Chapter 51 Intro

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VOLUME 2, PART 2: THE LATE CHORALE CANTATAS.

Chapter 51: INTRODUCTION.

After the completion of the unique Second Leipzig Cycle, Bach appears to have written no new cantatas for the two months from late May to late July 1725. Just what music he used for the services is unknown. It would not be surprising however, if he had taken a short sabbatical break considering the rate at which he had been composing towards the end of that cycle; eight cantatas in four weeks! Beginning again with C 168, considered by some to be the first work of the Third Cycle, he composed approximately one church cantata a month until the Christmas season of 1725, at which time he temporarily resumed a more regular and intense pattern of composition.

The various theories as to why Bach did not complete the second cycle as presumably planned i.e. with a total of fifty-three chorale/fantasias, have been addressed in several of the essays in Part 1 of this volume. Whether through choice or crisis, thirteen of the later works from that cycle either do not follow the precise pattern of the first forty or they depart from it radically. Several commentators have suggested that Bach attempted to make good these omissions with newly composed works in the decade 1725-35.

That may be true. Certainly some of the later twelve chorale cantatas precisely fitted in gaps when Bach was either away from Leipzig or when cantatas were not originally required. Because of the early dates of Easter 1725 there had been consequent oddities of the church calendar for that year. Nevertheless, it is certain that Bach seemed to have no sense of urgency about completing the cycle if, indeed, that was his intention, because he wrote only a dozen additional chorale cantatas over the following decade, a rate of barely more than one a year. Furthermore, two of these works were almost certainly initially written for, and are listed as a part of, the Third Cycle (Cs 137 and 129) and others show stylistic developments which place them well apart from the earlier canon.

It follows that whilst we know that Bach composed a dozen additional chorale/fantasia cantatas after May 1725, there is no certainty that all, or indeed any of them should be considered a part of the second cycle. Furthermore, after the mid 1730s Bach seems to have lost interest in the intellectual and musical demands of the genre and wrote no more of them.

Perhaps he felt that he had fully exploited the possibilities of the chorale cantata. It is also likely that, with the exception of the large scale religious works such as the Passions and the B minor Mass, he had become less interested in the composition of ′well regulated′ music for the church. Certainly it was the case that he was less inclined to produce it at such a frenetic rate. Or perhaps he simply felt that he had achieved exactly what he had aspired to and thus moved on to other ventures.

But whatever the reasons, it is undeniable that these last dozen works rank amongst his highest achievements and are as much worthy of scrutiny and attention as those from the second cycle.

The range of techniques and musical invention that may be found in these late works is quite remarkable. Bach was never a man to work to a formula, even one that appeared to be so well established by that block of forty chorale/fantasias from 1724-5. If one came across these last dozen works without first becoming familiar with their predecessors, one might be forgiven for assuming that he had just discovered a new genre, the possibilities and potential of which were equally novel, exciting and stimulating. Their scope ranges from C 192 (chapter 53), a three movement work apparently derived from the concerto structure, to the delicate chamber cantata C 9 (chapter 58).

The culmination of his achievements in this form may be found in the contrapuntal tour de forces of Cs 14 and 80, compositions that look forward to the work of his last decade. One of the best known and most perennially popular of all church compositions C 140 (chapter 55) may also be found in this late collection.

A particular oddity of these later chorale cantatas is that in over a half of them the chorale stanzas are set with no inserted additional lines of text. (a list of the nine cantatas which Bach set in this manner may be found at the end of the essay on C 97: vol 2, chapter 59). There are only three earlier works thus assembled: C 4, one of the earliest cantatas, C 107 from the second cycle and C 129 from the third. It is possible that initially Bach found the limitation frustrating because the verses were not always flexible enough to allow him to choose, as he might wish, between chorus, aria and recitative settings.

Modern research has dated several of these works with reasonable accuracy, although in a number of cases little is known for certain about their original functions. Nevertheless, we must be grateful that they have survived and can still be enjoyed today. Not all are well known to the Bach-loving public; but they should be. Each is a masterpiece in itself, revealing something more of the complex mind and compositional processes of this greatest of composers of music for the Christian Church.

NB Readers are reminded that two of the late chorale cantatas, 137 and 129, have been designated as part of the third cycle (Wolff pp 281-2). Consequently, essays about them may be found in volume 3, chapters 3 and 16.

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