Chapter 1 Intro 3rd Cycle

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N.B In this volume readers will find essays on the extant cantatas from possible third and fourth cycles (chapters 1-46) and the oratorio/cantatas with the very latest works in the canon (chapters 47-55).

Following C 176, the last work of the unique second cycle, Bach appears to have taken a short ′sabbatical′ break from composing cantatas. C 176 was written for Trinity Sunday, late in May of 1725 (Wolff p 278) following which came C 168 in late July and Cs 137 and 164 in August (ibid p 281). It was not until December and the Christmas season that Bach temporarily resumed composing at the rate of a cantata a week but only for two months, thence relying upon eighteen cantatas by a relative, Johann Ludwig Bach (ibid p 282).

Bach simply appears to have stopped composing religious music at the tempo to which he had become accustomed during his first two Leipzig years. Either he reused earlier of his compositions, or those of other composers, or a number of works have been lost. The truth may lie in a combination of reasons. Certainly he had not completely lost interest in the chorale/fantasia cantata, since C 137 was one of the first works to be penned after his self imposed break. But this type of cantata was subsequently to become something of a rarity; he composed only a dozen more of them over the following decade.

The essays in this volume follow the chronology of the third and fourth cycles as set out by Christoph Wolff (pp 281-284). However there are other possible ways of grouping them. The first cantata of the (possible) third cycle, C 168, is not a particularly imposing work despite its ebullient opening aria. It lacks a large, grand chorus and is certainly of lesser stature than Cs 75 and 76 (opening the first cycle) and C 20 (the second).

A minor problem lies in the fact that the groupings of Bach′s annual cycles do not correspond with the church year (which begins on the first Sunday of Advent) but rather from his arrival at Leipzig. Thus his first two cycles begin on the first Sunday after Trinity. There is no extant cantata for this day in 1725; in fact cantatas for most of the Sundays following Trinity of that year are either missing, resurrected earlier works or composed by others.

However C 39, a particularly imposing cantata, was composed for the first Sunday after Trinity in 1726. Might it be that this was intended to usher in the fourth of the five cycles mentioned in CPE Bach′s and Agricola′s 1754 Obituary? If so, we are left with a very truncated third cycle (fifteen works, Cs 168-129) with the fourth fairing not much better (twenty-two works, Cs 39-84). What now stands as a possible fourth (as set out by Wolff, p 284) could then be seen as the remnants of a fifth comprising Cs 197-157, a mere ten cantatas, several of which were not newly composed.

This being the case, we might surmise and regret that a possible fifty others may have been lost from this period, particularly if we give credence to the Obituary′s statements. Of this handful of works one (C 190) was originally performed in the first cycle and another (C 84) in the third. Three others (Cs 197a, 145 and 188) have been transmitted in incomplete form. This leaves only six complete and, as far as we can ascertain, newly composed cantatas. Nevertheless, we are grateful for their survival because within them we find Bach continuing various aspects of his ongoing experimental work. Fine examples of large scale choruses, sinfonias and chamber movements may be found here as well as inspired forms of structural development.

Finally, we cannot discount the notion that Bach increasingly made use of cantatas by other composers and that some of the five ‘complete’ cycles listed in the Obituary were ‘hybrid’ sets of which CPE Bach was unaware, or had forgotten. Furthermore, it is very likely that as a boy he had seen a set of Weimar (and possibly earlier) scores and parts in his father’s composing room and listed them as a full independent cycle without appreciating how many of them were later integrated into the first Leipzig cycle.

Controversy is likely to continue but perhaps the important thing is not to argue about the groupings of these cantatas but rather to cherish them as individual creations. Nevertheless, it is still illuminating to survey what we know of their chronological timeline, whereby much can be gleaned about Bach′s overall achievement in planning and executing his unique vision  of ′well regulated′ church music.

