Cantata: History and Definition of the Music Form

An Introduction to Different Cantata Structures, Composers and Popular Songs

Scan of the title page of a cantata by Bach
Title page of profane cantata (Happy day, long hoped-for hours) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) 1732. De Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Cantata comes from the Italian word cantare, which means "to sing." In its early form, cantatas referred to a music piece that is meant to be sung. However, as with any musical form, the cantata has evolved through the years.

Loosely defined today, a cantata is a vocal work with multiple movements and instrumental accompaniment; it can be based on either a secular or sacred subject.

Early Cantatas

Early cantatas were in the Italian language and were written in sacred (church cantata) or secular (chamber cantata) styles. 17th-century composers for the cantata include Pietro Antonio Cesti, Giacomo Carissimi, Giovanni Legrenzi, Luigi Rossi, Alessandro Stradella, Mario Savioni and Alessandro Scarlatti; the most prominent composer of cantatas during that period.

German and French Cantata Composers

Before long, the cantata was making its way to Germany courtesy of Johann Hasse, one of Scarlatti's students. German composers such as George Frideric Handel wrote cantatas based on the Italian style, but these were later written in German. In France, 18th-century composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote cantatas in their native language as well.

The Structure of Cantata

The early form of cantata was characterized by alternated recitative, arioso (short lyrical piece) and aria-like sections.

After 1700, the cantata began to feature 2 to 3 da capo arias separated by recitatives. Later on in the 1700s, cantatas particularly in England and France consisted of 3 arias with recitative intro for each.

Through the years, the cantata form has evolved and is no longer restricted to solo voice or voices. During the 20th-century, composers such as Benjamin Britten further contributed to and developed the cantata form to also encompasses choruses and orchestras. 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is perhaps the most prominent and prolific composer of cantatas. At his most productive, he was composing one cantata every week for eight years. Bach wrote both secular and sacred cantatas and developed what is known as "chorale cantata".

He was a very religious man too; he used a musical cross with a note at the center as his signature. The musical cross was made up of 4 different pitches:

  • B: left staff using a treble clef
  • A: upper staff using a tenor clef
  • C: right staff using an alto clef
  • H: lower staff using a treble clef

Bach also wrote "Jesu Juva" (Jesus Help) at the beginning and "SDG", short for "Suli Deo Gloria" (to God be the Glory), at the end of his sacred pieces. 

Below is a short list of 20 Bach cantatas arranged by BWV number. Bach's works are listed using the letters BWV followed by a number. BWV stands for Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue); a catalog of Bach's works arranged by genre.

List of Bach Cantatas

1. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

2. Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein

3. Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid I

4 . Christ lag in Todesbanden

5. Wo soll ich fliehen hin

6 . Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden

7 . Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam

8 . Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?

9 . Es ist das Heil uns kommen her

10. Meine Seel erhebt den Herren

11. Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen

12. Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen

13. Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen

14. Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit

15. Denn du wirst meine Seele nicht in der Hölle lassen [by Johann Ludwig Bach]

16. Herr Gott, dich loben wir

17. Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich

18. Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt

19. Es erhub sich ein Streit

20. O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort I