Bach cantata

Bach cantatas
BWV 1 to 224
by J. S. Bach

Autograph of a soprano aria in cantata Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht, BWV 105
Composed 1707 (1707) to 1745 (1745)

The cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (German: Bachkantaten) are among his most significant and celebrated compositions. While many have been lost, at least 209 of the cantatas composed by Bach have survived.

As far as we know, Bach's earliest surviving cantatas date from 1707, the year he moved to Mühlhausen (although he may have begun composing them at his previous post at Arnstadt). Most of Bach's cantatas date from his first years as Thomaskantor, cantor of the main churches of Leipzig), which he took up in 1723. Working especially at the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, it was part of his job to perform a church cantata every Sunday and Holiday, conducting soloists, the Thomanerchor and orchestra as part of the church service. In his first years in Leipzig, starting after Trinity of 1723, it was not unusual for him to compose a new work every week.[1] Works from three annual cycles of cantatas for the liturgical calendar have survived. These relate to the readings prescribed by the Lutheran liturgy for the specific occasion. He composed his last cantata probably in 1745.

In addition to the church cantatas, Bach composed sacred cantatas for functions like weddings or Ratswahl (the inauguration of a new town council), music for academic functions of the University of Leipzig at the Paulinerkirche, and secular cantatas for anniversaries and entertainment in nobility and society, some of them Glückwunschkantaten (congratulatory cantatas) and Huldigungskantaten (homage cantatas).

His cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir, but he also wrote solo cantatas for typically one soloist and dialogue cantatas for two singers. The words for many cantatas combine Bible quotes, contemporary poetry and chorale, but he also composed a cycle of chorale cantatas based exclusively on one chorale.

Name and titles

Although the term Bachkantate (Bach cantata) became very familiar, Bach himself used the title Cantata rarely in his manuscripts, but in Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56 he wrote Cantata à Voce Sola e Stromenti (Cantata for solo voice and instruments). Another cantata in which Bach used that term is Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, BWV 84. Typically, he began a heading with the abbreviation J.J. (Jesu juva, "Jesus, help"), followed by the name of the celebration, the beginning of the words and the instrumentation, for example in Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191. Bach often signed his cantatas with SDG, short for Soli Deo Gloria ("glory to the only God" / "glory to God alone").[2]

Bach often wrote a title page for the autograph score and copies of the original parts. For example, he titled the parts of Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 38, using a mix of languages to describe the occasion, the incipit, the precise scoring and his name: "Dominica 21. post Trinit / Aus tieffer Noth schrey ich zu dir. / â / 4. Voc. / 2. Hautbois. / 2. Violini. / Viola. / 4. Tromboni / e / Continuo. / di / Signore / J.S.Bach".[3] The occasion for which the piece was performed is given first, in Latin: "Dominica 21. post Trinit" (Sunday 21 after Trinity Sunday, with Trinit short for Trinitatis). The title follows, given in German in the orthography of Bach's time. The scoring and finally his name appear in a mix of French and Italian, the common languages among musicians at the time, partly abbreviated.

BWV number

Bach wrote more than 200 cantatas, of which many have survived. In the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV), Wolfgang Schmieder assigned them each a number within groups: 1200 (sacred cantatas), 201216 (secular cantatas), 217224 (cantatas where Bach's authorship is doubtful). Since Schmieder's designation, several of the cantatas he thought authentic have been redesignated "spurious." However, the spurious cantatas retain their BWV numbers. The List of Bach cantatas is organized by BWV number, but sortable by other criteria.

Structure of a Bach cantata

A typical Bach cantata of his first year in Leipzig follows the scheme:

  1. Opening chorus
  2. Recitative
  3. Aria
  4. Recitative (or Arioso)
  5. Aria
  6. Chorale

The opening chorus (Eingangschor) is usually a polyphonic setting, the orchestra presenting the themes or contrasting material first. Most arias follow the form of a da capo aria, repeating the first part after a middle section. The final chorale is typically a homophonic setting of a traditional melody.

