About the Project

The Bach Cantatas - About the Project

 This site is dedicated to the memory of the great Bach scholar Alfred Dürr who died, in his 94th year, in April 2011. All Bach scholars, musicians, students and music lovers are indebted to him. Mention should also be made of Richard Jones and his epic translation of the work from German into English.

The site contains essays on each of Bach's cantatas. They deal with such matters as the relationship of text and music, structural innovations, use of major and minor modes, instrumentation, melodic contours, choral writing and harmonic devices. Readers will also find contextual comments and  large amount of  cross-referencing between works that are found to have characteristics in common.  

It is neither an academic treatise nor a popularist tract; it lies somewhere between the two. It is intended for music lovers who wish to learn more about this great canon of works and for students exploring the context, structure and inventive processes they exemplify. It attempts to address such questions as:

What might I listen for?

What is the work about?

How might it relate to other cantatas?

What is the text about?

Does the work have its own particular narrative?

What was Bach’s religious response to specific texts?

How does Bach differentiate between individual and communal expressions of faith?

What are the significant textual images and how did Bach express them musically?

How did Bach obtain and develop his ideas?

How is the work relevant to listeners in the 21st century?

How is the music built?

Which musical structural details (of melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation) will lead me towards a better understanding and appreciation of individual movements?

(For a more comprehensive introduction to this project, see below).

NB Readers may be interested to know that, in addition to the well known statues of Bach displayed on the home page and drop downs, there are photographs of his grave, St Thomas's Church, the organ upon which he played at Sangerhausen and two pictures of a concert room inside the Schloss at Còthen where Bach was Kapellmeister prior to his appointment at Leipzig. The author has been privileged to hear concerts of his music in a number of these venues.


                             GENERAL INTRODUCTION

For much of the twentieth century the Bach cantatas were sidelined or even ignored. Even those who loved the Brandenburg Concerti and the popular violin, organ and keyboard works tended to find this repertoire specialist, esoteric and ultimately forbidding. Perhaps music lovers simply did not know where or how to begin exploring this formidable body of works.

Recently, and possibly in the wake of Bach Year, 2000, this situation has changed. One only has to type Bach Cantatas into Google to find masses of information and enthusiasts now abounding. The Bach Christmas on BBC Radio 3 (December 2005) reached a wide and possibly new audience.  Increasingly, and around the world, people are exploring and enjoying this great collection of works: over eighty hours of music, an estimated 1500 movements and scarcely a weak or tentative moment. This is, surely, one of the greatest canons of western music and it fully deserves the increasing attention now being paid to it.

My own interest came about in the 1990s through a chance conversation with a musician friend. We were discussing Beethoven and I expressed the view that, although I found myself listening to him less as I got older, nevertheless, in one particular respect I considered his output to be unique. For example, the nine symphonies are all incontrovertibly ‘Beethoven’ in style but still completely individual in character. The same is true of the five piano concerti, the sixteen string quartets and, perhaps most amazingly, every one of the thirty-two piano sonatas. I did not think this could be truly said of any other composer. Even Haydn and Mozart produced a number of broadly similar works, with movements readily interchangeable.

My friend, a professional double bass player who had performed many of the cantatas, thought for a moment. He then said, ‘I know what you mean about Beethoven and I agree with what you say about his range of character within a distinctly personal style. However, I do not think it is unique. I believe that Bach achieved precisely the same thing with his even greater number of cantatas’.

At that time I was only familiar with, or had performed, a relatively small number of these works but, intrigued by the comment, I determined to explore them all. There followed a decade of listening, reading, analysis, playing through and performing these works, a labour of love in itself and one which brought forth the idea for these volumes. The conclusion I reached was that my friend’s judgement was shrewd and sound; no two cantatas are alike, each having its own particular character and beauty. Bach’s compositional approach in seeking out the most subtle (as well as, sometimes, the most obvious) of textual images, pictures and nuances led him to invent an incredible array of musical ideas which virtually never repeated themselves. The result is a canon of unique distinctiveness.

