Chapter 1 The Background

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N.B. In this volume readers will find essays on the second Leipzig cycle (chapters 1-50) and the later chorale cantatas (chapters 51-61). 


This cycle, composed in the year spanning June 1724 to May 1725, comprises a body of fifty-three cantatas. Twelve additional chorale cantatas were added in subsequent years. Ten are discussed in Part 2 of this volume and two in vol 3.

During his first year at Leipzig Bach had produced a cycle (Jahrgang) of just over sixty of these works. Despite his reuse of several from his earlier years, this was still an extraordinary feat of creative endeavour partially stimulated, one supposes, by his wish to impress the Leipzig congregations and authorities. He may well have been spurred on by the knowledge that he was neither the first nor the second choice for his position. Additionally, it seems that Bach was somewhat sensitive about not having had a university education. Indeed, in the academic sense he was less well qualified than both the panel that appointed him and many of his congregation members.

Clearly the pressures of work in his first year would have left little time for reflection. Whilst many of the compositions of that cycle are astonishingly fertile in imagination, of a consistently high musical quality and show signs of continual experimentation and development, they do not arise from a unified philosophy or concept of what the Lutheran cantata could or should be. It is hardly surprising that unremitting deadlines compelled Bach to re-use a number of cantatas he had composed before his appointment to Leipzig. But what is amazing is the consistently high level of creative thinking and experimentation which permeates the entire cycle.

But Bach approached the second cycle with a pre-defined sense of unifying structure. This was to be music with clear shape and purpose. It would relate to the sermon and the theme of the day and emphasise and illustrate, in musical terms, the appropriate moral teachings. It would engage the listener through the expression of a wide range of human emotions appropriate to the occasion. It would be aesthetically gratifying and stimulate and excite the congregation with dramatic, even operatic, rhetoric.

And above all, it would serve God.

All of this would be achieved with compositions that were musically and artistically cohesive and unified so as to satisfy Bach (the master of organisation and configuration) God the Almighty, Christ the Saviour and, perhaps least significantly of all, the more astute members of the congregation and church authorities! Furthermore, almost all were composed anew within the church year with an absolute  minimum of reliance upon earlier works.

The cantata produced for the Lutheran services of the time was not fixed in form; it was still in a state of flux. Perhaps the most important influence came from Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756) who looked towards the Italian cantata as a model. In short, this led to the adoption of recitative, madrigalian-type texts and biblical insertions, all considerably widening the scope of the form. Furthermore, it led to the Lutheran cantata becoming allied to, indeed almost a component of, the sermon. Neumeister’s writing at that time was a most fortuitous historical event since all these factors clearly influenced the young Bach, particularly when he worked at Weimar. (This is not the place to go into the detailed history of the cantata, but further information can be found in both Wolff and Dürr).

Bach’s grand plan for his second cycle was as follows: a chosen chorale, appropriate for the particular Sunday service, would become the keystone of each work. This, in itself, was not unusual but the use to which it was put, was. The first movement becomes an extended version of the chorale, a discursive development of its theme, exploring its musical and expressive possibilities and thus setting the scene for the rest of the work. The final movement is a harmonisation of the chorale (C 68 being the one exception), the four vocal lines doubled by various available members of the string and wind families but occasionally enjoying independent instrumental parts e.g. Cs 1 & 41. (For more information about the chorales, or Lutheran hymns, refer to the introduction to volume 1).

Between fantasia and chorale lie a number of, usually alternating, recitatives and arias. There are nearly twenty duets, approximately one for every three cantatas, and just three trios; the solo aria clearly predominates. The opening chorus (generally referred to as a chorale fantasia) is usually a setting of the chorale′s first verse of text, the last verse providing the concluding four-part setting. The arias, ensembles and recitatives may draw upon or paraphrase other verses, although additional lines of invented or biblical text relating to the general theme may also be inserted.

In short, Bach seems to have settled upon the chorale (both music and text) as:

* the statement of the theme or thesis of the day

* a mine to be quarried for musical motivic ideas

* the generator of the form and character of the opening movement

* the lynch pin unifying each work in musical, liturgical and  philosophical senses.

The cantata structure is thus fully unified textually and musically. But equally significantly, it is flexible enough to accommodate different themes, texts, musical styles, particular occasions and moral theses in addition to the variable availability of instrumental and vocal resources.

