Bach’s Cantatas

It’s not every day that a Salt Lake City music lover has the opportunity to witness the performance of a Bach cantata. What follows is a brief article on Bach’s cantatas and Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51, a work featured on the next NOVA concert (October 26, 2014).

In 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a post as the music director and cantor in Leipzig, a position that made him responsible for the music in the city’s four largest churches. He promptly embarked on the daunting task of composing a repertory of cantatas and other liturgical music to fill the calendar year. Even while no concerted music was permissible during Advent and Lent, he needed to write over 60 cantatas as well as various celebratory oratorios for feast days and holidays in order to supply his churches with a full calendar year of works by the music director.

Bach embarked on such compositional projects throughout his career, exhaustive in scope and intended to serve as a catalogue of sorts for the task at hand. Works like the Well-Tempered Clavier, Art of Fugue and the Musical Offering come to mind as collections that served both didactic and expressive functions. Bach’s cantata project was more practical in nature, providing a repertory of functional and oft-performed liturgical works. As such, his opus of cantatas signifies a unique and thoughtful musical representation of the entire liturgical calendar of the Lutheran church.

The cantata in Bach’s liturgy functioned as a musical sermon, directly following the reading of the Gospel. The format adopted by the text of these works usually progressed in the following manner: a biblical dictate drawn from the Gospel reading, an interpretive recitative/aria pair elaborating on the reading, followed by a communal prayer in the form of a chorale.

Bach’s Cantata No. 51 is unusual for its overtly celebratory tone and virtuosic soloists, soprano and trumpet. Bach’s intended singer remains a mystery. The extraordinarily agile and expressive soprano line would have been beyond the abilities of any boy soprano employed by the church, but Leipzig was a conservative city where the employment of a female coloratura in church services was largely forbidden. Here we have one of the rare instances where the functionality of a Bach cantata is called into question. A performance of this work would have demanded a special occasion, one that allowed for an almost operatic articulation of this sacred form.

JH, 10.20.2014