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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Turning back now to Bach, and to his very different world, we are ready to assess the music he and his coreligionists unanimously regarded as his major contribution. That music is his vocal music, composed to a large extent in forms familiar to us from our acquaintance with Handel’s operas and oratorios, but serving an entirely different audience and an entirely different purpose. With only the most negligible exceptions (birthday odes and the like) chiefly arising out of his Collegium Musicum activities or his nominal role as civic music director, Bach’s vocal music is actual church music.

We have seen in the previous chapters how even in his eminently enjoyable instrumental secular music, and in his sometimes monumentally thrilling keyboard music, Bach managed to insinuate an attitude of religious contempt for the world, the polar antithesis to Handel’s posture of joyous acceptance and enterprising accommodation. In his overtly religious vocal music we shall of course encounter that attitude in a far more explicit guise, even though it was often communicated through the outward forms of secular entertainment.

By the time of Bach’s Leipzig tenure even the music of the Lutheran church had made an accommodation with the music of the popular theater, and this new style of theatricalized music became Bach’s medium. Even though he never wrote an opera and maintained a lifelong disdain of what he called “the pretty little Dresden tunes” (Dresden being the nearest city with an opera theater, which Bach occasionally visited), Bach became a master of operatic forms and devices. But he managed—utterly, profoundly, hair-raisingly—to subvert them.

Back to Bach: The Cantatas

fig. 7-6 Erdmann Neumeister, the German religious poet who adapted the forms of Italian opera to the requirements of Lutheran church services.

The forms of opera came to Lutheran music through the work of Bach’s older contemporary Erdmann Neumeister (1671–1756), a German poet and theologian, who revolutionized the form and style of Lutheran sacred texts for music. Traditionally, Lutheran church music, even at its most elaborate, had been based on chorales. By the 1680s a Lutheran “oratorio” style had been developed, in which chorales alternated with biblical verses and—the new ingredient—with little poems that reflected emotionally on the verses the way arias reflected on the action in an opera seria. This style was used especially for Passion music at Eastertime. Bach would write Passion cycles of this kind as well, more elaborate ones that reflected some of Neumeister’s innovations. In his early years (up to his stint at Weimar), Bach also wrote shorter sacred works in the traditional style, closely based on chorales and biblical texts.

Around the turn of the century, Neumeister began publishing little oratorio texts in a new style, for which he borrowed the name of the Italian genre that had inspired him. Consisting entirely of vividly picturesque, “madrigalesque” verses, and explicitly divided into recitatives and arias, they were dubbed “cantatas” by their author, and they provided the prototype for hundreds of church compositions by Bach (who, however, continued to designate such pieces with mixed voices and instruments as “concertos,” retaining the term in use since the time of Schütz and the latter’s teacher, Gabrieli).

Neumeister’s cantata texts were published in a series of comprehensive cycles covering the Sundays and feasts of the whole church calendar, and they were expressly meant for setting by Lutheran cantors like Bach, whose job it was to compose yearly cycles of concerted vocal works according to the same liturgical schedule. Bach wrote as many as five cantata cycles during the earlier part of his stay at Leipzig, of which almost three survive complete. This remainder is still an impressive corpus numbering around 200 cantatas (a figure that includes the surviving vocal concertos from Bach’s earlier church postings). Only a handful of Bach’s surviving cantatas were composed to actual Neumeister texts, but the vast majority of them adhere to Neumeister’s format, mixing operalike recitatives and da capo arias with the chorale verses. Bach at Leipzig became, willy-nilly, a sort of opera composer.

But cantatas were reflective, not dramatic works. The singers of the arias were not characters but disembodied personas who “voiced” the idealized thoughts of the congregation in response to the occasion that had brought them together. Indeed, the Lutheran cantata could be viewed as a sort of musical sermon, and its placement in the service confirms this analogy.

The numbering system used for Bach’s cantatas has nothing to do with their order of composition. It was merely the order in which the cantatas were published for the first time, by the German Bach Society (Bach-Gesellschaft), in an edition that was begun in 1850, the centennial of Bach’s death. (The numbering was later taken over in a thematic catalogue called the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, published in the bicentennial year, 1950, and is now called the “BWV” listing.) Dating the Bach cantatas, as a matter of fact, has been one of the knottiest problems in musicology.

In dating a body of compositions like the Bach cantatas, one starts with those for which the date is fortuitously known thanks to the lucky survival of “external” evidence. One such is the Cantata BWV 61, on whose autograph title page Bach happened to jot down the year, 1714, which puts it near the middle of his Weimar period.

Cantata No. 61 also happens to be one of Bach’s few settings of an actual text by Neumeister, and it was probably the earliest of them. For all these reasons, it can serve us here as an model of the new “cantata” style, to set beside an older “chorale concerto.” It bears the title Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland—one of the most venerable Lutheran chorales (Ex. 7-7b), adapted by the Reformer himself from the Gregorian Advent hymn Veni, redemptor gentium (“Come, Redeemer of the Heathen”) (Ex. 7-7a). The cantata was composed for the first Sunday of Advent, the opening day of the liturgical calendar (in 1714 it fell on 2 December), and was therefore based on the opening text in one of Neumeister’s cycles, perhaps indicating that Bach was planning to set Neumeister’s whole book to music, as several of his contemporaries, including Telemann, did.

Back to Bach: The Cantatas

ex. 7-7a Gregorian hymn, Veni redemptor gentium

Back to Bach: The Cantatas

ex. 7-7b Chorale: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07005.xml