A typical example is C 41, composed for the New Year’s Day celebrations of 1725:

1 extended chorus (fantasia) stating the chorale phrases (cantus firmus) in long notes

2 aria (soprano)

3 recit (alto)

4 aria (tenor)

5 recit (bass)

6 final statement of the chorale in four-part harmony, instruments doubling.

The sense of balance and proportion is obvious. The choir begins and closes the work, separated by two pairs of aria/recitative combinations. All four voices are employed as soloists in the arias and recitatives. However, within this broad template, adaptations could be made to accommodate the needs of different texts, resources and specific days of the church year.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that Bach sought out and was stimulated by texts which allowed him the opportunities of creating works of ideal musical proportion, balance and symmetry.

 NB In this volume the chorale from which each of the chorale/cantatas is developed is quoted at the beginning of the essay and may be heard by clicking on the icon.

Whilst the definition of a chorale cantata in musical terms is a relatively simple matter, it becomes more complex when we consider the text. One of Bach’s approaches was to use a different chorale verse for each movement (see Cs 107 and 97, chapters 8 and 59). This was by no means his usual practice, however, presumably because choruses, recitatives and arias are more flexible, and often more successful, when the lyrics are tailored to the structural demands of the music. At the other extreme, C 1 has no quotations from chorale stanzas in any of the movements falling between the outer two choruses. C 2 has just the one line of chorale text (in the tenor recitative) and C 101, fourteen.

What unites chorale cantatas as a group is the fact that they all begin with a fantasia and all end with a (usually unadorned and complete) version of the chorale sung in four-part harmony. A different stanza of the chorale text is used in each case.

With this in mind, it will be noted that C 98 is not usually listed as a chorale cantata because, although it begins with a fantasia, subsequent movements do not quote or paraphrase lines of chorale text and it does not have a concluding chorale.

The flexibility of scale is demonstrated by the fact that a cantata could contain as few as two arias (C 183) or as many as five (C 20, the first of the cycle). Similarly there may be one or several recitatives, two or three being the norm. A larger work could be structured in two parts for use before and after the sermon although only once in the second cycle did Bach use this format (C 20). He also experimented with hybrid combinations of recitative, arioso, ritornello and chorale sections, particularly when setting long tracts of text.

But an essentially unified structural concept of a ‘well regulated’ Lutheran cantata was, at least for the time being, established.

One cannot stress too strongly both the originality and incredible variety of the opening chorale fantasias. They had to be structurally original because Bach, tied as he was to the limited key range of the chorale melody, could not employ the highly successful forms he had established in his earlier years. If we examine the Brandenburg Concerti, or those for violin and keyboard, we notice how he moves from an established tonic through a series of related keys, returning to the ‘home’ key to conclude. The last movement of Brandenburg 3, for example, has the following key plan which not only provides the firm structural skeleton, but also determines the use and reuse of the main melodic material: G, D, Em, Bm, C, G. But in the chorale fantasias the melodies frequently allow little or no opportunity for modulation so Bach had to find other methods of unifying, developing and giving variety to these majestic musical utterances. Sometimes he does not even have the luxury of a major/minor key contrast.

In terms of variety one can scarcely do better than to hear and compare the opening movements of the first four cantatas, 20, 2, 7 and 135. C 20 is a magnificent French overture whilst C 2 is a barren and desolate motet. C 7 is a vigorous, operatic drama based upon Italian ritornello principles and C 135 is a subtle tone poem, the chorale inter-woven with a delicate filigree of wind and string quaver figures. Furthermore, Bach employs a different voice to carry the chorale melody (cantus firmus) in each chorus, soprano, then alto, tenor and bass. The immense variety of ways in which the other voices and the instruments are used will be commented upon in the individual chapters.

The first forty cantatas all commence with an imposing chorale fantasia. One approaches each with a sense of expectation and wonderment. Will it be in a major or minor key? What is the text about? Which images from the text will Bach particularly emphasise and why? What instrumentation does he employ? How does he write for those voices not carrying the chorale tune? In what ways does he quarry the chorale for motivic ideas? How might the fantasia relate to the rest of the cantata?

The seeking of answers to these questions draws one closer to an appreciation and understanding of these unique works.

