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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the cultural history of biblical texts, themes, characters, images, and the Bible itself in the literary, visual, and musical arts.


As used in connection with the Bible and the arts in modern times, “cantata” usually refers to vocal/instrumental works composed for the Lutheran liturgy, particularly in the eighteenth century and especially as exemplified by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Cantatas of this type had their textual and musical origins in the repertory of the seventeenth century but underwent a decisive shift in textual and musical construction at the turn of the eighteenth. Biblical texts play an important but changed role in this music.

Lutheran music of the seventeenth century was cultivated in several forms: in arrangements of hymn tunes (chorales), in settings of strophic free poems (“arias”), and in two kinds of settings of biblical texts. One tradition of scriptural settings was inherited from vocal church music of the sixteenth century in a style associated with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–1594), the best known Italian composer of music for the Roman church. The musical essence of this sort of composition, whose texts were typically scriptural verses or liturgical texts including the Mass Ordinary and propers, lay in multiple vocal lines understood to be of equal importance in the musical texture. The principal constructive technique was imitation among the voices—that is, the building of a so-called polyphonic texture by the overlapping and combination of multiple voices presenting the same melodic material. Each was meant to be heard as an independent musical line, but each also contributed to the creation of an overall musical texture in combination. One performance ideal was of unaccompanied vocal presentation—that is, without instruments, which would simply double the voices if used at all. This repertory of Mass movements and motets (a generic term for short pieces on scriptural or liturgical texts)—and, in the hands of Lutheran musicians, chorale melodies as well—continued to be cultivated in performance and in new composition throughout the seventeenth century and most of the eighteenth, in updated musical language, and was understood both to have an essential stylistic connection to the church and to connote an ancient and venerable tradition.

The second kind of musical setting of scriptural texts stemmed from early seventeenth-century styles associated with expressive solo song and with the new genre of opera. Music of this sort, focused on individual voices, was conceived principally as a vocal line heard in opposition to a supporting harmonic accompaniment, the so-called basso continuo. Church musicians quickly took up this style both for individual voices and for multiple voices in a musical type that came to be known as the vocal concerto; “concerto” here, just as in reference to instrumental music, was understood to indicate the leading melodic nature of voices heard against the basso continuo, in contrast to the subordination of individual voices to the overall texture in the style of Palestrina and the motet. Lutheran composers used this style for scriptural texts and for hymn melodies.

The real significance of this new style for the setting of biblical text was its associated aim of moving the affections (loosely, human emotional states) of the listener. This is in contrast to the older polyphonic equal-voice style, which was understood to be largely affect-neutral and most concerned with the clear presentation of the structure of a text. The new concerted style, particularly with its association with opera and solo song, was ideally suited to expressive composition and performance and represented a new way of thinking about the musical presentation of scriptural texts. The affective projection of texts became the principal goal. The best known German proponent of this kind of piece in the middle years of the seventeenth century was the longtime Dresden court Capellmeister Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), whose large output (including a great deal of music circulated in printed editions) established a model for the composition in the new style in German-speaking lands, largely in emulation of Italian music, particularly compositions of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643).

These two kinds of settings—in the old polyphonic style and in the new concerted one—formed the background for the later seventeenth-century cultivation of the sacred vocal concerto consisting of larger-scale works for voices and instruments. The texts of these works drew particularly on biblical passages (especially psalm verses or complete psalms) as well as hymn stanzas and a little strophic free poetry. A particularly prominent later seventeenth-century composer of this kind of music was Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637–1707), organist in the north German city of Lübeck.

Biblical texts set in the old style are treated in works of this kind in a characteristic way, breaking the text into small units that each receives its own musical treatment. So are scriptural passages set in the newer concerted style, but with a significant feature: each new segment of text, besides being given a new musical idea, typically changes scoring (use of performing forces), tempo, musical meter, and character for each. In either kind of setting, this technique of composition results in chains of short musical sections; in the concerted style, each section is meant to project the meaning and affect of a short segment of text. The musical character of the entire setting thus tracks the progress of the biblical texts at the level of the movement and (in large-scale structure) of the work overall.

German vocal concertos, particularly the ones used as the principal music of the worship service, underwent enormous textual and musical changes in the first decade and a half of the eighteenth century. From a musical standpoint, the big shift came with the dissemination of the music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) and contemporaries, whose instrumental concertos inspired a new way of designing musical material and of deploying it to create entire movements. Among other consequences, the enthusiasm for this music led to a preference for constructing large-scale works as a series of musically closed and affectively unified movements as opposed to a chain of small, ever-changing units.

