Chapter 47 Intro

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CHAPTER 47: Introduction.

Bach composed few cantatas after the 1720s and several that he did were chorale/fantasias, essays on which may be found in vol 2, part 2. This section of vol 3 is principally devoted to the occasional late works and the three oratorios which one might think of as expanded cantatas composed for particular liturgical purposes.

Scholars differ as to whether the Easter and Ascension Oratorios should be properly classed as cantatas, but for many the arguments may seem pedantic and non-illuminative. They are large and commanding works but no more so than several of the two-part cantatas that Bach presented in the first and third Leipzig cycles. They are, however, conceived from different standpoints, a fact reflected in their diverse structures. But then the range of cantata formats which Bach developed over the two decades 1715-1735 was so wide and divergent that it is a brave person who would declare boldly ‘this, by virtue of its form is a cantata, but this is not!’

Nevertheless, structurally speaking no single definition of what Bach conceived to be an oratorio can be derived from these  works. For example The Ascension Oratorio has an abundance of recitatives; five out of nine movements. The Easter Oratorio has none whilst the Christmas Oratorio is a compilation of six cantatas none of which would have raised any questions if performed at a normal Sunday service.

The description of the three Oratorios in this volume are somewhat cursory. They are included because some, though not all readers will view them as an essential part of the cantata canon. However, they are better known than the majority of the cantatas proper and  much has been written about them elsewhere which the reader can easily access and which it is not necessary to repeat here.

The Christmas Oratorio is not a single composition but a group of six discrete cantatas, each intended to be performed on specific and consecutive days of the celebratory period. Whether Bach viewed them as a single structural entity is unclear, particularly as so many movements were paraphrased from existing secular works. The fact that there are six of them may well have had a significance for Bach, apart from the Christmas days for which they were assembled. Many of his compositions e.g. keyboard suites, partitas, Brandenburg Concerti, solo violin and cello sonatas were composed in groups of six, the implication being that, whilst they had obvious points of relationship, any one might be extracted and performed individually.

This section also includes reference to C 191, an oddity in that it is the only cantata Bach produced with a Latin text. Detailed comment on it is unnecessary because of its use of movements better known within the context of the Bm Mass.

C 51 is another work which stands outside the normal canon, a virtuosic and enduringly popular piece for (an exceptional) boy soprano or a woman, possibly even Bach′s second wife. Cs 34 and 30 sit more within the conventional repertoire, although each has markedly individual characteristics. All three are works of outstanding quality.

The volume ends with brief comments upon the fragments of three cantatas Cs 50, 200 and 1045, a chorus, an aria and a sinfonia surviving, respectively, from each.

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