There are, however, several deviations from the basic pattern after the fortieth cantata, C 1. In particular, seven of these dispense entirely with an opening chorus. Two (Cs 4 and 42) commence with an orchestral sinfonia, a practice that was to become more common in the third cycle, three (Cs 85, 108 and 87) with a bass aria and, more unusually, Cs 175 and 183 with a recitative.

The omissions of the opening chorus are so rare in this cycle that the casual listener might be forgiven for (wrongly) assuming that they had been lost. Another explanation could be that Bach, obviously aware of the additional demands he was placing upon his singers with the taxing works he was producing, may have deemed it necessary to allow them an occasional break from learning long, complex, opening choruses (the concluding simple chorale statements, by contrast, were hardly demanding). We will find examples at certain times of the church year when the high demands on the choir almost certainly caused Bach to modify his writing accordingly; cantatas following the Easter celebrations of 1725 are a case in point. It is also not unreasonable to conjecture that, encumbered as he was with teaching and other compositional commitments, there were weeks in which he simply did not have the time to compose and rehearse a large-scale work.

Two of the final thirteen cantatas (Cs 128 and 68) do open with a chorale fantasia but they deviate from the established pattern in other ways. C 68 ends with a fugue replacing the expected chorale, and that which concludes C 128 is not the chorale upon which the opening fantasia is built. Four of the remaining thirteen cantatas (Cs 6, 103, 74 and 176) open with extended choruses lacking any connection to the concluding chorales; C 6 is a symphonic poem meditating upon the fading light, a metaphor expressing the pain of separation from the Saviour. C 103, written three weeks later, is a massive fugue combining images of personal grief and communal joy. C 74 expresses the joy to be gained from dwelling with, and receiving, the love of God and C 176 is a concise, enigmatic and austere choral fugue.

It is true, then, to say that none of the final thirteen cantatas of the cycle adhere precisely to the format of the first forty.

Thus the ‘exceptional’ aspects of these thirteen works principally involve the first movements, after which the established pattern generally remains: a mixture of recitatives and arias and, almost inevitably, the final chorale. However, there is evidence that, from Easter 1725 until the end of Bach’s church year (the end of May) he took a somewhat less constrained view of cantata structure. Possibly he found that by focussing so heavily upon the chorale as the mainstay of the opening choruses, he was limiting his expressive options. It may be that he felt that he had temporarily exhausted the possibilities of this type of large chorale/fantasia structure. He might even have felt a sense of relief when, composing such movements as the opening choruses of C 6 or C 103, he allowed his imagination a new freedom, unfettered by the tonal and melodic constraints of the chorale melody.

The explanations offered above are enticing but it is also perfectly possible that Bach planned the first forty cantatas as a cognate group, always intending to depart from the established pattern at the time of the Easter celebrations. But it could also be argued that, being the methodical, disciplined man that he was, he was unlikely to have altered a well-established format without good reason. Circumstances beyond his control may have been thrust upon him.

One possible explanation relates to an unexpected event that occurred in early 1725. It has been suggested that Bach′s established librettist could have been Andreas Stübel who died suddenly in January 1725, thus ending what may have been a fruitful relationship in which both composer and poet had sought, and achieved, common objectives (Wolff, pp 278/9). If true, this might have precipitated a period of some artistic crisis in Bach’s creative life. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no evidence which indicates that Stübel had written any texts for Bach at any time and, increasingly, critics have come to dismiss this theory. Work on identifying possible collaborators who may have provided texts is ongoing (see the drop-down ‘Links’ on the home page).

The temporary relinquishing of the chorale cantata format is not the only event which suggests a degree of predicament. It is only after the Easter celebrations that Bach turned to earlier works (e.g. C 4 and movements in Cs 74, 68 and 175) He also appears to have set texts by a variety of librettists. Some are unknown, although at least nine were written by the Leipzig poet Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (ibid p 279). So, of the final thirteen cantatas, seven dispense with an opening chorus, one is a much earlier work, three are written by unknown, and possibly different, librettists and four open with choruses unconnected to the chorales. Only two (Cs 128 and 68) retain the opening chorale fantasia.