Bach used an expanded structure to take up his position in Leipzig with the cantatas Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, and Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76, both in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon (post orationem) and during communion (sub communione), each part a sequence of opening movement, five movements alternating recitatives and arias, and chorale. In an exemplary way both cantatas cover the prescribed readings: starting with a related psalm from the Old Testament, Part I reflects the Gospel, Part II the Epistle.[4]

Bach did not follow any scheme strictly, but composed as he wanted to express the words. A few cantatas are opened by an instrumental piece before the first chorus, such as the Sinfonia of Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29. A solo movement begins Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, BWV 120, because its first words speak of silence. Many cantatas composed in Weimar are set like chamber music, mostly for soloists, with a four-part setting only in the closing chorale, which may have been sung by the soloists. In an early cantata Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172, Bach marked a repeat of the opening chorus after the chorale.

The chorale can be as simple as a traditional four-part setting, or be accompanied by an obbligato instrument, or be accompanied by the instruments of the opening chorus or even expanded by interludes based on its themes, or have the homophonic vocal parts embedded in an instrumental concerto as in the familiar Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, or have complex vocal parts embedded in the concerto as in Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, BWV 186, in a form called Choralphantasie (chorale fantasia). In Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, for the 1st Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, he shaped the opening chorus as a French overture.

Singers and instrumentation

Schlosskirche in Weimar where Bach composed and performed church cantatas monthly from 1714 to 1717
Thomaskirche, one of the two Leipzig churches where Bach composed and performed church cantatas almost weekly from 1723 to 1726


Typically Bach employs soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists and a four-part choir, also SATB. He sometimes assigns the voice parts to the dramatic situation, for example soprano for innocence or alto for motherly feelings. The bass is often the vox Christi, the voice of Jesus, when Jesus is quoted directly, as in Es wartet alles auf dich, BWV 187, or indirectly, as in O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60.

In the absence of clear documentary evidence, there are different options as to how many singers to deploy per part in choral sections. This is reflected in the recordings discussed below. Ton Koopman, for example, is a conductor who has recorded a complete set of the cantatas and who favours a choir with four singers per part. On the other hand, some modern performances and recordings use one voice per part,[5] although Bach would have had more singers available at Leipzig, for example, while the space in the court chapel in Weimar was limited. One size of choir probably does not fit all the cantatas.


The orchestra that Bach used is based on string instruments (violin, viola) and basso continuo, typically played by cello, double bass (an octave lower) and organ. A continuous bass is the rule in Baroque music; its absence is worth mentioning and has a reason, such as describing fragility.

The specific character of a cantata or a single movement is rather defined by wind instruments, such as oboe, oboe da caccia, oboe d'amore, flauto traverso, recorder, trumpet, horn, trombone, and timpani. In movements with winds, a bassoon usually joins the continuo group.

Festive occasions call for richer instrumentation. Some instruments also carry symbolic meaning such as a trumpet, the royal instrument of the Baroque, for divine majesty, and three trumpets for the Trinity. In an aria of BWV 172, addressing the Heiligste Dreifaltigkeit (Most holy Trinity), the bass is accompanied only by three trumpets and timpani.

In many arias Bach uses obbligato instruments, which correspond with the singer as an equal partner. These instrumental parts are frequently set in virtuoso repetitive patterns called figuration. Instruments include, in addition to the ones mentioned, flauto piccolo (sopranino recorder), violino piccolo, viola d'amore, violoncello piccolo (a smaller cello), tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet), and corno da tirarsi.

In his early compositions Bach also used instruments that had become old-fashioned, such as viola da gamba and violone. Alto recorders (flauti dolci) are sometimes used in connection with death and mourning as in Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106.

Solo cantata

Some cantatas are composed for only one solo singer (Solokantate), as Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 for soprano, sometimes concluded by a chorale, as in Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56 for bass.

Dialogue cantata

Some cantatas are structured as a dialogue, mostly for Jesus and the Soul (bass and soprano), set like miniature operas. Bach titled them for example Concerto in Dialogo, concerto in dialogue. An early example is Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152 (1714). He composed four such works in his third annual cycle, Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57 (1725), Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49, (both 1726), and Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 58 (1727).[6]

Text of Bach's sacred cantatas

Within the Lutheran liturgy, certain readings from the Bible were prescribed for every event during the church year; specifically, it was expected that an Epistel from an Epistle and Evangelium from a Gospel would be read. Music was expected for all Sundays and Holidays except the quiet times (tempus clausum) of Advent and Lent; the cantatas were supposed to reflect the readings. Many opening movements are based on quotations from the Bible, such as Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, from Isaiah 60:6. Ideally, a cantata text started with an Old Testament quotation related to the readings, and reflected both the Epistle and the Gospel, as in the exemplary Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76. Most of the solo movements are based on poetry of contemporary writers, such as court poet Salomon Franck in Weimar, or Georg Christian Lehms or Picander in Leipzig, with whom Bach collaborated. The final words were usually a stanza from a chorale. Bach's Chorale cantatas are based exclusively on one chorale, for example the early Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, and most cantatas of his second annual cycle in Leipzig.