There gradually evolved the idea of producing a guide to the cantatas aimed at helping  music lovers, students and even professional musicians preparing performances to find their way through the two hundred-plus existing works. Their chronology, performance and place in the Lutheran Church calendar are already well documented in Alfred Dürr's 'The Cantatas of JS Bach' and Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician, both extremely informative books which every Bach lover should refer to. The latter not only amasses a wealth of fascinating information about Bach’s career and music; it also brings the man fully to life, dispelling many of the Nineteenth century myths which have distorted our view of this fascinating composer, his character and working methods. Particularly relevant to these three volumes is the section (pp 253-288) that sets out the precise cantata chronology, dates of performance and Lutheran year calendar. The organisation of these essays is broadly based upon it.

The more serious student and musician will wish to consult Alfred Dürr’s most scholarly work, now available in English translation. For background information on such matters as relevant biblical readings and source material related to the scores, this remains an invaluable mine of information. For information about the dating of these works, Dürr's work remains seminal.

Robertson’s and Whittaker’s scholarly and detailed volumes contain much of interest but are now somewhat out of date.  There is also a short, but illuminating section on each work in the Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach edited by Malcolm Boyd and John Butt but at the time of writing, sadly, out of print.

These and many other books are excellent for a detailed study of the development of the German cantata before and under Bach, the history of the texts, the religious and social backgrounds and the structure of the Lutheran church year. (See also the brief bibliography at the end of each volume on this web site). But there is, I believe, a place for an updated, straightforward guide which the music lover or student can pick up, quickly locate a particular cantata, and seek to discover answers to the kinds of questions listed above.

These essays attempt to address such questions. As also stated above, they are neither academic treatises nor popularist tracts; they lie some between the two. The intention has been to scrutinise the score of every movement of every cantata and to analyse its text, structure, context and expressive effect in ways that are, hopefully, illuminative to the listener, student and musician. The essays combine brief musical analysis, with contextual information aimed at appealing to both students of music and the wider listening public. They combine new observations with known facts, historic detail and referenced opinion drawn from a number of sources.

Additionally, there will be found personal interpretations which are aimed at stimulating listeners, not only to understand and appreciate the works better, but also to develop their own ideas of what they  might mean to them personally.

Such an approach must, by its nature, be partially subjective and speculative but it is hoped that this will be excused if it succeeds in its objective of drawing the reader emotionally and intellectually into each work.  In this respect these essays differ from more conventional, objective scholarship. Consequently, these volumes do not seek to duplicate the existing offerings of eminent scholars such as Wolff, Boyd, Whittaker, Robertson, Schweitzer, Dürr and others.  My primary objective is to illuminate each cantata with a mixture of analysis, description, interpretation, secondary source opinion and historical detail, aiming to assist the reader/listener in becoming more aware of what it is about, how it is constructed and what one might usefully listen and look for.

Embedded within this process lie two crucial questions which have underpinned much of my thinking when exploring the canon e.g.

  1. Through what processes did Bach arrive at his immense range of original and largely unrepeated musical ideas?
  2. What aspects of structure, imagery and numerology would Bach have expected his congregations to recognise and respond to; and which of them were so ‘hidden’ and abstruse that he could only have expected God to notice?

The first question is raised in the context of Bach's ability to produce at the rate of a cantata a week: sometimes even more! Such an output is not uncommon amongst baroque composers but what distinguishes Bach's work is the consistently high quality and complexity of the music, its unparalleled range, its exquisite reflection of the text and its diversity of invention.

With the text assembled and approved, the main composition must often have taken place in a few days, allowing sufficient time for parts to be copied and for the musicians to master music which was frequently far more complex and demanding than that to which they had been accustomed.  Bach had no time to wait for ‘inspiration’. He needed the ideas to come quickly so as to allow for their (often) complex and lengthy working out. So what were the processes and procedures he adopted to stimulate his musical inventiveness?

