What is a choral cantata?

Before we take you through the cycle of chorale cantatas, we’d like to answer an important starting question: what exactly is a chorale cantata? The short answer: a chorale cantata is a cantata based on an existing church song. But there is a bit more to say about that by way of introduction.

Chorales as a basis for cantatas

In June 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach started as cantor of the Thomas Church in Leipzig. From then on, he wrote a weekly cantata. In it, the Bible reading for that Sunday was explained as a musical sermon in a modern form, with arias and recitatives that were very popular in opera at the time. The cantatas had a fixed place in the liturgy, namely after the gospel reading and before the sermon. In his second year in office, from June 1724, he followed a new recipe. No longer was a Bible text central, but now each of the 40 cantatas in this cycle was based on a well-known church song. Again, in these so-called chorale cantatas, the explanation of each song appears to have been the main objective. No fewer than eight songs are by Luther himself from 1524, such as Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38) and Mit Fried und Freud, ich fahr’ dahin (BWV 125), and Mary’s hymn of praise from his German translation of the Bible was also adapted into a chorale cantata Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (BWV 10). But other well-known old songs, such as Wer nur den lieben Gott läst walten (BWV 93) are also part of this year’s cycle.

Specific structure of the chorale cantata

Anyone studying the texts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale cantatas is quick to recognise his distinctive approach to these cantatas from his second year in office in Leipzig. In these 40 cantatas, written between June 1724 and March 1725, the basis for the text is not the Sunday Bible reading, as in his first vintage, but a Lutheran church song. The (unknown) librettist maintained the first and last strophe of the song in each cantata text. From the first stanza, Bach formed the opening chorus in which he expressed the character of song. And he provided the last stanza of the song with a simple four-part setting of the familiar melody as the final chorale of the cantata. He adapted the intermediate stanzas of the song into recitatives and arias. Their texts were rewritten by the lyricist in such a way that the sometimes very compact, rhyming poetry of the song was grammatically rearranged to make the content more comprehensible. Moreover, this gave Bach more room for musical expression of Baroque themes such as struggle, devil and hell, but also to emphasise how comfort can be found in faith.

Following the Neumeister model

The model of the 18th-century cantata was conceived by poet/theologian Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756), preacher in Hamburg. He himself wrote numerous cantata texts containing recitatives and arias, modelled on the then-popular opera. This did lead to discussions, as the church council wanted to prevent the church service from looking too much like opera. On the other hand, these popular elements could play a good role as educational musical sermons, provided the emotions evoked encouraged the listener to experience the faith correctly.

Song selection

These chorale cantatas are mainly about the oldest Protestant church songs. The focus of the song selection is on the early period of the Reformation and the second half of the 17th century. The period of the Thirty Years’ War is skipped – there is only one cantata based on a song by Paul Gerhardt – and songs by Bach’s contemporaries are also absent.

Apart from the Song of Praise of Mary, the chorale cantata cycle consists of 22 cantatas with a song from the 16th century, 12 of them from the early days of the Reformation, and a group of 17 cantatas with a song from the 17th century, eight of them from the first half and nine from the second half of the century.

Bach and the church hymn

That church song was a faithful life companion for Bach can be found everywhere in his compositions. He also incorporated strophes from well-known church songs in other cantatas, passions and oratorios. On the Dutch website Kerkliedwiki you will find an inventory of the hymns in Bach’s work, including, where possible, a link to a translation of the German song in Dutch hymnals.

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