VOLUME 2, PART 2: THE LATE CHORALE CANTATAS
CHAPTER 51: INTRODUCTION.
After the completion of the great Second Leipzig Cycle Bach seem 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 was composing towards the end of that cycle; eight cantatas in four weeks! Beginning again with C 168, now considered 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 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 chorale/fantasia for every cantata, 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 depart from it radically. Several commentators have suggested that Bach attempted to make good these omissions 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 part 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’ church music. 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 set out to do.
But whatever the reasons, it is undeniable that these last dozen works rank upon his highest achievements and are as much worthy of scrutiny and attention as those comprising the great 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 so well established by that block of forty chorale/fantasias. If one came across these last 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 he found novel, exciting and stimulating. These works range from C 192 (chapter 52), a three movement work apparently derived from the concerto structure, to the delicate chamber cantata C 9 (chapter 57). The culmination of his work in this form may be found in the contrapuntal tour de force fantasias of Cs 9 and 80, compositions that look forward to the styles of his last decade. One of the best known and most perennially popular of all church compositions C 140 (chapter 54) may also be found in this late collection.
Modern research has dated several of these works with reasonable accuracy although in a number of cases little is known for certain about their historical placement or original functions. But we should be grateful that these works 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 Cs 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, book 1, chapters 3 and 16.