Among the 95 suggestions for improving Catholicism that Martin Luther nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517 was the radical idea that worshippers should be able to understand the words they hear at Mass. This push to translate the Bible and other sacred texts into regional, living languages had a profound effect on the history of music. J.S. Bach’s hundreds of Lutheran cantatas bear witness to the glorious artistry made possible by the switch from Latin to vernacular languages.
Luther used his native German to demonstrate the type of church songs that he imagined could replace Gregorian chant. He also wanted the melodies to be more like folk songs – often his examples were folk songs, but with new words – tuneful, repetitive, and easy to remember, unlike the modal, arrhythmic chants, which by the 16th century sounded ancient and bizarre to most people.
During the Baroque period, these simple sacred songs, called Lutheran chorales, became the core ingredient in cantatas, complex polyphonic works for voice and instruments. The chorale tune was used as musical material, and each verse of its German text became the basis of its own movement. Bach was not the first composer to write cantatas, but he perfected them. As an indication of how central his work in this genre is to Bach’s overall output, the Bach Werk Verzeichnis (BWV, Bach Work Index) lists his cantatas first.
Conductors who love Bach cannot get enough of this repertoire. Among the notable complete sets of cantatas released just in the past two decades are John Eliot Gardner leading the Monteverdi Choir, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Choir, Helmut Rilling with the Bach-Kollegium Stuttgart, and Masaaki Suzuki’s recording with Bach Collegium Japan. But the geyser of new interpretations keeps on gushing. Here are a few of the more recent releases to consider:
The J.S. Bach-Stiftung (J.S. Bach Foundation) is on Vol. 36 of its complete cantatas series. This Swiss-German foundation, started in 1999, has a goal of recording all of Bach’s vocal works, of which the cantatas make up the majority. Foundation co-founder and music director Rudolf Lutz conducts everything, and the performances are recorded live with the foundation’s own choir and orchestra and released on its own label. With a mandate of preserving Bach’s work and educating the public about it, they post videos of all the performances and accompanying workshops on YouTube so they can be accessed for free. The concerts are also available as streaming audio and CDs.
Cantata BWV 187 “Es wartet alles auf dich” (“They All Wait for You”) divides the chorale text into seven movements, a standard format that includes recitatives, arias, and choruses. The J.S. Bach-Stiftung uses a small orchestra and chorus, the size that would have been available to Bach himself, which allows the polyphony and harmonic motion to be transparent. Their performance of the opening chorus is a study in elegant complexity.
If the J.S. Bach-Stiftung video collection whets your appetite for more live footage, you’ll enjoy the All of Bach project being created by the Netherlands Bach Society. As the title suggests, they plan to make videos of every piece Bach wrote, and not only the vocal music. But for now, the cantatas are taking center stage.
BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (I Long for You, Lord) is thought to be a rather early work, from 1707, when Bach was only 22. It is unusual among his cantatas for two reasons. First, the chorus sings in four of the movements, rather than the usual two. Second, rather than an orchestra, the accompaniment requires only two violins, bassoon, and continuo. The Netherlands Bach Society pares the chorus down as well, using only one person per part. The ensemble is under the capable, well-balanced direction of Shunske Sato.
In contrast to some ensembles’ dedication to completism, the focus for Julia Fredersdorf and the Australian ensemble Van Diemen’s Band is more selective. Bach: Bass Cantatas, released by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, features the two cantatas written exclusively for bass voice solo, BWV 82, Ich habe genug (It Is Enough) and BWV 159, Ich will den Kreutzstab gerne tragen (Gladly I Will Bear the Cross). Bass-baritone David Greco fills out the album with bass arias plucked from other Bach cantatas.
Among those extra arias is the opening of BWV 162, Ach! Ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe (Ah! I See Now When I Go to the Wedding), which imagines a great wedding banquet as a metaphor for all the good and evil faced by humanity. Lutheran chorale texts, like the Old Testament psalms, were intended to instruct the faithful. While the notes in Greco’s longer melismatic runs can sound pinched and indistinct, his voice is generally pleasing, and Fredersdorf leads her period-instrument players in graceful accompaniment.
Besides movements for solo and choral voices, Bach’s cantatas often feature short instrumental movements called sinfonias. This term was in use long before our modern concept of “symphony” existed, although it is the same word in Italian. Dating back to the early 17th century (Monteverdi, for example), sinfonias were a standard element of large-scale vocal works, meant to establish or prolong a mood related to the text in the vocal movements.
Cellist and conductor Stefano Veggetti celebrates Bach’s skill at these miniatures on the recent CD Sinfonias from Cantatas, from Brilliant Classics. Veggetti conducts Ensemble Cordia, a group based in the South Tyrol province Italy whose objective is to investigate the intersection of Germanic and Italianate music. Bach is a perfect example of that cultural crossing point, which Veggetti demonstrates through his choice of sinfonias from nine different cantatas. The tight, energetic playing emphasizes the often-forgotten fact that Bach worked at the very end of the Baroque period, when the Italian galant style was already becoming fashionable.
A highlight is Takashi Watanabe’s splendidly intricate organ work, as featured on this movement from BWV 188, Ich habe meine Zuversicht (I Have Placed My Confidence).
Bach’s cantatas are an endless source of inspiration to musicians. Right now, some ensemble or conductor is dreaming of doing yet another complete set. And it will be worth the effort because there is always something new to explore in this music. Martin Luther would be very pleased.