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Johann Sebastian Bach

A Listener's Guide to the Cantatas

Johann Sebastian Bach

The cantatas of J.S. Bach form an exceptional body of work that, for various reasons, seem not to be as well known by the listening public as the venerated status of their composer suggests they should be. One reason may be that their original function and context, either as sacred or secular celebration, does not fit well with modern concert practice and so exposure to all but a handful of them is rare. A second reason is surely their sheer extent. Nearly two hundred sacred cantatas and over a score of secular cantatas leave the neophyte in a state of confusion as to where to start. Fortunately, the availability of recordings of almost all of them help circumvent the first problem. In many cases there is now a choice of renditions available (in both ancient and modern performance practice!), many of extremely high quality.

I hope that this present endeavour will help circumvent the second problem. During 1995-2000 I posted a series of reviews on the newsgroup that recorded my reactions, as a musical listener, to the Bach cantatas. As you can see, thanks to the kindness of Dave Lampson, I've been able to collect together those postings and some additional material to make these pages at the Classical Net. I hope that these writings will persuade some of you to visit or perhaps to re-visit some of these superb works and I will be overjoyed if, through my advocacy, just some of you gain entry to this wonderful world.

I would like to say a few words of introduction and apology for the approach that I have taken here to the sacred cantatas: They are sacred works, mostly written with a specific function in a Lutheran church service and I believe that they should be listened to with that context in mind, whether you are a believer or not. Lutheran theology is not so alien to our modern minds as to remove all hope of understanding the affekt that Bach was trying to create with his music. I have included, where appropriate, the bible readings for the day on which the each cantata was performed and I do encourage the listener to read them as well as the text of the cantata.

Now, despite a certain amount of musical training, I am not a musician or a musicologist, and I am certain to slip into the bad linguistic habit of using absolute comparatives and superlatives when what I am actually describing is my emotional reaction to a work. I also acknowledge that when describing whether music conveys emotion (or affekt), I am taking for granted an enormous amount of cultural context, itself partially defined by the techniques used by Bach himself, so my judgements here may be circular. However, I wish to avoid too many circumlocutions, so I will assume that most of us here share sufficient cultural context for you to know what I'm talking about and I apologise to those of you whose sensibilities I offend!

After much hesitation I have decided to include a Rating Index for the cantatas if only to try and summarise my liking for each work. I don't consider myself qualified to pass an absolute judgement of quality on any of these works but I hope it will help guide you on to "what to listen to next". I have used a scale of 1, 2 and 3 together with the qualifications of a star (*) for extra special affection and a plus (+) for those cantatas where one movement seems to stand out above the others. Thus, cantatas rated as 1* seem to me to be close to Bach's highest level of inspiration and comparable with those that are commonly considered his greatest works. Cantatas rated 3 are those that have left me cold. Having completed the cycle of sacred cantatas, I'm happily suprised to note the very small number of works that I've placed in the latter category. Having heard, before I started, that I should expect to find that the cantatas have much fine music swimming in a sea of mediocrity, I now find myself in a position to deny that emphatically! In my opinion there is much to be gained from listening to and studying almost any of the cantatas.

Should you disagree with my assessment or review of a cantata, or have a correction to make in matters of fact or conjecture, please let me know. Judgements like these can be contingent things and I would be extremely happy if someone's pointing me at what to look at removed the scales from my eyes! These reviews will be revised in the light of your comments.

A Word About Recordings

There are to my knowledge two (more or less) complete cycles of the sacred cantatas. One by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt on Teldec (now available at budget price on 60 CDs) and another by Rilling on Hänssler (at super bargain price). The former employs "original" performance practice, the latter a "modern" practice. I have both sets and like each of them for their complementary attributes. Koopman has started a complete cycle (on Erato) which I will collect in due course and use at some stage in the revision of this site. Mention should be made of the cycle that has just started on the BIS label under Suzuki. Although in its very earliest stages, what has appeared is very good indeed. DG have also announced that John Eliot Gardiner will traverse the entire sacred cantata series in the year 2000. The cycle of seventy five cantatas recorded by Richter, which I like very much, is now available on 26 budget price DG CDs. It also looks like Erato are gradually releasing the cantatas recorded by Werner (again, a "modern" style of performance). There are also many recordings of individual cantatas and if I were to pick out just one more artist to highlight I would choose Herreweghe. All the recordings I have of his I like very much indeed.

When we turn to the secular cantatas, the situation does not seem to be so felicitous, no complete cycles being currently available. Hopefully, this will be put right on release of the appropriate parts of Koopman's traversal or the re-release of Schreier's set. Hänssler have announced a complete Bach series for the year 2000, part of which will be a complete traversal of the secular cantatas by Helmut Rilling.

I should remark that none of the "complete" sets are really complete. For example, the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt set leaves out some of the fragmentary cantatas that have been reconstructed and leaves out the Latin cantata BWV 191. The Rilling set is better but still, perhaps inevitably, leaves out some fragments. We'll have to wait and see whether the cycles in progress do offer complete coverage!

Books and References

During the compilation of these reviews I have used many different sources of information. The following is a selection of the most easily available.

