In the early years of the 17th century, Italian composers (including Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi and Francesca Caccini) developed a style of music called monody, in which a singer's elaborate melody would be accompanied by one or more instruments playing a rhythmically independent bass line with added improvised harmonies. This invested most of the expressive responsibility in the singer, and the resulting potential for music to enhance drama and character development formed a foundation of opera. The cantata grew up concurrently with opera. While the opera included drama, costumes, acting, staging, and all manner of special effects that the theater could provide, for the most part the cantata remained relatively short, and far less elaborate. Over time, two distinct musical types became standardized within each genre: recitative, resembling sung speech, and aria, a structured form allowing for focussed expressivity and vocal display.
For most of the century Italy remained a center of musical innovation, but a few German composers gradually began to import the new style back home. Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), remarkably during and after the devastation of the Thirty Years War (1618–48), created a highly sophisticated and original body of composition, much of it founded on the principles of the new style. Composed for solo, duet or multiple vocal parts with continuo and often with additional obbligato instruments, the music of Schütz sounds remarkably vital in performance even today. Primarily sacred, it expresses ecumenism by setting either Latin or German texts, each with their distinctive piety.
In the patchwork of German states and towns, old styles of music continued in practice, especially in churches, which had always tended to preserve old music. The new musical style (known as "concerted" or “figural" style) developed alongside this in the hands of composers such as Andreas Hammerschmidt (1611 or 1612–75), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707), Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706), and Georg Böhm (1661–1733). A musician performing this music today should strive to understand the differences between these predecessors and the remarkable group of J.S. Bach's (1685–1750) contemporaries (J.P. Rameau, G.F. Handel, A. Vivaldi, and G.P. Telemann).
The insertion of the cantata into church liturgies, including the Sunday-morning "Lutheran Mass" and Sunday-afternoon Vespers, became a key innovation of the period. Over time the cantata came to relate directly to the pericopes, the sacred readings appointed for days of the Church Year. Liturgical drama had already existed for centuries, but, rather than story-telling, Protestant piety and exegetical tradition formed the church cantata's starting point. Like preachers of the sermon, composers and librettists of the church cantata sought to bring the Word to the people in a way that could be understood and find relevance to their lives. By the time of J.S. Bach, composers had already explored many of the cantata's unique capacities to fulfill this role.
The modern history of the Bach Cantatas is a history of rediscovery. During his life, J.S. Bach’s music was known mostly near where he had worked and also by a few elite musicians. For two hundred years it grew in recognition leading ultimately to world-wide acceptance in the concert repertoire. In the second half of the 19th century the Bach Gesellschaft published most of Bach’s music, creating access vital to its dissemination. Many works came to be performed at that time, but most of the cantatas had to wait until well into the 20th century, and only in the second half of the century were they all recorded.
A cantata by J.S. Bach required a "Chor," a group consisting of singers and instrumentalists, for performance. Distinct from most other kinds of church music from the period, the concerted style tends to be especially elaborate and challenging to perform, prominently featuring solo singing by the individual concertists. The ripieno, a group of additional singers, might sometimes be added to strengthen this ensemble, but little evidence exists to clarify how often Bach would have actually done this. Since Felix Mendelssohn's revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, performances of J.S. Bach's concerted works have routinely utilized three or more singers per part (sometimes many more), primarily on those movements in which soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sing together. Starting in the 1980s, some scholars have cast doubt on the notion that 17th- or early-18th-century practices offer any support for this approach. The Peregrine Consort usually chooses the clarity and expressive flexibility resulting from one voice per vocal part in all movements.
The Cantatas present universal themes that can still touch lives. Their exclusively pre-Enlightenment theology, language and imagery may appear strange to us today, but they engage authentically with life as it was then lived. Moreover, like other old art, by revealing a world view from a previous era that jars discordantly with our current world view, these works can subvert temporal provincialism. This might help open fresh perspectives on our own times, maybe even encourage some healthy introspection. Rooted in a remote context, the Cantatas of J.S. Bach provide a voice still powerfully relevant.
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