World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Bach cantata

Bach cantatas
BWV 1 to 224
by J. S. Bach
Autograph of a soprano aria in BWV 105
Composed 1707 (1707) to 1745 (1745)

The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (German: Bachkantaten) are among his most significant and celebrated compositions. While many have been lost, at least 209 of the cantatas composed by Bach have survived.

Especially during Bach's tenure as a Thomaskantor, cantor of the main churches of Leipzig, especially the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, it was part of his job to perform a church cantata every Sunday and Holiday, related to the readings prescribed by the Lutheran liturgy for the specific occasion. In his first years in Leipzig, starting after Trinity of 1723, he composed a new work every week and conducted soloists, the Thomanerchor and orchestra as part of the church service. Works from three annual cycles of cantatas have survived.

In addition to the church cantatas, he composed sacred cantatas for functions like weddings or Ratswahl (the inauguration of a new town council), music for academic functions of the University of Leipzig at the Paulinerkirche, and secular cantatas for anniversaries and entertainment in nobility and society, some of them Glückwunschkantaten (congratulatory cantatas) and Huldigungskantaten (homage cantatas). He composed church cantatas mainly in Leipzig on a weekly basis, but his earliest date back to 1707 in Mühlhausen, while his last was probably written in 1745. His cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir, but he also wrote solo cantatas for typically one soloist and dialogue cantatas for two singers. The words for many cantatas combine Bible quotes, contemporary poetry and chorale, but he also composed a cycle of chorale cantatas based exclusively on one chorale.


Although the term Bachkantate (Bach cantata) became very familiar, Bach himself used the title Cantata rarely in his manuscripts, but 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 signed his cantatas with SDG, short for Soli Deo Gloria ("To the only God glory").[1]

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), 217–224 (cantatas where Bach's authorship is doubtful). Since Schmieder's designation, several of the cantatas he thought authentic have been redesignated "spurious." However, the spurious cantatas retain their BWV numbers. The List of Bach cantatas is organized by BWV number, but sortable by other criteria.

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, 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 a sequence of opening movement, five movements alternating recitatives and arias, and 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, Part II the Epistle.[2]

Bach did not follow any scheme strictly, 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 1st Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, he shaped the opening chorus as a French overture.

Singers and instrumentation

Schlosskirche in Weimar where Bach composed and performed church cantatas monthly from 1714 to 1717
Thomaskirche, 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,[3] although 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 organ. A continuous bass is the rule in Baroque music; its absence is worth mentioning and has a 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 correspond with 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, 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. Recorders (flauti dolci) are sometimes used to express humility or poverty, such as in the cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39.

Solo cantata

Some cantatas are composed for only one solo singer (Solokantate), as Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 for soprano, sometimes concluded by a chorale, as 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).[4]

Text of Bach's sacred cantatas

Within the 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.

Periods of cantata composition

The following lists of works (some marked as questioned) relies 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, then in brackets.


Bach moved to St. Blasius church ("Divi Blasii") in 1707. There is evidence that he had already begun to compose cantatas. For example, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 may have been composed while Bach was at his previous post in Arnstadt.

A few cantatas have survived from his time in Mühlhausen. Some of them were composed for special occasions, such as Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, composed for the inauguration of the town council in 1708, and the only one of the cantatas printed during Bach's lifetime. 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.[5] His goal was to compose a complete set of cantatas for the liturgical year within four years.


Bach worked in Köthen from 1717 to 1723, where he composed for example the Brandenburg concertos. He had no responsibility for church music, therefore only secular cantatas have survived. 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. Even after he moved to Leipzig he could carry his title of Fürstlich Köthenischer Kapellmeister and continued to write secular cantatas for the court.[6][7]


In Leipzig Bach was responsible for the town's church music in the Thomaskirche and the 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. [8]

For Easter of 1725 and afterwards he composed cantatas other than chorale cantatas:

Bach included two of them in his cycle of chorale cantatas, both beginning with a chorale fantasia, BWV 128 and BWV 68, and he composed more chorale cantatas from 1725 to 1727 and even later, to complete that cycle, including:

Third cantata cycle

After Trinity of 1725 Bach began a third annual cycle which extended for several years. Several works of this cycle are not extant.

