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JS Bach (1685-1750), Cantata 48: Ich elender Mensch


Protestantism in Germany
Protestantism forms one of the three major divisions of the Christian faith, the others being Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It began as a movement to reform the Western Christian church during the late 16th-century with a movement known as the Protestant Reformation, which severed the reformed churches from Roman Catholicism in an attempt to restore the Christian faith to its original state. Nevertheless, the early reformers retained what they thought valuable from the Roman Catholic tradition.

Four main Protestant traditions emerged: the Lutheran Church, known in Europe as Evangelical, the Calvinists, Anabaptists and Anglicans. Despite considerable differences in their ideology and practices, each agreed in rejecting the authority of the Pope, instead emphasising the authority of the Bible and the importance of individual faith.

Important to the sacred music of JS Bach was the Lutheran faith: whilst South Germany remained relatively Catholic, the Northerners followed the beliefs of Martin Luther, who, in 1517, published 95 Theses attacking the indiscriminate sale of indulgences (absolutions) to finance the construction of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome. Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, had been unable to find assurance of salvation in traditional Catholic teachings. Instead, he came to believe that such assurance was to be found in the doctrine of justification by divine grace through faith, which he thought Catholic theology had obscured by placing equal emphasis on the efficacy of good works. The sale of indulgences, he believed, was an abuse that originated in the mistaken emphasis on works. At first, his intention was to bring about reform within the church, but he met with stiff opposition. In refusing to recant his views and in demanding to be proved wrong by the scriptures, he denied the authority of the Church and was excommunicated. Protected by Frederick the Wise of Saxony, he produced a series of books and pamphlets and his ideas spread rapidly through the German states and Europe.

The word cantata first appeared in the Italian composer Alessandro Grandi’s Cantade et arie a voce sola (Cantatas and Arias for Solo Voice; published 1620-29). There were precursors in the guise of earlier strophic arias (in which the melody for each strophe, or stanza, was varied over a constant bass) as well as vocal works of chamber proportion such as the late madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi.

The early cantatas after Grandi were written by Italian composers, most in secular style (cantata da camera, “chamber cantata”), but some in sacred manner (cantata da chiesa (“church cantata”) and all in the vernacular language, Italian. The precise nature of the two styles varied, both finally taking on characteristics of the recitative-aria combination of contemporary opera. Luigi Rossi, Pietro Antonio Cesti, and (in particular) Giacomo Carissimi were prominent 17th-century cantata composers. A second generation of cantata writers standardised the form into a chain of recitatives and da capo arias (ABA, with the A section usually varied on its repetition) for one or occasionally two voices. Such composers as Alessandro Stradella, Mario Savioni, Giovanni Legrenzi and their students made the cantata a regular feature of aristocratic musical life in the courts of Rome and elsewhere in Europe. Alessandro Scarlatti was the major figure of the last main group of Italian cantata composers.

Johann Hasse, a German pupil of Scarlatti, took the chamber cantata to Dresden; and George Frederick Handel, among others, wrote cantatas in the Italian manner. The early 18th century saw a similar trend in French music, notably in the works of Louis Clérambault, Jean-Baptiste Morin, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Lutheran ministers, notably Erdmann Neumeister, encouraged the absorption of secular music into the church service,and provided German Protestant composers with cycles of texts for sacred cantatas based on the operatic aria form. Previously Lutheran church music had been based largely on 12th-century music with biblical texts. With the influx of Neumeister’s more secularised form, church music was transformed by Italian operatic style. Georg Philipp Telemann, with his twelve cycles of cantatas, one for each Sunday and holiday, represents this trend.

The word cantata is best known to many through the works of JS Bach, although he called them by such older terms as motetto, concerto, or ode (the name cantata was applied by 19th-century editors) and rejected the superficial style that often characterised the form. From 1714 Bach integrated da capo arias into his church works. During his early Leipzig years (1723-25) he developed the so-called chorale cantata, which begins with an elaborate choral fantasy on the first stanza of a hymn and closes with a simple harmonisation of the last stanza in which the congregation presumably joined. The intermediate stanzas are paraphrases of the texts in recitatives and arias for one or more vocal soloists, and the various movements were interwoven with the liturgical service.

Secular cantatas were also common in Bach’s day (e.g., his Coffee and Peasant cantatas) and afterward. The great Viennese composers wrote cantatas, usually for a particular event – e.g. Mozart’s Die Maurerfreude (Masonic Joy) – but the form gradually declined in popularity.

From about 1800 the style of the cantata became increasingly free and the term was often applied to any fairly large work for solo voice or voices, chorus, and orchestra, from Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment) onward. Mendelssohn even combined the cantata with the symphony in the so-called symphony-cantata Lobgesang (1840; Hymn of Praise). Cultivation of the cantata in the 20th century has been fostered by composers such as Britten (Spring Symphony, 1949) who were interested in older forms of music. Generally, however, the chamber cantata as originally defined now appears as an occasional by-product of the inclination of many modern composers toward song cycles and the setting of poetry in general.

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