The Great Cantor’s Cantatas

On 15 May 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig after the preferred candidate had turned down the offer. The previous year Georg Phiipp Telemann, Bach’s friend and rival, had also turned down the job.

The position of Cantor meant that Bach would be Director of Music at St Thomas School (Thomasschule) and choirmaster (kappellmeister) of St Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) and St Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche) in the town.

A Christian cantor is the leader of singing in a church choir. In Judaism a cantor leads the service in a synagogue, and keeps the worshippers to the traditional modes and melodies. Cantor comes from the Italian word cantare to sing.

The Augustine Monks had previously run the church and school in Leipzig. The role of cantor within a monastic order had been a prestigious position needing a thorough knowledge of the church chants and was responsible for the ecclesiastical choir and for the preparation of mass and other divine services.

In Leipzig (as elsewhere in Northern Germany) the position of Cantor survived the conversion to the Protestant Lutheran Church and became a lay position selected and appointed by the town council. The Lutherans saw music as an important part of the church services but they wanted the music to be accessible and sung in German by the community (and no longer in Latin as the Catholic Church had insisted). The Lutheran Church cantors were therefore required to compose new church music. Bach was an accomplished composer (although he was most famous as an organist) and produced over 200 cantatas for performance in church services, one of the greatest bodies of church music ever written. It is thought that what we have today is only about half of what he wrote.

Bach’s cantatas are a rich and abundant musical output that is without comparison. He wrote each cantata specifically for each Sunday or holy day of the liturgical calendar, for instance, Epiphany, Pentecost, Trinity, Easter, Christmas, etc. He wrote several years’ worth.

A cantata is a vocal composition accompanied by instruments. They are made up of several parts or movements which can be sung by soloists or by a choir as well as instrumental movements. The cantatas evolved from the single voice madrigal of the early 17th century, to the multi-voice secular cantatas (cantata da camera, or chamber cantata) and the church cantatas (cantata da chiesa). Cantatas are similar to but shorter than oratorios (such as Handel’s Messiah).

So if you haven’t guessed the word cantata refers to pieces of music that are sung (also from Italian cantare). Its cousins are sonatas which are instrumental pieces of music (from sonare to sound) and toccatas, most often keyboard pieces of music (from toccare to touch).