This volume differs slightly from the previous two in that, although an essay is still devoted to each individual cantata (including comment upon every movement), attempts have been made to provide some additional contextual remarks. Where two or three or, indeed, occasionally four extant cantatas exist for a particular day of the church year, some brief comparative observations are offered. These can provide a valuable insight into individual works and conceivably throw some  light onto Bach′s approach to each new composition. There are, for example, a number of instances where it would appear that when approaching the composition of new work for a particular Sunday, Bach looked back over the scores of earlier compositions for that event as a stimulus to his invention. He seldom copied or replicated what had gone before; in fact the evidence suggests that he often deliberately set out to provide dissimilar perspectives from those of earlier cantatas. But under the constant pressure of deadlines, he must have developed the most effective method of igniting his inspirational processes as quickly as possible. Reminding himself of the earlier compositions may well have played an important part in that process.

Additionally, some listeners and scholars will doubtless recognise the different perspectives he brought to musical structures and forms of expression in a number of these later works.

Whatever the truth may have been about his working methods and attitudes towards the musical depiction of the Lutheran creed and doctrine, two points are indisputable. Firstly, even though he might have tired of the weekly round of cantata creation and performance, his standards never dropped. The quality of these later works remains supremely high, as is the ever continuing scope of his imagination, invention and technical assurance. Secondly, his restless urge to experiment was undiminished. After the composition of forty chorale fantasias in the second cycle, and the devising of an extraordinary number of ways in which the simple chorale melody could be used as the basis of a seemingly limitless assortment of unique choruses, Bach could have been forgiven for temporarily resting upon his laurels. The intellectual effort, particularly in that second year, must have been quite superlative.

But the cantatas composed after May 1725 continue to demonstrate much that is fresh and innovative e.g.

* The organ is released from its continuo role, becoming an obbligato instrument in several arias and in one chorus.
* The chorale is combined with the final aria thus providing a different mode of ending some cantatas.
* A range of solo cantatas is produced for all voices.
* Massive sinfonias, often borrowed and arranged from existing secular compositions, are called upon as ‘introductions’.
* The ′dialogue′ cantata, a duet for the voices of Jesus and the Soul is developed and presented in a variety of forms.
* Variants on the traditional da capo structure are introduced and the ritornello format for large scale opening choruses is enlarged and adapted.
* The instrumental ritornello is increasingly constructed from motives which have clear imagic function and specific relationships drawn from the given text.
* Above all Bach′s ability to develop, extend and draw out long, distinctive melodic lines from a variety of motives of every kind is now unparalleled.

The following essays deal with all these issues as they arise. Additionally, they provide personal interpretations which, hopefully, will be particularly helpful to those navigating their way through the canon for the first time.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to emerge from a study of these late pieces is the focus upon Bach′s eternal quest for perfection in the merging of words and music. All musical elements are drawn upon, as appropriate, to depict individual words, ideas, metaphors, actions and images. Melodic contours, rhythmic motives, keys, modes, harmonies, textures, structural proportions and instrumentation all play their part, at different times, in the moulding together of text, idea, image and pure sound.

Perhaps this is indicative of Bach′s true concept of what ′well regulated′ church music should be i.e. that it exemplifies the perfect marriage between these media. The meaning of the text is often so deeply embedded within the very fabric of the musical composition that the one may be only fully comprehended and appreciated when viewed within the context of the other.

This surely, is something that Bach′s God would have noticed and approved of!

Above all, despite the variable quality of his texts which sometimes even descended to the level of the banal, Bach′s ability to convey their essential meaning, expand their potential and illuminate their implications, never wavered. He remained the consummate artist, synthesising words and music perfectly whilst continually seeking to create ever-new soundscapes, touching the very depths of the human condition.

Consequently, his music still has the capacity to surprise and delight audiences almost three centuries later.

NB At the end of each essay readers may follow the link  to the Bach Cantatas Website which takes them to complete translations of the cantata texts, musical scores, recordings and other relevant information. Non professional musicians are warned that these  essays contain various degrees of technical detail and relate to scores, but they can simply skip these paragraphs. The computer realizations of the musical examples are intended for those who do not read musical notation.

Copyright J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.