The Story of Bach Cantatas

“For the glory of God alone.” With these words, Bach signed off each of his two hundred sacred cantatas. But with so many to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin. Our guide lifts the lid on a treasure-trove of rich and glorious music.

Every Easter Bach’s masterpieces, the St John and St Matthew Passions, connect with millions of listeners worldwide. While the drama and spiritual depths of Bach’s Passions continue to attract suitably passionate converts, his sublime church cantatas often appear to be off-limits to newcomers.

But don’t be deterred by the barriers of unfamiliarity or the sheer number of pieces. Bach’s 200 or so surviving sacred cantatas contain some of his greatest music, forged with a consistency of invention and inspiration that comes as close to perfection as it’s possible to achieve. They lie at the heart of his output, capturing an astonishing range of expression and musical styles.

During his time as concert master at the Weimar court (1714-16) and again in his years as Cantor at Leipzig’s St Thomas Church (1723-29), Bach was expected to supply short, multi-movement choral works to accompany regular and occasional church services. He raised his already superior game to produce cantatas for Sundays, feast days, weddings and funerals, stamping his particular genius on a new form of dramatic religious music popular with Germany’s Lutheran congregations. The church cantata took its lead from Italian models, which in many ways amounted to sacred mini-operas. 

Following the new fashion for dramatic religious music, Bach first turned his hand to the church cantata in Easter 1707 with Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4. He wrote more at the court of Saxe-Weimar, many of which were destroyed or lost during the composer’s move to Leipzig in May 1723.

Between 1723 and the first performance of the St Matthew Passion on Good Friday 1727, Bach wrote over 150 cantatas, recycling existing pieces and inventing new music at the punishing rate of almost one a week. If he wrote under pressure from his bosses, as some scholars have suggested, he also did so for God’s greater glory and with devotion to his task.

Around three quarters of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas have survived and can be grouped into three, more or less, complete cycles according to the pattern of the church year. On the evidence of these works alone, it would be fair to say that the composer and his contemporaries viewed life as a grand rehearsal for death. Certainly the congregations at Leipzig’s main churches were regularly reminded of their mortality and earthly failings from the pulpit, and Bach underlined this in his church cantatas. But he also offered the faithful a musical foretaste of the comfort and joy of eternal salvation.

Devotional poetry, biblical quotations and verses from Lutheran hymns, all strong on emotion and vivid expressions of mankind’s suffering, were used by Bach as cantata texts. The published sources of words provided scope for choruses, solo songs, dramatic recitatives and congregational hymns. For his second cantata cycle (1724-25), Bach broke with convention to invent a unified form of cantata based on the words and music of seasonal hymns. He used the first and last verse of the appropriate hymn for the opening and closing movements, arranging and paraphrasing the words of the middle verses to suit setting as recitatives and arias.

John Eliot Gardiner’s monumental Bach Cantatas Pilgrimage, which rolled its way across Europe in 2000, proved that contemporary listeners could connect with pieces originally conceived to enhance orthodox Lutheran sermons.

“Bach’s cantatas lay claim to our attention as a testimony to supreme art, Christian faith and Western cultural history, and therefore demand that we come to terms with them,” observes the German scholar Alfred Dürr.

“This involves not only a sensitive response to their cultural context but also conscientious grappling with the question of their relevance for our time.” 

Gardiner’s millennium year project, backed by his decision to issue its fruits on a dedicated label, went way beyond Dürr’s “conscientious grappling.” Gardiner and his collaborators revealed to audiences of all faiths and none that Bach’s multi-faceted take on the human condition remains as powerfully alive and relevant today as it was nearly three centuries ago. 

Others, Masaaki Suzuki and Ton Koopman among them, have helped bring Bach’s cantatas to a wider audience than ever before. Their ongoing complete-recording cycles rest on the firm foundations of the first period-instrument cycle of the works, set down in the 1970s and 1980s, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. With Helmut Rilling’s modern instrument cycle and recordings of individual cantatas by Philippe Herreweghe, there’s never been a better time to explore the Bach cantata legacy.

It is the sheer variety of Bach’s writing that catches the ear. One could listen to six or seven of his cantatas and never tire of the inventive brilliance of his music. The difficulty for many rests on the pairing of the word church with cantata, not to mention the baggage of Lutheran theology, morbid texts, and the celebration of God’s kingdom at the heart of these extraordinary works. 

And yet the music sounds fresh and alive to modern ears in ways that so many compositions completed only last year do not. Above all, the essential humanity of Bach’s genius touches his entire cantata output and turns each work into a sacred offering in sound.