The first great thinker to address this problem in an orderly way was Albert Schweitzer in his monumental two-volume work J.S. Bach, published in 1905.  At that time Schweitzer was not in a position to know many of the facts about Bach’s compositional schedules and methods that have emerged from later scholarship. Schweitzer was, at times, idiosyncratic, dogmatic and even plain wrong! Subsequent scholars have rejected his notions of recurring groups of motivic images.  But his work stands as a landmark of scholarship and insight and it rewards readers even today, over a century later. One can only wonder at the problems Schweitzer must have faced in hearing performances at that time. But he transcended them and subsequent scholars owe him a great debt. His analysis of the picture painting i.e. Bach’s translation of the textual physical and emotional images into musical ideas and the categorisation of Bach’s motives (e.g. joy, elation, suffering, treading) all formed part of an insightful approach that has informed subsequent scholarship and stimulated debate.

When analysing the individual cantatas I have often found it useful to re-read what Schweitzer had said about them and, when it seemed relevant or illuminating, to include his comments. The cantatas form only a part of his volumes which also cover Bach’s life and the remainder of his vast musical output. As a consequence, although his perceptions can be stimulating, he did not deal with individual works and movements comprehensively.  Frequently he comments only upon an individual movement or a single image without attempting a thorough survey of each cantata and its component parts.

Conversely, the essays in these volumes offer comment upon every movement of every cantata.

The work has been conceived in three volumes, principally based upon the Leipzig cycles as set out by Christoph Wolff (pp 270-287). Volume I deals with the first cycle followed by the early cantatas and secular works. The focus here is upon the composer’s range, inventiveness and originality. Volume 2 is based upon the second cycle and the later chorale cantatas. Here the concentration is upon the nature and structure of this form with particular emphasis upon the various uses to which the chorales were put. Volume 3 covers the extant cantatas from the third and fourth cycles, the late works and the three oratorios. Here there is a more contextual approach, with brief comparisons made with other cantatas written for the same day of the church year.

An important aspect of the analysis of movements and motives relates to the ways in which Bach created his initial ideas from textural images and then developed them according to artistic, stylistic, grammatical, structural and traditional constraints. This approach not only helps us to understand something of his methodology and creative thinking, it takes us right into the heart of the cantatas, their narratives and their musical and spiritual meaning; a helpful process for those of us who, so removed from the original performance context, nevertheless seek to understand them better. Throughout, great importance is attached to Bach’s sensitivity to the texts and the relationships between them and the consequent musical inventions.

Readers who are particularly interested in this process of creating musical motives from textual images might turn directly to vol 1, chapter 20, C 148 where the issue is addressed, with specific examples.

The second question posed above relates to the audience Bach sought to address. As I became aware of the multitudinous and continuously creative ways in which Bach derived and developed his musical ideas, I came to the conclusion that there were certain images which he would clearly have expected his cultivated audiences and congregations to recognise and appreciate. Presumably they should have responded to the representations of the mighty River Jordan (fantasia from C 7), the act of pouring the baptismal waters (first aria from the same work) or the devout Christian valiantly struggling to reach the shore and haven of calm (C 81, tenor aria). But neither an eighteenth century audience nor most contemporary listeners could possibly discern some of the hidden numerological references or images embedded within complex contrapuntal textures and abstruse structural proportions. There is much that is fascinating that listening alone will not reveal. Only assiduous analysis of the scores, not available to Bach’s congregations, can disclose the hidden messages intended, presumably, only for God albeit acting as a spur to Bach's own imagination. One is led to the probable conclusion that Bach cared little for approval of mankind; his principal aim being to please God and, hopefully, to have his works performed in heaven forever.

According to Bach’s Obituary published in 1754, Bach wrote five cycles of cantatas for the Lutheran Church year. Cycles 1 and 2 remain virtually intact. A number of cantatas remain from cycle 3 but little thereafter. In all, nearly two hundred religious cantatas survive from a possible canon of around three hundred. However, he reused so much of his own material that it is very possible that the Obituary overestimated the number of original works. For example, it is quite probable that CPE Bach counted the Weimar cantatas and the first Leipzig as separate cycles, unaware that so many of the former were recast for the latter. He may not have recalled just how many works by other composers Bach included in cycles after May 1725. It is reasonable to believe that Bach assembled four or five annual cycles, largely by himself but increasingly using cantatas by others, which he repeated over the period of his tenure at Leipzig. If that is true, there may be very few missing works.

