen. For example, Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, was composed for the inauguration of the town council in 1708. By Bach's own account, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131, was also composed at Mühlhausen. Other cantatas are assumed to date from this period:


Bach worked in Weimar from 1708. He composed a secular cantata, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208, in 1713. The composition of cantatas for the Schlosskirche (court chapel) on a regular monthly basis started with his promotion to Konzertmeister in March 1714.[6] His goal was to compose a complete set of cantatas for the liturgical year within four years. The cantatas 54 and 199 were performed within the cycle but possibly composed earlier.


Bach worked in Köthen from 1717 to 1723, where he composed for example the Brandenburg Concertos. He had no responsibility for church music, but his employer Prince Leopold did commission secular cantatas. Later in Leipzig, he derived several church cantatas from congratulatory cantatas, such as Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66, for Easter from the birthday cantata Der Himmel dacht auf Anhalts Ruhm und Glück, BWV 66a. [7][8]

Even after he moved to Leipzig he retained his title of Fürstlich Köthenischer Kapellmeister (that is director of music to the court at Köthen). He continued to compose for the court until Leopold's funeral in 1729. There is evidence that he reused musical material from works that he premiered in Leipzig in the 1720s, for example the secular cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36.1, believed to be have been composed to honour one of the Bach's academic colleagues in Leipzig, was the basis of a secular cantata with a text in honour of Leopold's second wife.[9]


In Leipzig Bach was responsible for the town's church music in the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche and was head of the Thomasschule. Church cantata performances alternated in the two churches for ordinary Sundays and took place in both churches on high holidays such as Christmas, then one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and again alternating for the three days such an occasion was celebrated. Academic functions took place at the Universitätskirche St. Pauli. There is debate whether Bach performed Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 59, there a week before he began his cantorate. Bach started it on the first Sunday after Trinity of 1723 and wrote a first annual cycle. Bach's major works such as the Passions and the Mass in B minor are inserted in the listing for comparison.

First cantata cycle

Second cantata cycle

After Trinity of 1724 he started a second annual cycle of mainly chorale cantatas. The chorale was typically the chorale prescribed for that week (Hauptlied or Wochenlied). These cantatas were performed even after his death, according to Christoph Wolff probably because the well-known hymns were appealing to the audience.[10]

The new cantatas Bach composed for Easter of 1725 and afterwards were not chorale cantatas:

Two of these, BWV 128 and BWV 68, both starting with a chorale fantasia, are sometimes seen as included in the chorale cantata cycle.

Other cantatas by Bach that are usually seen as belonging to the chorale cantata cycle:

  • BWV 4 (version as performed again at Easter 1725, somewhat different from the early Mühlhausen version) * 137 (1725) * 58 (1727) * 129 (1727) * 80 (1727 or later, although an early version of this cantata, BWV 80b, may have been composed for or performed on Reformation Day in 1724) * 112 (1731) * 140 (1731) * 177 (1732) * 9 (1732) * 14 (1735)

For four further chorale cantatas it is unclear for which occasion they were composed, and whether they were intended to be added to the cycle:

Third to fifth year in Leipzig

After Trinity of 1725 Bach began a third annual cycle, but with less consistency. The first cantata is written for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, but the following year he added a substantial work for the first Sunday after Trinity. The cycle extends over several years, although the cantatas from 1727 have been termed as "between the third and fourth cycles".[11] Cantatas for some occasions are not extant.

Between Trinity and Advent 1725 (apart from chorale cantatas):
Liturgical year from Advent 1725 to the last Sunday after Trinity 1726 (includes 18 cantatas by Johann Ludwig Bach (JLB)):
Church cantatas of 1727 (apart from chorale cantatas):

Picander cycle of 1728–29

There is some circumstantial evidence that a complete fourth cycle of Bach cantatas, in scholarship indicated as the Picander cycle, may have existed.[11][29][30]

Extant cantatas of the fourth cycle:

Other cantatas and church music

Not belonging to the foregoing:

Bach cantata Periods of cantata composition articles: 260