  • Malcolm Boyd (ed.), Oxford Composer Companions: Bach, Oxford UP, 1999. This recently published encyclopaedic dictionary has become the premier reference work in English for the cantatas by dint of it's comprehensive coverage of each individual work. It should be in the library of every Bach lover.
  • Alfred Dürr, Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach, dtv/Bärenreiter, 1995 (original 1971). German language standard reference. Easily available, cheap and has all the sacred and secular cantata texts. Highly recommended, if you can read German
  • Alec Robertson, The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach, Praeger, 1972. Provides a commentary on most of the sacred cantatas together with a lectionary. This is long out of print but is widely available in libraries and does turn up second hand.
  • J. A. Westrup, Bach Cantatas, BBC, 1966. A small but valuable guide to the best in the cantatas. Very cheap.
  • W. G. Whittaker, The Cantatas of J.S. Bach, 2 Vols, Oxford UP, 1959. Long out of print but for many years one of the standard references in the English language. Whittaker was the first person to conduct all of the cantatas in public and his love and understanding shine through on every page. Whittaker died in 1945, leaving the book in draft form, but luckily for us it was prepared for publication by Harold Thomson and finally appeared in 1959. However, this means that it was written well before the chronological discoveries of the 1950's that so altered our perception of the cantatas, so you should be wary about any of the historical contents, but if you're able to find a copy of the 1978 paperback reprint, you'll find an appendix containing the new chronology. This is definitely a book worth reading if you find modern musicological writing rather lacking in aesthetic content.
  • W. G Whitaker, Fugitive Notes on Certain Cantatas and the Motets of J.S. Bach, Oxford UP, 1924. Even longer out of print but worth looking up for historical interest. Whittaker discusses cantatas 2, 4, 10, 12, 38, 56, 61, 68, 70, 104, 115, 116 and 140 as well as the motets. A lot of the discussion is taken up with berating the translators of English editions of the canatatas, but the material on performance practice is fascinating historical reading.
  • Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas, Oxford UP, 1999 (or 2000?). Sounds like it'll be a fascinating book, but OUP keep putting the release date back. Last time I looked it was due for release early in 2000.
  • Stanley Sadie (ed.), New Grove, Macmillan, 1980. Articles on J.S. Bach and his family are invaluable sources of reference. Extensive work list especially useful in summerising the current state of knowledge on questions of authenticity. The New Grove Bach Family (Christoph Wolff et al.) is extracted from this and is more up to date (especially the German language version).
  • Christoph Wolff (ed.), The World of the Bach Cantatas, Norton, 1995-. Koopman's complete cycle is being accompanied by the publication of three volumes about the cantatas: As of June 1999 the first volume has been released in English and the second is available in German and Dutch. Somewhat dry but contains valuable background information.
  • Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, 2 Vols, Dover, 1966 (original 1911). A classic book about Bach's life and works. Extensive discussion of the cantatas and, taken with caution, compulsory reading for the Bach enthusiast.
  • Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, 3 Vols, Dover, 1979 (original 1881). The classic biography of Bach with extensive discussion of the cantatas. Way out of date in some respects, this is still essential reading. Be aware that the Dover edition is of the original English translation and the German edition contains more material. Some caution about the translation is also required. To quote W. G Whittaker "A turgid, uncouthly written, indifferently indexed, and poorly translated book, but a magnificent example of patient accurate research and an exhaustive compilation" (Fugitive Notes).
  • Christoph Wolff, J. S. Bach: Essays On His Life and Music, Harvard UP, 1991. A modern classic, collecting together essays by one of the most prominent recent Bach Scholars. Several essays are of direct relevance to the cantatas. I found both this and Marshall's book extremely useful in bringing me up to date on modern thought about Bach's work, especially in explaining the context within which the cantatas were written and by explaining the ambiguities in the original sources that lead to interpretative difficulties.
  • Robert Marshall, The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Schirmer, 1989. Another modern classic, collecting together essays by another of the most prominent recent Bach Scholars. Several essays are of direct relevance to the cantatas. See the entry for Wolff's essay collection.
  • John Butt (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bach, Cambridge UP, 1997. An excellent and valuable source of current thinking about the context and background of Bach's works.
  • Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel & Christoph Wolff, The New Bach Reader, Norton, 1998. Christoph Wolff has done us a great service in updating David and Mendel's classic book. English translations of the most important of the documents relating to Bach's life and works.
  • Wolfgang Schmieder, Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach: Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis [BWV], Breitkopf und Härtel, 1990. The standard catalogue of Bach's works.
  • Alfred Dürr, Yoshitake Kobayashi & Kirsten Beisswenger, BWV Kleine Ausgabe, Breitkopf und Härtel, 1998. This "little edition" of the BWV is more up to date, lighter and much cheaper than big brother. Extremely valuable but but be aware that details of works in the BWV Appendices (Anhang I-III) are very sketchy, if you are chasing the really esoteric.
  • Hans-Joachim Schulze and Christoph Wolff, Bach Compendium: Analytisch-bibliographisches Repertorium der Werke Johann Sebastian Bachs [BC], Peters, 1985-. If the BWV isn't enough for you then this should satisfy. This multi volume catalogue of Bach's works aims to complement the BWV by providing greater emphasis on sources and documentable facts, classifies the works in a far more systematic manner and also gives separate entries to each "instance" of a Bach work, thus untying the muddle that the BWV seems to get in over multi-versioned works. The catalogue has only covered the vocal works so far but there are rumours that the next volume will appear soon. Perhaps it's unlikely that its numbers will catch on in the same way as the BWV, given the entrenchement of Schmieder's classification, but I've given the BC number in each cantata entry along with the BWV.
  • Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut Göttingen and Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke [Neue Bach-Ausgabe, NBA], Bärenreiter, 1954-. The complete works. This is where you go if you want to find the music and the reconstructions. Painfully expensive but Bärenreiter also bring out various more affordable editions based on the NBA. The critical commentaries of each volume (the Kritischer Bericht) are invaluable sources, but will only be in major libraries. The cantatas are all in Series I of the NBA. Both the Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut Göttingen and the Bach-Archiv Leipzig have web sites.
  • Bach-Gesellschaft, Johann Sebastian Bachs Werke [BG], 1850-1900. The original complete edition. A lot of this is available cheaply via, for example, Dover or Kalmus reprints.
  • Gerhard Herz (ed.), Cantata No. 4, Cantata No. 140, Norton Critical Scores, 1967 & 1972. Critical scores of two of the best known of the cantatas from a well known Bach scholar. The edition of BWV 4 is that of Arnold Schering for Eulenberg and this volume contains a background essay on the cantatas as well as the critical commentary. The edition of BWV 140 is by Alfred Dürr for the NBA and is supplemented by a detailed chronology of the cantatas based on that by Dürr and von Dadelson.
  • Daniel Melamed & Michael Marissen, An Introduction to Bach Studies, Oxford UP, 1998. An excellent guide to the literature. If you want to find references to liturgical practices in Leipzig during Bach's time or where to look to find information about the lost fifth cantata cycle, look here. Also contains a complete table of the church year with lectionary and indices into both the NBA and the BG complete editions. Wonderful book for the infatuated.
  • Richard Taruskin, Text and Act, Oxford UP, 1995. Love him or loathe him, it's essential reading for arguments about current performance practice. If you think Harnoncourt and Leonhardt's cantata performances are ugly, read Facing up, Finally, to Bach's Dark Vision to see why they should be!
  • Nicholas Kenyon (ed.), Authenticity and Early Music, Oxford UP, 1988. Essential reading, if performance practice is important to you.

