Chapter 71 Introduction

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Attempting to make sense of the ‘secular’ cantatas presents academics and critics with a number of difficulties. Firstly, the name is misleading as a number of them have distinctly religious themes and make use of Lutheran chorales. Secondly, they do not fall into a relatively cognate group as do, for example, the religious works of the second Leipzig cycle. Similarly, the first cycle sits comfortably with the earlier works, many of which were recycled during the first year of Bach’s appointment. Most of the later cantatas have a commonality of purpose which, despite Bach’s increasingly innovatory approach to church music, provides us with points of focus, comparison and connection.

Many of the secular cantatas have little in common except for the fact that they were composed for specific vents outside of formal religious ceremony and observance. Furthermore, they were produced over a period of at least forty years from 1707 (the probable date of the Actus Tragicus) to 1748 (the reworking of C 69). There are numerous examples of the reuse of existing works so that different movements of the same piece may have been composed years apart and some cantatas can only be reconstructed by the reclaiming of movements from earlier or later sources.

The essays on these cantatas have attempted to take account of these issues. There is considerable cross referencing with works that share movements, often with comments about matters of word setting. They have been divided into five categories: wedding, funeral, municipal, homage and sundry (in some cases unknown) events. Such a grouping allows a limited degree of comparative analysis of Bach’s approach to works produced for similar occasions.

One remains in two minds about the texts Bach was called upon to set. There can be little doubt that some verses are trivial and mundane in the extreme. Others have a sense of hyperbole that makes them seem absurd to the modern ear. And it cannot be said that they always elicited from Bach a consistently high level of artistic response. C 205, for example, is a work which contains two arias of the highest musical quality and expressiveness, followed by a chorus of untypically negligible interest. On the other hand, Cs 204 and 201 appear to reveal fascinating aspects of Bach the man and Bach the artist. The general standard remains very high although, some might feel, not always as consistently so as in the religious works. One cannot escape the conclusion that Bach ensured that his best work was created for God.

Which, of course, did not prevent him from reusing the best of the secular cantatas in the great religious pieces; the Christmas Oratorio for example is, to a large extent, constructed of existing movements mainly taken from Cs 213 and 214. Because of this, students are afforded the opportunity of closely studying Bach’s technique in matters of parody of arias and choruses and the recomposing of newly required recitatives at different stages of his composing career. His practice was, usually though not always, to compose recitatives afresh for altered texts. The three different sets of recitatives he produced for C 134 and 134a form a rare case study.

But despite the question marks about the quality of some of the verse, Bach’s freedom from the constraints of the weekly service and its entrenched traditions, sermons and monitored texts, allowed him to follow different artistic paths. The secular cantata scenarios provided him with a greater range of subjects and consequent images to stimulate his imagination. Themes of renewal and rebirth are common in the wedding and municipal cantatas. Allegorical figures and characters from classical mythology may be drawn upon; even national rivers are characterized as narrators (C 206).

Above all, the fact that the musicians were seen as well as heard undoubtedly had an impact upon Bach’s responses to the texts. Several observations about the use, or abandonment, of instrumental introductions may be found in C 212 (The Peasant Cantata). The rich tapestries of meaning often to be found in the church cantata recitatives (see Cs 2 and 38, chapters 3 and 22 in vol 2) have less place in the secular works where secco movements are the norm within a dramatic, often theatrical, context.

There are a few cantatas that have not warranted essays in this section. C 194, an organ consecration cantata (itself a probable paraphrase of an earlier work) was reused as a part of the first Leipzig cycle and discussion about it may be found in chapter 61, vol 1. Only the soprano part has survived from C 216, too little upon which to base an analytical essay (although a complete version of one of the arias may be found in C 204). C 210a has suffered a similar fate and other works now known not to be authentic, have been omitted. Brief comments on C 30a are to be found in the essay on C 30, chapter 52 of volume 3.

With a few exceptions, the secular cantatas are not performed as often as they should be. One reason may relate to finance and the number of musicians which some of them require. But it is equally possible that conductors may feel that listeners are not best served when favourite movements appear unexpectedly, seemingly wrenched from better known contexts. The fact that Cs 202 and 212 require only a few performers, may in part, account for their popularity; but if this is the case, why not Cs 203, 204 and 209? It may be that listeners who know and love the Christmas Oratorio and Bm Mass (or even the first and third Brandenburg Concerti) may find it disconcerting to discover familiar movements cropping up in, amongst other works, Cs 213, 214, 215 or 207.

But to hear these arias and choruses in other and, on occasions, their original settings is to bring a different perspective to the individual cantatas, to the composer and the wider canon. In any case, movements are seldom transplanted unaltered and the changes often provide one with a different viewpoint. For serious students, the practical adaption of such movements and the attention Bach gave to the details of paraphrase provides them with many opportunities of learning.

Ton Koopman has, in his boxed set, provided recordings of virtually all of the secular works, including alternative versions and, at times, scholarly reconstructions.

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