His later cantata compositions are partly not documented as well:


Bach sometimes reused an earlier composition, typically revising and improving it in a process called Easter Oratorio. Bach used parody to be able to deliver cantatas for Christmas, Easter and Pentecost which were each celebrated for a period of three days. His Easter cantata Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß, BWV 134, is a parody of six of eight movements of the cantata for New Year's Day, Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a. Six movements of his congratulatory cantata Durchlauchtster Leopold, BWV 173a, form the cantata for Pentecost Monday of 1724, Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173; while a seventh movement was made part of the cantata for Pentecost Tuesday of 1725, Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen, BWV 175.

Bach's four Crucifixus of the Credo.


Bach's oratorios can be considered as expanded cantatas. They were also meant to be performed during church services. Distinct from the cantatas, a narrator, the Evangelist, tells a story in the exact Bible wording, while soloists and the choir have "roles" such as Mary or "the shepherds", in addition to reflective chorales or arias commenting on the story. The St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion were intended to be performed on Good Friday, before and after the sermon. The six parts of the Christmas Oratorio were intended to be performed on six feast days of the Christmas season, each part composed as a cantata with an opening chorus (except in Part 2) and a closing chorale.

Performances by Bach

Bach composed the cantatas and performed them, conducting from the keyboard. The choir was the Thomanerchor, which also served the other main churches of Leipzig for which Bach was responsible. Cantatas, under his personal direction, were performed in the Nikolaikirche and in the Thomaskirche, alternating on ordinary Sundays. On high feast days, the same cantata was performed in the morning in one of these churches, in a vespers service in the other.[9]

Later performances and recordings

Written for the day and the church, Bach's cantatas fell into obscurity even more than his oratorios.

The Thomanerchor has sung a weekly cantata during the evening service Motette on Saturday.[10]

In 1928, The New York Times reported the presentation in Paris of two secular Bach cantatas by opera soprano Marguerite Bériza and her company in staged productions, The Peasant Cantata and The Coffee Cantata.[11] In the early 1950s Fritz Lehmann recorded several cantatas with the Berliner Motettenchor and the Berlin Philharmonic. Karl Richter called his choir programmatically Münchener Bach-Chor in 1954 and recorded about a third of the cantatas.

Between 1958 and 1987, the London Bach Society, conducted by Paul Steinitz performed all the extant church and secular cantatas, 208 separate works, in various venues, mostly in the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, London. Diethard Hellmann called the Kantorei of the Christuskirche Bachchor Mainz in 1965 and produced more than 100 cantatas on a weekly basis with the Südwestrundfunk. Fritz Werner started recording with the Heinrich-Schütz-Chor Heilbronn and the Pforzheim Chamber Orchestra a series that they called Les Grandes Cantates de J.S. Bach.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt were the first to begin recording the complete cantatas. This 20-year collaboration used historical instruments, with boys' choirs and boy soloists for most soprano and a few alto parts. Harnoncourt conducted the Wiener Sängerknaben or the Tölzer Knabenchor and the Concentus Musicus Wien. Leonhardt conducted the Tölzer Knabenchor, Knabenchor Hannover and the Collegium Vocale Gent, and the ensemble Leonhardt-Consort. Helmuth Rilling, Gächinger Kantorei, and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart completed a recording of the sacred cantatas and oratorios on Bach's 300th birthday, 21 March 1985. Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir recorded all vocal works of Bach in 10 years starting in 1994, including the cantatas.[12] Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir undertook the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, performing and recording in the year 2000 the sacred cantatas at churches all over Europe and in the United States. Sigiswald Kuijken has recorded Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year with La Petite Bande and the soloists forming the choir. Masaaki Suzuki commenced in 1995 a project to record the complete sacred cantatas with his Bach Collegium Japan.