On the Internet

I will not attempt here to explain the background to Bach's cantatas, since there are already many excellent sources of this material available and I would not be able to add anything of any value to them. However, if you want to investigate the background to the cantatas, I would like to refer you to the following excellent sources of information on the World Wide Web:

  • Jan Koster's site which includes an excellent introduction to the cantatas, an outstanding Bach bibliography, and the beginnings of a cantata project that will eventually leave this one in the shade!
  • Z. Philip Ambrose's site which includes texts and translations of all the cantatas (as used in Rilling's set).
  • J. S. Bach Home Page has an extensive database of recording recommendations and many useful pointers to other Bach sites on the web.
  • Yo Tomita's online Bach bibliography. This will save you a few trips to the library!

Revision Plans: Update October 1999

In this latest revision I have completed the sacred cantatas and am very close to completing the secular cantatas. Major additions in this release include the addition of Bach Compendium numbers and of BG and NBA edition details to each entry. I've corrected a few faults in the lectionary and have added entries for many of the secular cantatas, the Christmas and Easter Oratorios and their relations. The schedule from now on looks something like:

  • Finish the secular cantatas.
  • Add an entry detailing the known lost and fragmentary works in Anhang I of the BWV.
  • Add more factual information to each entry.
  • Attach MIDI files of the unrecorded works and fragments (subject to overcoming any copyright problems!)
  • Add a page called "Don't take my word for it", with other people's opinions of the cantatas together with some alternative rating mechanisms.
  • Prepare a single document version of all this for download.

Several of you have asked that I extend this enterprise to include the other vocal works. I've thought long and hard about this and decided that this would be fun to do, but I really have nothing useful to add to the extensive mass of commentaries on the great passions and the b-minor mass. So, what I plan to do is to add pages about the lesser known vocal works, for example the missae breves and the various sanctuses. When I've finished that lot, I should be approaching extreme old age and should be sufficiently pompous to attempt to say something about the immortals!


I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the enormous number of you who have taken the trouble to write to me with words of encouragement and with helpful suggestions for modifications. Not only has this refreshed my flagging spirits at times of exhaustion but your comments have helped me to focus on those areas where my opinions really did need more thought. I'd especially like to acknowledge the help of Bernie Greenberg and Darryl Clemmons for many useful and entertaining e-mail exchanges and Pieter De Waard and Jan Koster for sharing their own private rating systems with me. Finally, a big thank-you to Dave Lampson, both for offering a home to these essays and for all his hard work in supporting the venture.

Copyright © Simon Crouch, 1995-2000.