Periods of cantata composition

The following lists of works (some marked as questioned) relies mainly on Alfred Dürr's Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach. Usually the cantatas appear in the year of their first performance, sometimes also for later performances, then in brackets.


Bach moved to Mühlhausen in 1707 when he was 22 to take up an appointment as organist of St. Blasius church ("Divi Blasii"). There is evidence suggesting that he composed a cantata as an audition piece for Mühlhausen, and this may have been Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4. One or two more surviving cantatas may have been composed while Bach was at his previous post in Arnstadt, for example, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150.

A couple of the surviving cantatas can be firmly dated to his time in Mühlhausen. For example, Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, was composed for the inauguration of the town council in 1708. By Bach's own account Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131 was also composed at Mühlhausen. Other cantatas are assumed to date from this period:


For more details on this topic, see Weimar cantata (Bach).

Bach worked in Weimar from 1708. He composed a secular cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208 in 1713. The composition of cantatas for the Schlosskirche (court chapel) on a regular monthly basis started with his promotion to Konzertmeister in March 1714.[7] His goal was to compose a complete set of cantatas for the liturgical year within four years. Cantatas 54 and 199 were performed within the cycle but possibly composed earlier.


Bach worked in Köthen from 1717 to 1723, where he composed for example the Brandenburg concertos. He had no responsibility for church music, therefore only secular cantatas have survived. Later in Leipzig, he derived several church cantatas from congratulatory cantatas, such as Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66, for Easter from the birthday cantata Der Himmel dacht auf Anhalts Ruhm und Glück, BWV 66a. Even after he moved to Leipzig he could carry his title of Fürstlich Köthenischer Kapellmeister and continued to write secular cantatas for the court.[8][9]


In Leipzig Bach was responsible for the town's church music in the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche and was head of the Thomasschule. Church cantata performances alternated in the two churches for ordinary Sundays and took place in both churches on high holidays such as Christmas, then one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and again alternating for the three days such an occasion was celebrated. Academic functions took place at the Universitätskirche St. Pauli. There is debate whether Bach performed Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 59 there a week before he began his cantorate. Bach started it on the first Sunday after Trinity of 1723 and wrote a first annual cycle. Bach's major works such as the Passions and the Mass in B minor are inserted in the listing for comparison.

First cantata cycle

Second cantata cycle

After Trinity of 1724 he started a second annual cycle of mainly chorale cantatas. The chorale was typically the chorale prescribed for that week (Hauptlied or Wochenlied). These cantatas were performed even after his death, according to Christoph Wolff probably because the well-known hymns were appealing to the audience.[10]

The new cantatas Bach composed for Easter of 1725 and afterwards were not chorale cantatas:

Two of these, BWV 128 and BWV 68, both starting with a chorale fantasia, are sometimes seen as included in the chorale cantata cycle.

Other cantatas by Bach that are usually seen as belonging to the chorale cantata cycle:

For four further chorale cantatas it is unclear for which occasion they were composed, and whether they were intended to be added to the cycle:

Third to fifth year in Leipzig

After Trinity of 1725 Bach began a third annual cycle, but with less consistency. The first cantata is written for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, only the following year he added a substantial work for the first Sunday after Trinity. The cycle extends over several years, although the cantatas from 1727 have been termed as "between the third and the fourth cycles".[11] Cantatas for some occasions are not extant.

