The word “cantata” is derived from the Italian word “cantare”, which means a work that is sung. This is in opposition to the word “sonata” (Italian “sonare”), which means a piece that sounds and therefore is instrumental.
The tradition of the 17th-century cantata in Italy and France was usually secular in nature and could combine elements of recitative, which is a type of music that follows the contour of recited speech and rhythm, with aria, usually according to a poetic meter. The compositional style of the cantata is mainly taken from the forms encountered in opera. Mythological stories were usually the subject matter such as those of Orpheus, Medea or Hercules.
Many German composers in the 17th century traveled to Italy and studied the work of Monteverdi, Carissimi, Cavalli and others, and brought this new style of composition back to their home territories. In the German Lutheran Church services, the motet (usually a choral work reflecting the themes and scripture readings for any given Sunday) was eventually replaced by the longer, multi-movement cantata. Early Lutheran Cantatas by composers such as Nicolaus Bruhns, Franz Tunder and Dietrich Buxtehude were based on chorale melodies (hymns), religious poetry or verses from scripture.
By Bach's time in the 18th century, the form had reached its peak and usually followed the formula of an opening chorus followed by alternating recitatives and arias and a concluding chorale. The chorale melodies would have been familiar and the words usually known from memory to an 18th-century audience.
All of Bach's sacred cantatas were intended for performance during the Lutheran Church’s main service (Haupt Gottesdienst) or the evening Vespers service, and would be performed before and after the sermon, divided into two parts. The cantatas are reflections on the texts of the biblical readings from that day.
One of the great aspects of the cantata is that, although it uses operatic elements (recitative, arias, dialogues, choruses), it is unlike an opera in that the drama is implied and it is spiritual in nature, not intended to be performed on stage with costumes and characters. The drama really unfolds in the minds and imaginations of the listeners. As such, Bach's cantatas stand out among those of his contemporaries for their vividness of textual depiction and musical imagery.
Theologians have described Bach's cantatas as "musical sermons" -- that through their great rhetoric can move their audience in ways the spoken word simply cannot.
Autograph manuscript of the opening Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (1714) Credit: Bach digital archive, Leipzig, Public Domain
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