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J.S. BACH: Choral Treasures from the Cantatas
J.S. Bach’s duties in Leipzig were manifold and one of them was to compose a new cantata weekly, have the parts copied, rehearse it with solos, choir, and orchestra, and perform it. Bach’s obituary lists five complete cycles of church cantatas among his compositions—each cycle including the 59 pieces needed for all Sundays and holidays in an ecclesiastic year. Unfortunately, half of those manuscript scores went to his oldest son, the composer Wilhelm Friedman, who eventually auctioned them, and they were lost. The other half went to his second son, Philipp Emmanuel, also a composer, who faithfully preserved them. We thus have almost 200 such church cantatas, from Philipp Emmanuel’s inheritance and from that of the widow, Anna Magdalena, who kept the parts for the performers (as distinct from the scores) and later offered them to the city of Leipzig, where they still are kept.
The cantata was the most important form of vocal music of the Baroque period outside of opera and oratorio, and by far the most ubiquitous. The earliest Italian genre was a secular piece for single voice, which gradually settled into an alternation of recitatives and arias, most often a pair of each. Up to the late 17th century, the cantata was predominantly a secular form, but the church cantata which included choral movements ranging from simple chorale harmonizations to complex, extended structures was a major feature of Lutheran music in early 18th-century Germany. The standard form of accompaniment gradually expanded from basso continuo alone in the mid-17th century to an orchestra including obbligato instruments in the 18th century. The German cantata stands apart from that of other countries, above all because it was cultivated primarily as a sacred genre and because its origins and development were largely independent of Italian models.
The question "What exactly is a German church cantata?" is easier to ask than answer. The late 17th-century cantatas can be divided into three types: those based on scriptural prose texts, those based on versified texts of either hymn or sacred song, and those that use both prose and rhymed texts. Among those belonging to the second group are all those called “chorale-cantata,” i.e., those incorporating a chorale text and tune. In the late 17th century, the favorite form is that which combines scriptural elements with a sacred Lied (hymn) and often an added chorus based on a scriptural passage elucidating the Lied. In Bach’s hand, the cantata becomes a multi-movement piece to be sung during services, and calls for a variety of performers—from those for one singer and organ to the majestic ones including several solos, choir, and whole orchestra (from which today’s pieces are mostly taken). Many of these pieces do not even bear the title cantata—they are called “motto,” “concerto,” “actus tragicus,” “dialogo,” and so forth.
In the 18th century when Bach began composing, cantatas were also increasingly incorporating elements of Italian opera, in particular recitatives and da capo arias (ABA). The texts for these new flowery cantatas and Passions were often written by orthodox Lutheran ministers, such as Bach’s admirer Erdmann Neumeister (1671–1756) who was a poet and theologian. Neumeister wrote nine complete yearly cycles of cantata texts, which Bach used often. Bach also used texts of other writers, such as Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici, 1700–1764) who was Bach’s favorite librettist. Picander wrote the texts of the St. Matthew Passion, the St. Mark Passion, possibly that of the Ascension, Christmas, and Easter Oratorios, and those of over twenty cantatas.
The cantata was an integral part of the Lutheran service, with a text that was determined by the liturgical calendar. The cantata thus performs the liturgical task of interpreting the Gospel for the day in terms of music. In Leipzig, if there were many communicants, the principal Sunday service which included the cantata could last as long as four hours—from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Bach’s cantatas take current texts and forms as their point of departure and, like those of his contemporaries, are adapted to local circumstances and are grouped together in annual cycles. In their structure, their high quality and their variety of formal combinations, however, Bach’s works are unique. The few cantatas composed in Bach’s early period (up to 1708) mainly reflect the central German tradition with which he was familiar. They include Cantata 71 “Gott ist Mein König” (God is my king). Chorale combinations also occur in the Weimar cantatas written after 1714 (many of them to texts by Salomo Franck), which show new formal developments and, increasingly, involve a concertante instrumental part.
After serving in Weimar from 1708 to 1716, and as Konzertmeister for Prince Leopold in Cöthen from 1717 to 1722, Bach arrived in Leipzig, where he was to spend the rest of his life. During his first years in Leipzig, Bach concentrated on church cantatas, of which he composed five yearly cycles, while at the same time reviving some of his older ones from the Weimar years. While concerto and chorale movements merge in the opening movements of the Leipzig works (such as those of Cantata 80 “Ein feste Burg is unser Gott"—A mighty fortress is our God), many different combinations, including chorale quotations, occur in the inner movements, so that the format is constantly undergoing individual modification.