The traditional BWV numbering of the cantatas relates to the order of publication of the extant works in the nineteenth century and does not reflect their chronology. Those interested in the actual order of composition and their relationship to the Lutheran church year should consult Christolph Wolff’s book (pp 270-288).  For contextual reasons I have, where possible, presented the cantatas in the order in which they are believed to have been performed at Leipzig, as set out by Dürr and Wolff.

Complete translations of the texts have not been included. It is assumed that most people will have access to them with their CD recordings and they are available from the internet and the links to be found at the end of each essay. Elsewhere texts are set out, line by line, in German and English making them quite easy to follow. The strategy used in this book is to provide the reader with a short, paraphrased version within the essay to avoid the need for continual reference to a second volume. Only where particular ideas and images are transformed directly into the music is the translation more specific. A convention has been adopted whereby a series of four short dashes indicates where a paraphrased section from a verse is inserted directly into the main text. Attempts have been made to use English versions that shed light specifically upon Bach's interpretation of individual texts. Problems of translation are touched upon, for example, in the essay on C 176, chapter 50 of volume 2.

These three volumes can be read through from start to finish and that will, undoubtedly, provide the best overview of the canon. But they are also intended primarily as a guide for the student or devoted listener who wants to find out more about any individual work than typical CD notes provide.  S/he can simply enter any cantata number in the search box on the home page (using upper case letters) and hit 'enter'. The essay and its chapter heading should appear: click on it and that takes you directly to the essay.   Comprehensive cross-referencing provides links between many of the works.

 Background, structure, intentions, imagery, the creation and development of ideas and, hopefully some insight into the character of these compositions are areas which have preoccupied the author for over two two decades. They underpin the analysis of the works and, although some technical language is essential for purposes of illustration, it should not put off the non-musician. A comprehensive glossary has been provided for readers lacking knowledge of essential technical terms (see dropdown). Certain fundamental expressions cannot be avoided and the non-musician should make him/herself conversant with them e.g. fantasia, chorale, ritornello, melisma, key, mode, cadence.

However, in order to cater for those who wish to read only about selected cantatas, a certain amount of repetition across the essays has been unavoidable. I trust that the reader who works through the volumes may forgive this.

There are over 1,000 musical illustrations provided in the essays and they can be both seen and heard. For the non-reader, musical events have been described as clearly as possible in words. Musicians can always refer to scores; the complete Bärenreiter Urtext edition is recommended. Immediate access to both full scores and piano reductions, translations, lists of recordings and other information is available through the link at the end of each essay. Performances of most of the cantatas can be found on the internet. Overviews of many of the cantatas may be found on Wikipedia.

The twentieth century saw the rise of an industry of literature purporting to examine and encourage the individual to delve into various aspects of the human psyche. ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and ‘Spiritual Intelligence’ were just two of the terms coined in the attempts to redress and balance the dominance of the intellect and demonstrate ways in which individuals might better get ‘in touch with their inner beings’.  In his cantatas Bach takes physical and mental images, translates them into psychological states and, by applying the most stringent and disciplined of intellectual processes, leads us through a truly spiritual journey. No adherence to any particular form of religious belief is necessary for one to enter into this unique world. One should not be deterred by what some people may feel are  ponderous, archaic, eighteenth century texts with a repetitious concentration upon praise of God, Christ’s sacrifice, human failings, sin, punishment, misery and ultimate salvation. They are also preoccupied with universal aspects of the human condition; notions of unflinching faith, loyalty, transgression, suffering, bereavement, death, punishment and pride. Bach transcends the words, penetrating beyond them to those eternal and core conditions underpinning what it is to be human.  Thus he takes us on a journey that is uniquely illuminative of both our individual inner ‘souls’ and the wider human condition.

Bach’s cantatas form an unparalleled body of work to be cherished by all, regardless of age or culture. Lack of musical training or historical knowledge should form no obstacle to the development of a deep love and understanding of them.

(Those who wish to seek out more specific background information should go directly to the detailed introductions to each of the three volumes).

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