Book 1 Chapter 1 Intro To First Cycle

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Bach was thirty seven years old when he applied for the position of Cantor at the St 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, perhaps particularly in a city which boasted one 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 also for the music required 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 one additional 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 declared, in his letter of resignation from his Mlhausen 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 the accuracy of this statement.

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 (volume 1 contains the essays on these works). In his second year he produced a further fifty two, 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 with just over two dozen later works. The generally accepted groupings are set out in Wolff’s JS Bach, the Learned Musician (pp 270-285) and are broadly followed in these three volumes. There is also a further collection of secular cantatas for such events as civic occasions, weddings and funerals.


This first of three volumes is in two parts. Part 1 contains essays on each of the cycle 1 cantatas whilst the second deals with the handful of pre-Leipzig works which Bach did not reuse during his first year, followed by the secular cantatas. A few brief observations may be made about the cycle.

Even though Bach had made a clear statement about his ambitions for producing a body of well designed church music, he seems to have had no single vision of the shape or template of the ‘ideal’ cantata. Perhaps he was indifferent to it and was looking more to the essential quality of the music and its fitness for the event or theme it served. But it is difficult to escape completely 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, three and even no chorale melodies. He presented them in plain four part settings but also in the most complex of arrangements. He began works with choruses, arias or recitatives. He combined elements of all three formats into the single movement structure. He composed works for single voices and experimented with the widest possible range of instrumental colours available to him. He presented works in one or two parts (the latter to be performed before and after the sermon) and a range of orchestral sinfonias. The most favoured format was an opening chorus and concluding chorale enclosing a mixture of recitatives and arias, sometimes paired and frequently including a duet. Certainly this became an established pattern in the second chorale/fantasia cycle, although even then there were exceptions and the later cantatas composed from the second half of 1725 on, demonstrate further need to experiment with forms and ways of writing for both 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 the centrepiece cantatas 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 production of a block of forty chorale/fantasia cantatas from June 1724 clearly demonstrated that he had formulated a clear vision and strategy and was initially consistent in its realisation.

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 and works which deserve to be much better known than they are. Furthermore, close observation of the scores reveals so much to the student about his 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, occasions when a movement may seem to some to be somewhat less inspired or inspirational 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’ work is still better than that 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 the third century after his death.

Copyright: J Mincham 2010