The three works that Bach called ‘oratorios’ fall within a very short period: the Christmas Oratorio of 1734–35, the Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio of 1735. The librettists are not known for certain. The place for Bach’s oratorios in the Lutheran liturgy was the same as that for the cantata; the only difference between the oratorio and cantata texts is that the former have a self-contained ‘plot’ or take the form of narration with dialogue. In the Christmas Oratorio, though, the normal character of a single self-contained work is contradicted by its being split into sections for six different services between Christmas Day and Epiphany, and this is further emphasized by Bach in his use of different performing forces for the sections. All three of Bach’s oratorios are essentially based on parodies of secular cantatas whose music, initially associated with a particular occasion, could reasonably be re-used in this way. However, there is so much that is new and individual in the Christmas Oratorio, especially in the biblical choruses and the chorales, and in the Ascension Oratorio, that the works are in no sense subordinate to their originals.
Cantata 11 “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” (Laud God in all his kingdoms) is the Ascension Day Oratorio. It is a parody work (like Cantata 34 and the Christmas Oratorio below) and was composed outside the annual cycles of the Leipzig years, as was the case with the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248—note that for the cantatas the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or BWV, number coincides with the cantata number.) Cantata 11 was first performed on Ascension Day 1735 (May 19). At least three of its movements (Nos. 1, 4, and 8) are parodies (reworkings) from two pre-existing works. The first chorus, da capo, is one of the parody settings.
Cantata 19 “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (There arose a great strife) for St. Michael’s Day (also the day of all angels) belongs to the third annual cantata cycle Bach composed in Leipzig in 1726–27, and was performed on St. Michael’s Day (September 29) of 1726. The text is by Picander. The first da capo chorus almost pictorially describes the raging battle of St. Michael and his good angels against Satan and his bad angels. The fierce strife is depicted by rushing cascades of quick notes in the voice parts, by the sound of the trumpet, and by a fiery “chase” between voices and instruments.
Cantata 21 “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (I had so much distress and woe) for the third Sunday after Trinity and for every time, presumably on an unpublished text by Salomo Franck, was probably submitted as a test when Bach applied from Weimar to succeed Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, Handel’s teacher, as organist of the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle. It is deservedly one of his best known cantatas. Bach was elected in December 1713, but accepted a counteroffer from the court of Weimar (in March 1714 he obtained the appointment of concertmaster while retaining his position as court organist) and refused the post in Halle. With this entry, he unquestionably exploited to the full the possibilities of composition of larger concerted works. This cantata was probably also performed in Hamburg in connection with Bach’s application for the post of organist at St. Jacobi in 1720, and then certainly in Leipzig in 1723. The cantata opens with a delightfully ornate sinfonia. Chorus No. 2 demonstrates how the musical construction is strongly influenced by the characteristics of the biblical prose texts. The slow opening section (“I had so much distress and woe in my heart”) turns after a stop and a block statement of the crucial word “aber” (but), to a fast, exuberant setting of the concluding phrase (…your comforting restores my spirit), changing affect almost instantly. This concluding fugue is indebted to Bach’s Toccata in E major, BWV 566. No. 11 “Das Lamm, das erwürget ist” (The lamb that is slaughtered now) is a two-part composition, starting with a homophonic chorale-like “grave” and followed by a rousing fugue on “Lob, und Ehre, und Preis und Gewalt” (Fame and honor and praise and great might).
Cantata 34 “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der liebe” (O everlasting fire, o fountain of loving) for Whitsuntide is a cantata outside the annual cycles of Leipzig and was first performed in 1746–47. It is a parody work, from a cantata now known as 34a for a Wedding Mass of 1726. The only new material is found in the recitatives (Nos. 2 and 4). The author of the text is unknown. The “everlasting fire” of the first da capo chorus is eloquently presented in both the choral and orchestral parts.
Cantata 71 “Gott ist mein König” (God is my king) is a ceremonial cantata (called “Congratulatory Church Motet” in the original title) composed for the 1708 inauguration of the Mühlhausen town council. The text may be by Georg Christian Eilmar. Like Cantata 106, called “Actus Tragicus,” it shows a superior measure of elaboration, though it is the only cantata printed in Bach’s lifetime. Elements of Buxtehude-style instrumental splendor are reflected in this piece, clearly planned with a polychoral design. The autograph score lays out the seven performing units—four instrumental choirs, two vocal choirs and an organ—which are heard all together only in the first and last movements. The inner movements display a variety of vocal-instrumental combinations that closely match the expressive needs of the text (for example, the two woodwind choirs with a remarkable obbligato violoncello in the chorus of No. 6 “Du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben” —You should not deliver to the foe). In the second movement of this cantata, we find the first ever partial obbligato organ voice. The thoroughbass accompaniment alternates with the motif insertions answering the vocal part in echo style. Otherwise, no documented examples of obbligato use of the organ have been preserved from the pre-Leipzig period. No. 7 “Das neue Regiment” (This our new regiment) is the final grandiose movement, and it alternates tempos and moods, and, optionally, a choir of soloists and the ripieno. It sets two stanzas of poetry and includes a substantial permutation fugue.