The cantatas are also regularly performed on Sundays at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New York City, under the direction of Cantor Rick Erickson.[13]

The Fifth Gospel

In 1929 the Swedish bishop Nathan Söderblom, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, called Bach's cantatas the Fifth Gospel.[14][15]


  1. ^ Farstad, Arthur L. (1996). """Grace in the Arts: / An Evangelical Musical Genius: / "J.S.B.: S.D.G.. Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Volume 9:16. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  2. ^  
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Mincham, Julian (2010). "Chapter 11 BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen". Retrieved 8 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Koster, Jan. "Weimar 1708–1717". Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  6. ^ Koster, Jan. "Köthen 1717–1723 Part 1 (1717–1720)". Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  7. ^ Koster, Jan. "Köthen 1717–1723 Part 2 (1717–1720)". Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Terry, Charles Sanfo (1928 / 2003). Bach: A Biography. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 160–161. 
  10. ^ "Motettenprogramm" (in German). Retrieved 21 November 2011. 
  11. ^ "Paris Applauds Bach In Lighter Vein". The New York Times. 30 December 1928. Retrieved 21 November 2011. 
  12. ^ "The Works of Bach".  
  13. ^ Bachvesper Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
  14. ^ Siemon-Netto, Uwe (2005). "Why Nippon Is Nuts About J.S. Bach. The Japanese yearn for hope.". Retrieved 21 November 2011. 
  15. ^ Petersen-Mikkelsen, Birger (2003). Praedicatio sonora. Musik und Theologie bei Johann Sebastian Bach, in: Kirchenmusik und Verkündigung – Verkündigung als Kirchenmusik. Zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Kirchenmusik (in German). Eutiner Beiträge zur Musikforschung 4, Eutin. p. 47. 

Further reading

  • NBA Neue Bach-Ausgabe, Bärenreiter, 1954 to 2007
  • BWV Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, Breitkopf & Härtel, 1998
  • Alfred Dürr: The Cantatas of J.S. Bach, Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-19-929776-2
  • Christoph Wolff/Ton Koopman: Die Welt der Bach-Kantaten Verlag J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart, Weimar 2006 ISBN 978-3-476-02127-4 (in German)
  • Werner Neumann: Handbuch der Kantaten J.S.Bachs, 1947, 5th ed. 1984, ISBN 3-7651-0054-4
  • Hans-Joachim Schulze: Die Bach-Kantaten: Einführungen zu sämtlichen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs Leipzig: Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt; Stuttgart: Carus-Verlag 2006 (Edition Bach-Archiv Leipzig) ISBN 3-374-02390-8 (EVA), ISBN 3-89948-073-2 (in German)
  • Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini. Studi sui testi delle Cantate sacre di J. S. Bach. Università di Padova, pubblicazioni della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, vol. XXXI, Padova & Kassel, 1956, xv-291
  • Geoffrey Turner. "Singing The Word: The Cantatas of J S Bach". New Blackfriars, volume 87, issue 1008, pp. 144–154
  • J. C. J. Day. "The texts of Bach's Church cantatas: some observations". German Life and Letters, volume 13 (1960), num. 2, pp. 137–144
  • Harald Streck. Die Verskunst in den poetischen Texten zu den Kantaten J. S. Bachs. Dissertation: Universität Hamburg 1971, 214 pages
  • Walter F. Bischof. The Bach Cantatas University of Alberta 2003–2010
  • Z. Philip Ambrose Texts of the Complete Vocal Works with English Translation and Commentary University of Vermont 2005–2011
  • Robin Boyle. The Listener's Guide to the Bach Church Cantatas, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4716-6705-3
  • Complete Bach Cantatas. 12 volumes. Tarnhelm Ed. 2010.

Links are found for the individual cantatas:

  • Craig Smith: programme notes, Emmanuel Music
  • Walter F. Bischof: The Bach Cantatas, University of Alberta
  • Z. Philip Ambrose: Texts of the Complete Vocal Works with English Translation and Commentary, University of Vermont

External links

  • Bach Cantatas website, a link to information about works, translations to various languages, prescribed reading, commentaries, singers, ensembles, recordings
  • Johann Sebastian Bach on "IMSLP / Petrucci Music Library, The free public domain sheet music library"
  • Emmanuel Music notes and translations to English
  • The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach A listener and student guide, Julian Mincham, 2010
  • Johann Sebastian Bach – A Listener's Guide to the Cantatas and a list of book and references by Simon Crouch on the Classical Net website
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.