Chapter 1 Intro To First Cycle

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N.B. In this volume readers will find  the sequence of essays comprising the first Leipzig cycle (chapters 1-62), the earliest cantatas (chapters 63-70) and the secular  cantatas (chapters 71-104).

Bach was thirty seven years old when he sought the position of Cantor at the Saint Thomas School, Leipzig and it is well known that he was not the first choice of candidates. Furthermore, his lack of a traditional university training was not to his advantage, particularly in a city which boasted an institution of considerable reputation. (Documentation regarding Bach′s application and appointment may be found in the New Bach Reader from page 99).

The post involved not only tuition and responsibilities within the school but it also entailed  the direction of music which was to be regularly presented in four Leipzig churches, of which St Thomas and St Nicholas were the principal ones. This, in itself, required a major task of administration in addition to a particularly wide knowledge of, and ability to perform and present, appropriate music for Sunday services, special festivals and key Christian celebrations such as those for Easter and Christmas. These tasks would have been enough for most people but Bach, fortunately for us, took upon himself an additional and most substantial responsibility. Although not required by contract to do so, he determined to compose a repertoire of cantatas himself, something which had clearly been on his mind since he had declared, in his letter of resignation from his Mühlhausen appointment, his ambition to compose a body of ′well regulated church music′ (ibid p 57).

The position at Leipzig provided him with this opportunity and Bach appeared to grasp it most eagerly. In fact, in the posthumous obituary published in 1754 by Johann Friedrich Agricola and CPE Bach, it is stated that he composed five full cycles of cantatas (ibid pp 297-307). If this was the case, then many have been lost but much doubt has been expressed about this statement and how it might be interpreted
What is known, however, is that he produced a canon of sixty-two cantatas for his first year of tenure, about half of which were newly composed works (this volume contains an essay on every cantata). In his second year he produced a further fifty-three, virtually all new compositions (volume 2). Thereafter, his production of cantatas became less regular, although forty-seven have been assigned to possible third and fourth cycles in addition to just over two dozen later works. A generally accepted grouping is set out in Wolff′s JS Bach, the Learned Musician (pp 270-285) and this chronology is broadly followed in the three volumes comprising this website.

In part 2 of volume 1 (from chapter 63) the reader will discover essays on eight of Bach’s earliest cantatas which were not reused in the first Leipzig cycle. These are followed by essays on the extant ‘secular’ cantatas. They are grouped into five categories; those for weddings, funerals, council elections, homage and ‘sundry’.

Even though Bach had made a clear statement about his ambitions for producing a body of well-designed church music he seems, when he took up his Leipzig appointment, not to have had a unified vision of the shape or template of the ‘ideal’ cantata. Perhaps he was indifferent to it, looking more to the essential quality of the music and its fitness for the event or theme it served and less to a pre-defined structure. Nevertheless,  it is difficult to escape from the conclusion that in his first year he was constantly experimenting with, and searching for, a definitive format. He composed cantatas which incorporated one, two and three, or even no chorale melodies which he presented in both plain four-part settings and in the most complex of arrangements.

Bach inherited a large historical collection of Lutheran hymns which, like the English hymnal, were available for singing in the church services. These are referred to throughout these volumes as ‘chorales’. Luther himself translated many texts and also composed a number of the melodies. Bach seized upon the possibilities of harmonising and arranging these, many of which would have been familiar to the congregations,  for voices and organ and they appear in most of his church cantatas. (Further information about them may be found in the dropdown ‘Links’ on the home page.)

He began cantatas with choruses, arias or recitatives and he combined elements of all three formats into single movement structures. He composed works for various combinations of voices and experimented with the widest possible range of instrumental colours. He presented works in one or two parts (the latter to be performed before and after the sermon), also including a range of orchestral sinfonias.   He composed duets and experimented broadly with recitative structures, combining them with arioso, chorale phrases and even amalgamating them with choruses and arias. Perhaps the most favoured format was an opening chorus and concluding chorale, enclosing a mixture of recitatives and arias, sometimes paired together.  Certainly this became an established pattern in the second chorale/fantasia cycle, although even then there were exceptions.  The later cantatas, composed from the second half of 1725 onward, demonstrate a further need to experiment both with structures and ways of writing for voices and instruments.

Returning to the first cycle, the pressure of producing more than a cantata a week (seven in one month alone!) combined with his duties of teaching, administration and the supervision of all of the other music which the Lutheran services required in addition to his creative composition, must have been extreme. One wonders just how much time Bach had to pause and give thought to the directions he was taking. But indeed, he must have done it because the later production of a block of forty chorale/fantasia cantatas from June 1724 clearly demonstrated that he had formulated a clear vision and strategy whereby he was, at least for most of that year, wholly consistent in its realisation. (Readers who seek more information about the background and nature of the eighteenth century cantata should refer to volume 2, chapter 1, Information and Background).

Whatever the conclusions we come to about his goals and aspirations, it cannot be denied that the works of this first Leipzig cycle reveal a treasury of great music. One constantly comes across surprises and delights in cantatas which deserve to be much better known than they are. Furthermore, close observation of the scores reveals so much about Bach’s compositional processes, structural innovations and, above all, his extreme fidelity to the text and its representation and interpretation in purely musical terms.

There are, it is true, rare occasions when a movement may seem to some to be somewhat less inspired  than those around it. That is only to be expected in a canon of this range and scope. But it is impossible to escape the fact that Bach set his personal bar so high that the occasional ‘below average’ works are still better than those of most other composers. Bach seemed to be virtually incapable of writing a bar of bad music, something which has become increasingly noticed and appreciated in this third century after his death.

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 and 2020.