Between Trinity and Advent 1725 (apart from chorale cantatas):
Liturgical year from Advent 1725 to the last Sunday after Trinity 1726 (includes 18 cantatas by Johann Ludwig Bach (JLB)):
Church cantatas of 1727 (apart from chorale cantatas):

Picander cycle of 1728–29

There is some circumstantial evidence that a complete fourth cycle of Bach cantatas, in scholarship indicated as Picander-cycle, may have existed.[11][29][30]

Extant cantatas of the fourth cycle:

Other cantatas and church music

Not belonging to the foregoing:


Bach sometimes reused an earlier composition, typically revising and improving it in a process called parody. For example, a movement from a partita for violin, in ceaseless motion, was arranged as an orchestral sinfonia with the organ as solo instrument for the wedding cantata 120a and again in Cantata 29, this time the organ accompanied by a full orchestra dominated by trumpets. Not only a single movement but a complete cantata was reworked from the Shepherd cantata Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen, BWV 249a to become the Easter Oratorio. Bach used parody to be able to deliver cantatas for Christmas, Easter and Pentecost which were each celebrated for a period of three days. His Easter cantata Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß, BWV 134, is a parody of six of eight movements of the cantata for New Year's Day, Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a. Six movements of his congratulatory cantata Durchlauchtster Leopold, BWV 173a, form the cantata for Pentecost Monday of 1724, Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173; while a seventh movement was made part of the cantata for Pentecost Tuesday of 1725, Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen, BWV 175.

Bach's four short masses are parodies of cantata movements; he used several movements of Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, BWV 179 for two of them. When he compiled his Mass in B minor, he again used many cantata movements, such as a part of Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, for the Crucifixus of the Credo.


Bach's oratorios can be considered as expanded cantatas. They were also meant to be performed during church services. Distinct from the cantatas, a narrator, the Evangelist, tells a story in the exact Bible wording, while soloists and the choir have "roles" such as Mary or "the shepherds", in addition to reflective chorales or arias commenting on the story. The St Matthew Passion and the St John Passion were intended to be performed on Good Friday, before and after the sermon. The six parts of the Christmas Oratorio were intended to be performed on six feast days of the Christmas season, each part composed as a cantata with an opening chorus (except in Part 2) and a closing chorale.

Performances by Bach

Bach composed the cantatas and performed them, conducting from the keyboard. The choir was the Thomanerchor, which also served the other main churches of Leipzig for which Bach was responsible. Cantatas, under his personal direction, were performed in the Nikolaikirche and in the Thomaskirche, alternating on ordinary Sundays. On high feast days, the same cantata was performed in the morning in one of these churches, in a vespers service in the other.[31]

Later performances and recordings

After Bach's death the cantatas fell into obscurity even more than his oratorios. There is some evidence for the chorale cantatas being performed at Leipzig after Bach's death, but the cantatas were little known until a society called the Bach-Gesellschaft began to publish the composer's complete works starting in 1851. Only one of the cantatas, Gott ist mein König, BWV 71 had been published during Bach's lifetime. The cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV1 was selected as the first work to appear in the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe, the first complete edition.[32]

In 1928, The New York Times reported the presentation in Paris of two secular Bach cantatas by opera soprano Marguerite Bériza and her company in staged productions, The Peasant Cantata and The Coffee Cantata.[33] In the early 1950s Fritz Lehmann recorded several cantatas with the Berliner Motettenchor and the Berlin Philharmonic. Karl Richter called his choir programmatically Münchener Bach-Chor in 1954 and recorded about a third of the cantatas.

Between 1958 and 1987, the London Bach Society, conducted by Paul Steinitz performed all the extant church and secular cantatas, 208 separate works, in various venues, mostly in the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, London. Diethard Hellmann called the Kantorei of the Christuskirche Bachchor Mainz in 1965 and produced more than 100 cantatas on a weekly basis with the Südwestrundfunk. Fritz Werner started recording with the Heinrich-Schütz-Chor Heilbronn and the Pforzheim Chamber Orchestra a series that they called Les Grandes Cantates de J.S. Bach.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt were the first to begin recording the complete cantatas. This 20-year collaboration used historical instruments, with boys' choirs and boy soloists for most soprano and a few alto parts. Harnoncourt conducted the Wiener Sängerknaben or the Tölzer Knabenchor and the Concentus Musicus Wien. Leonhardt conducted the Tölzer Knabenchor, Knabenchor Hannover and the Collegium Vocale Gent, and the ensemble Leonhardt-Consort. Helmuth Rilling, Gächinger Kantorei, and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart completed a recording of the sacred cantatas and oratorios on Bach's 300th birthday, 21 March 1985. Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir recorded all vocal works of Bach in 10 years starting in 1994, including the cantatas.[34] Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir undertook the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, performing and recording in the year 2000 the sacred cantatas at churches all over Europe and in the United States. Sigiswald Kuijken has recorded Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year with La Petite Bande and the soloists forming the choir. Masaaki Suzuki commenced in 1995 a project to record the complete sacred cantatas with his Bach Collegium Japan for the Swedish label BIS; he completed the process in 2013.[35] Pieter Jan Leusink recorded the complete cantatas in 15 months in 1999 and 2000 with the Holland Boys Choir and Netherlands Bach Collegium for Brilliant Classics.