In the realm of text, there was a sweeping change to a new kind of libretto (text) for church works, the so-called mixed type closely associated with the Hamburg pastor and poet Erdmann Neumeister (1671–1756). Neumeister’s published texts, set to music by many composers and much imitated by other librettists, went beyond the biblical texts and hymn stanzas that had dominated seventeenth-century works, favoring instead a mixture of biblical dicta, hymn stanzas, and especially newly written (free) poems. The new element is the prevalence of so-called madrigalian free poetry, which was designed to be set to music using two textual and musical types drawn from contemporary opera: recitative (stylized speech-like delivery of blank verse, mostly with simple punctuating harmonic accompaniment) and aria (formally closed, tuneful settings of short lyric poems often involving melody instruments as well as supporting harmonic ones). The addition of free poetry to librettos and the predominance of operatic recitatives and arias as their musical realization shifted the emphasis even further toward the affective and expressive goals that the new concerted style had encouraged in the first place. The balance shifted decisively in favor of affective movements; older motet-style movements of neutral affect still appear, but as special cases that stand out from those in the concerted style.

Neumeister himself likened the new kind of libretto for the church in which free poetry dominated to excerpts from operas and explicitly called them “cantatas” after the secular Italian chamber works that consisted of a few recitative and aria movements, like an isolated opera scene. This is the origin of the modern tendency to call all concerted German church works “cantatas,” even the earlier seventeenth-century repertory that makes no use of modern poetic texts and musical types. Composers and musicians continued to refer to much of this music as “concertos” or simply as “Music,” meaning the principal concerted music of the worship service. J. S. Bach, for example, reserved the term “cantata” for church works that were most like secular pieces, typically virtuosic works for a solo voice.

Scriptural texts played a new role in this new kind of cantata; rather than dominating the text and contributing large-scale structure by the presentation of multiple verses, they now appear in the form of a single Spruch or dictum, frequently offered as the opening text of a multi-movement work. The opening scriptural movement (itself most often presented with a clear affective outlook) is then typically followed by new poetry and selected hymn stanzas that explicate the themes of the scriptural verse, again with an emphasis on moving the affections. These movements tend to be affectively unified, imposing a single affect on their relatively short texts, or sometimes switching in the middle for an affective contrast. Composers also sometimes sought ways to acknowledge the presence of two conflicting affects.

The dicta that appear in the new librettos were frequently chosen from the Gospel reading for the day, making the new texts and compositions more liturgically specific than the typical psalm-derived works of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In fact church cantata texts began to be written, published, and set to music in annual cycles (Jahrgänge) that provided an appropriate liturgical or devotional work for each Sunday and feast day in the church calendar, typically about 72 in all. Their liturgical specificity came partly from the use of seasonal hymns but even more from the selection of Gospel texts associated with particular feasts.

Modern familiarity with this repertory has been limited principally because of two phenomena: the enormous losses of sources of this music, which was almost entirely confined to manuscript copies made for use in the place of composition, and the historiographic domination of Johann Sebastian Bach in treatments of Lutheran music of the first half of the eighteenth century. Bach was by no means the only composer of such music and certainly not the most prolific. Perhaps the most influential was his contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), who served principally in Eisenach, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. Telemann composed some 1,700 cantatas and was alone in developing a market for published music of this kind; he put out five annual cycles of small-scale works that were widely used throughout Lutheran northern Europe well into the eighteenth century. Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690–1749), longtime Capellmeister in Gotha, wrote hundreds of cantatas, mostly lost; Christoph Graupner’s (1683–1760) surviving output for Darmstadt extends to some 1,400 works that survive but that are hardly known today.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the production and performance of church cantatas began to taper off. Older works became increasingly unusable because of the perceived datedness of their musical style but especially because their poetry was so out of fashion in an increasingly rational age. Liturgies began to reemphasize hymns and scripture, and musical tastes turned away from the ideals of the early part of the century, with movements of unified affect, toward a style that allowed a greater variety within a movement and toward a simpler melodic style as well. By about 1800 the cantata was no longer current; since then composers have occasionally taken up scriptural cantatas for special purposes (for example, the Cantata misericordium of Benjamin Britten [1913–1976] of 1963, with a Latin text by Patrick Wilkinson [1907–1985] based on the parable of the Good Samaritan), and the genre has the distinct air of something from the historical past.



  • Blume, Friedrich. Protestant Church Music: A History. New York: Norton, 1974. An older but standard overview, with a somewhat teleological view of J. S. Bach as the culmination.
  • Krummacher, Friedhelm. “Cantata. §II: The German Cantata to 1800.” Grove Music Online, 2006. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/04748pg2#S04748.2 . An overview and typology of libretto construction, with a bibliography of specialist literature.
  • Neumeister, Erdmann. Geistliche Cantaten statt einer Kirchen-Music. Hamburg, 1704.
  • Neumeister, Erdmann. Erdmann Neumeisters fünfffache Kirchen-Andachten. Leipzig, 1716. Two widely circulated collections of modern cantata texts.

Daniel R. Melamed

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