However, it is possible to predicate explanations other than that of the death of a trusted librettist. Bach could well have originally planned the cycle in two sections the first, comprising forty works (C 20-1) ending with that for the Annunciation, and the second beginning with the Easter music (Cs 4 and 6) and continuing until the end of Bach′s church year. It is also possible that Bach, whilst intending to complete the cycle as planned, found the constraints of the chorale fantasia just too constricting and so chose to abandon his strategy for creative reasons; at least for the time being. Certainly the intellectual and musical demands of composing forty chorale fantasias in as many weeks must have been massive. And he does appear to have relished the opportunities of experimenting with a wider range of opening movements in the last quarter of the cycle and thereafter.

And considering Bach’s preoccupation with numbers, might they have any bearing on this issue? There are 40 consecutive chorale cantatas (C 20-C 1). But if we add to these the later two (C 128 and C 68) we have 42. Allotting numbers for letters (i.e. A=1, B=2) the name BACH adds up to 14; 42 is three times 14. On the other hand if, he counted C 4 as one of the chorale cantatas (if the short sinfonia is omitted, this work virtually becomes another chorale/fantasia cantata) we have an unbroken sequence of 41, spelling JS BACH.

But such speculation, diverting though it may be, does little to illuminate Bach′s thinking at this time. Crisis or choice, planned or unplanned? The arguments are finely balanced.

The first work to break the mould was BWV 4, possibly composed as early as 1707 when Bach took up his position in Mühlhausen. There are a number of stylistic reasons that indicate why it could not have been written in 1725, some of which are explored in chapter 42. It was, however, very solidly based upon a single chorale melody but the short orchestral sinfonia which Bach apparently retained for the 1725 performance, sets it apart; as do the lack of recitatives and the adherence to the same key (Em) in every movement.

All of the other cantatas lacking an opening chorus follow in the next two months in the order 42, 85, 108, 87, 183 and 175. They are interspersed with other new or mostly new works 6, 103, 128, 74, 68 and 176, all of which do commence with a chorus; but, as stated above, only Cs 128 and 68 are in the form of a chorale fantasia.

It almost seems as if Bach, with a degree of pugnaciousness not unknown in his character and perhaps unable to complete the cycle precisely as conceived, may have thought: why bother to ensure that any of the remaining cantatas fitted the pattern? If there must be a disruption of the ′grand plan′ let′s grasp the opportunity and make them all different!

But as we shall see in Part 2, he may well have harboured plans to fill the gaps at a later stage. Furthermore, it does seem to be the case that he never returned to such a consistent structural scheme in the later cantata cycles, although it must be said that a number of works may not have survived.

Yet, whatever the frustration or disappointment he might have felt at having to abandon his established structure, the fact remains that there was no loss of energy or inventiveness in any of these last cantatas. He remained fully professional and committed to providing the best, most imaginative and most fitting music of which he was capable.

The particular deviations from the norm exhibited by the seven cantatas lacking an opening chorus mark them as belonging to three distinct groups. Therefore they will be considered as follows:

* Cs 4 and 42, beginning with a sinfonia (chapter 42)

* Cs 85, 108 and 107 beginning with a bass aria (chapter 44)

* Cs 183 and 175, beginning with a recitative (chapter 47)

All the other cantatas of the cycle will be discussed in their proper chronological order based upon the listing in Wolff (pp 275-278) and the researches of Alfred Dürr. Present scholarship cannot, however, accurately date all of the later chorale fantasias analysed in Part 2. They can only be presented in a sequence which seems probable.

The second Leipzig cycle is, then, an extraordinarily interesting and unique canon of work. It is unified, though possibly interrupted in its grand scheme. Highly consistent in quality, it presents us with around twenty hours of the most sublimely imaginative music. It provides fine examples of a master craftsman/musician at the peak of his powers, presenting us with a seemingly unlimited range of startlingly original, and wholly engaging, musical ideas.

Above all, it presents the serious student with an array of compositional devices and techniques of choral and instrumental writing of such diversity and technical skill, yet apparent ease of application, as to be truly mind-boggling.

From whatever vantage point we approach these works, they will continue to provide us with unlimited pleasures and profound insights into the human condition. Thoughtful acquaintance with them will surely lead the listener and student to wish to explore the other canons of religious music that Bach composed both before and after this highly significant year.

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.

 Readers wishing to pursue further study of the cantatas may wish to visit Melvin Unger’s site: Here you will find well realised piano scores with additional analysis. This is currently work in progress of which around a third of the  sacred cantatas is complete with the rest to follow.

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