The Thomanerchor has sung a weekly cantata during the evening service Motette on Saturday.[36] The cantatas are also regularly performed on Sundays at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New York City, under the direction of Cantor Rick Erickson.[37]

The Fifth Gospel

In 1929 the Swedish bishop Nathan Söderblom, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, called Bach's cantatas the Fifth Gospel.[38][39]


  1. Eller, R. (Summer 1990). "Thoughts on Bach's Leipzig creative years". Bach Vol. 21, No. 2. Riemenschneider Bach Institute. JSTOR 41640342. Accessed via JSTOR, subscription required
  2. Farstad, Arthur L. (1996). "Grace in the Arts: / An Evangelical Musical Genius: / "J.S.B.: S.D.G."". Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Volume 9:16. Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  3. Grob, Jochen (2014). "BWV 38 / BC A 152" (in German). Retrieved 15 October 2015.
  4. Gardiner, John Eliot (2010). "Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Trinity / Basilique Saint-Denis, Paris" (PDF). p. 5. Retrieved 29 June 2011.
  5. Joshua Rifkin is well known is an advocate of this approach, although it has yet to be followed through in a complete set of cantatas.
  6. Mincham, Julian (2010). "Chapter 11 BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen". Retrieved 8 January 2013.
  7. Koster, Jan. "Weimar 1708–1717". Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  8. Koster, Jan. "Köthen 1717–1723 Part 1 (1717–1720)". Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  9. Koster, Jan. "Köthen 1717–1723 Part 2 (1717–1720)". Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  10. Wolff, Christoph. "Chorale cantatas from the cycle of the Leipzig church cantatas 1724–25" (PDF). p. 8. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  11. 1 2 Tatiana Shabalina "Recent Discoveries in St Petersburg and their Meaning for the Understanding of Bach’s Cantatas" pp. 77-99 in Understanding Bach 4, 2009
  12. BDW 8233
  13. BDW 8231
  14. BDW 8241
  15. BDW 8184
  16. BDW 8243
  17. BDW 8208
  18. BDW 8247
  19. BDW 8195
  20. BDW 8245
  21. BDW 8300
  22. BDW 8290
  23. BDW 8305
  24. BDW 8310
  25. BDW 8303
  26. BDW 8226
  27. BDW 8308
  28. BDW 8229
  29. Günther Zedler. Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach: Eine Einführung in die Werkgattung. Books on Demand, 2011. ISBN 9783842357259, p. 26
  30. Picander (=Christian Friedrich Henrici). Ernst-Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte, Volume III. Leipzig: Joh. Theod. Boetii Tochter (1732; 2nd printing 1737), p. 79ff
  31. Terry, Charles Sanfo (1928). Bach: A Biography. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 160–161.
  32. Christoph Wolff; et al. (1983). The New Grove Bach Family. NY: Norton. p. 178. ISBN 0-393-30088-9. (Worklist for J.S. Bach).
  33. "Paris Applauds Bach In Lighter Vein". The New York Times. 30 December 1928. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  34. "The Works of Bach". Ton Koopman. 2010. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
  35. Ibbitson, John, "A Bach cantata two decades in the making," Toronto Globe and Mail, Nov. 08, 2013 URL=
  36. "Motettenprogramm" (in German). Archived from the original on 9 November 2011. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  37. Bachvesper Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
  38. Siemon-Netto, Uwe (2005). "Why Nippon Is Nuts About J.S. Bach. The Japanese yearn for hope.". Retrieved 21 November 2011.
  39. Petersen-Mikkelsen, Birger (2003). Praedicatio sonora. Musik und Theologie bei Johann Sebastian Bach, in: Kirchenmusik und Verkündigung – Verkündigung als Kirchenmusik. Zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Kirchenmusik (in German). Eutiner Beiträge zur Musikforschung 4, Eutin. p. 47.

Further reading

Links are found for the individual cantatas:

External links

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