Music History is Thrilling!

Baroque Cantata and Johann Sebastian Bach


This vocal genre is usually based on a lyric or dramatic poem and could be either sacred or secular. It contains pieces for solo voices, chorus and instrumentalists in the manner of arias, recitatives and choruses. The Lutheran Church used the Cantata in their service and required one Cantata per service. An annual cycle came to about 60 Cantatas in total
Lutheran chorale
The chorale was a hymn tune sung in homophonic texture with the soprano carrying the melody. They were written as battle hymns for the protestant reformation and some were written by Martin Luther. They could be used as the framework for a Cantata
Fugal texture
A polyphonic texture in which imitation is the foundation. A melody is introduced in one voice and imitated in the remaining voices in turn
A strictly organized piece of music in which the melodic line is repeated at a fixed distance
A small aria like passage which is found in a cantata similar to an aria
Oboe de caccia
An oboe instrument with a flared brass horn which was discontinued in use after Bach’s death
Oboe d’amore
Another oboe instrument with a bulbous horn which produced a nasal type sound
Another oboe type instrument similar in sound to the oboe d’amore as it was double reeded

Johann Sebastien Bach (1685-1750)

As Bach was virtuosic organist he wrote many pieces for the instrument including chorale preludes, chorale variations, toccatas, fantasias, and a collection of preludes and fugues (The Well Tempered Clavier). His contrapuntal genius is evident in all his music, especially so in his keyboard fugues. He was a devoutly religious man which is evident in his vocal music which contains church cantatas and oratorios (St. Matthew’s Passion).  He also wrote a mass, which is too grand in scale for the cathedral but must be enjoyed in the concert hall. He also composed some secular cantatas including the “Coffee” Cantata. His lyricism is heard in his instrumental music including the six concertos which he dedicated to the Margrave of Brangdenburg.

“Cantata No. 80″ Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott (Movements 1, 2, 5, and 8)

This Cantata was written in eight movements and was based on Martin Luther’s chorale “Ein feste burg ist unser Gott”. The librettist was Salmono Franck. After Bach died, his son, Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, added trumpets and drums to the first movements to increase the pomp and splendour. The framework of the eight movements is as follows:

  1. Chorus: Chorale Fugue
  2. Duet: Soprano and Bass
  3. Recitative and Ariosa: Bass
  4. Solo: Soprano
  5. Chorus: Unison Chorale
  6. Recitative and Ariosa: Tenor
  7. Duet: Tenor and Altos
  8. Chorus: 4-part chorale

I Movement. Chorus: Chorale Fugue Meter: 4/4 Key: D major This first movement is grand and pompous in character partly due to the trumpet and drums added later by Bach’s son. The text of the movement is about how God is a mighty fortress and how he helps us against our enemy. The tenors open the fugal texture answered by the sopranos. The instruments are playing a canon of the original chorale tune which has been augmented. II Movement. Duet: Soprano and Bass Meter: 4/4 Key: D major This movement is written in a polyphonic texture in which the soprano and bass lines are woven together in a contrapuntal manner. The sopranos are singing about Jesus Christ and his might while the basses are singing about how the victory that those who are born of God are entitled to. The soprano is carrying the original chorale melody which has been embellished while the bass is carrying a florid counterpoint against it with the strings playing in unison. V Movement. Chorus: Unison Chorale Meter: 6/8 Key: D major The text in this movement is about God’s strength against the devil and how he will be judged and destroyed. The fullness of the entire chorus singing in unison paints a picture of the strength of God while the instruments play paraphrases of the chorale melody throughout. VIII. Movement. Chorus: 4-part Chorale Meter: 4/4 Key: D major Bach is finally presenting the chorale how Luther originally wrote it, in 4 part homophonic texture with the melody carried by the soprano and the other voices singing supporting chords. They are expressing how the word of God will abide and how we will persevere through strife as His kingdom will prevail. The instruments are doubling the voices in this movement with coninuo added as well.

All information on this article is derived from: Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney. The Enjoyment of Music, Eight Edition, Standard Version, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999.
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