Cantata 78 “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (Jesus, thou who this my spirit) for the 14th Sunday after Trinity was first performed on September 10, 1724 and belongs to the second annual cycle from Leipzig (1724–25). The poet may have been Johann Rist. It is a chorale cantata, which incorporates the hymn tune and uses the first and last stanzas of the hymn in the opening and final movements of the cantata. The internal hymn stanzas are variously paraphrased, condensed, and reconfigured to accommodate the metric structure of the madrigal verses for recitatives and arias. No. 2 is a delightful duet for soprano and alto with basso continuo, in da capo form.
Cantata 80 “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God), for the Festival of the Reformation, stems from the Leipzig period and represents a revision of a cantata written in Weimar in 1715 for which the music is lost. The date of the later cantata 80 is still doubtful. We only know that it originated in Leipzig and that it was performed in 1740. Cantata 80 is a chorale cantata based on a chorale by Martin Luther. The text of the cantata was written by Salomo Franck. The Reformation cantata has always claimed a special place within Bach’s cantata oeuvre. This is partly because it was printed in score by Breitkopf and Härtel (Leipzig, 1821) before any other of his cantatas and even before the Passion settings and the B Minor Mass. Throughout the 19th century the repertoire of Bach cantatas continued to be so relatively small that “Ein feste Burg” acquired not only the character of prototype of his church cantata but also that of paragon of Protestant chorale composition. What doubtless contributed to this situation was the fact that the hymn which served as its basis had become the musical symbol of Lutheranism (it was, for example, included by Mendelssohn in his Fifth Symphony of 1830, the “Reformation” symphony). Volume 28 of the complete Bach edition (Bach-Gesellschaft) of 1870 enlarged the original orchestration to include trumpets and timpani. Unfortunately this also marked the beginning of embarrassing tendencies in its reception. The victory fanfares of the opening chorus and of the unison presentation of Martin Luther’s “Revolutionary hymn” were appropriated by the rise of hybrid national sentiments in the wake of the German-French War of 1870–71. Eventually the opening of Bach’s Cantata 80 was degraded to serve as signal for the special military news broadcasts on German radio during World War II. The cantata is still normally performed in the version of the Bach-Gesellschaft even though Bach research has recognized that the addition of trumpets and drums derives from a later hand. It will be performed today in the original version without trumpets, which allows the canon between the oboe and the bass strings on the cantus firmus in the first movement to be heard as intended.
The opening chorus—an immense chorale motet of 228 measures—is one of Bach’s most elaborate choral compositions and one of the most impressive high points in the history of the chorale cantata. It is written in what is an actual seven-part texture made up of three components: a two-part canonic framework in the outer voices (oboe and bass—violone and organ bass line); a four-part imitative setting of individual chorale phrases in motet style; and a continuo part providing continuity for the entire setting. Bach’s choral language is not concerned here with technical virtuosity but with an expression of the incontestable might of the word of God—a central concept of the Reformation. No. 4 is an orchestral number including the unadorned chorale sung in unison by the whole choir.
Cantata 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and mouth and deed and life) is another chorale cantata from Leipzig from the first annual cantata cycle of 1723–24. Written for the feast of the Visitation, it was first performed on July 2, 1723. The text is a compilation of poetry by Salomo Franck and others. The text by S. Franck was published in his Evangelische Sonn- und Festtages-Andachten (Protestant devotions for Sundays and feast days) in Weimar in 1717. The cantata is a revision of an earlier work from the Weimar years now lost. The earlier version, Cantata 147a, was written for the fourth Sunday in Advent and performed on December 20, 1716. The opening chorus is a typical Bach fugal movement, while No. 10 “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (Jesus remains my joy) is a concertato setting of the chorale harmonization.
The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, is another piece composed in the cantata style during the Leipzig years. However, while the Ascension Oratorio is equivalent to one cantata, the Christmas Oratorio is actually a set of six cantatas. The Christmas Oratorio is also a parody work, incorporating reworkings of at least 16 movements from the secular cantatas BWV 213, 214 (both congratulatory birthday cantatas of 1733), and 215, and one lost church cantata. Far from making this piece a lesser one, such pervasive reuse of earlier works actually adds to it, rescues important material and makes it more durable. Parody was not done out of laziness or convenience but rather to dress music that would have been all but forgotten in secular cantatas with more permanent “clothing.” After all, what would be more appropriate to celebrate the birth of Christ than to use birthday music for a royal family? The texts of the Christmas Oratorio may be by Picander. The six parts are meant to be performed for the first, second, and third day of Christmas, January 1, the Sunday after New Year, and the Epiphany, respectively, and were first performed on December 25–27, 1734, and January 1, 2, and 6 of 1735.
—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2001
Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.