What is a... Cantata?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Cantata?
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‘Cantata' means, simply, ‘sung’ – surely the one thing about a piece of vocal music that’s so obvious it doesn’t need stating? In reality, the fact that such a designation was felt necessary is a symptom of a remarkable change that happened in European art music. 

Until the 16th century, any kind of music with a claim to be considered ‘cultured’ or ‘artful’ – hence worth writing down – would have been vocal: church music, or top-of-the-range secular songs. But towards the end of the Renaissance, the rise of the lute or organ prelude from a warm-up exercise into a piece in its own right, and the emergence of the Baroque concerto, meant that instrumental music was now competing for serious attention on its own terms. Hence cantata (sung), as opposed to ‘sonata’ – ie played – to indicate any kind of vocal composition more ambitious than a simple song that wasn’t an opera, or a mass or any other specific liturgical composition.

As the Renaissance innovation of the recitative became involved, offsetting arias and ensemble numbers, cantatas grew in complexity and began to draw in their own connoisseur audience. Alessandro Scarlatti clearly felt that he could compose for more discerning ears in his secular cantatas than in opera. Handel and Vivaldi, to name but two, were impressed and took Scarlatti as a model. 

It was in Protestant, and particularly Lutheran societies that the religious cantata really took off. Buxtehude, Graupner and Telemann left fine examples, while the nearly 200 church cantatas of JS Bach are simply incomparable – masterpiece after masterpiece, designed to chart the cycle of the seasons, leading up to the Easter dramas of the Passions. Less well known, Bach also wrote secular cantatas, but a hearing of the ‘Coffee’ Cantata (BWV 211) should be enough to make even an atheist give thanks to God that Bach never ended up working at a court where comic opera was the fashion.

After Bach and Handel comes sharp decline, with a few notable one-offs: Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos, Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri, Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. But the 20th century saw a revival, ranging from the two tiny Kantate of Webern, through Bartók’s Cantata profana and the sacred cantatas of Vaughan Williams, to the luxurious immensity of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. And then there’s that thing by Carl Orff… What’s it called?

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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