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2nd Cycle of Bach Cantatas in Leipzig - Chorale Cantata Cycle

Second cycle structure

Julian Mincham wrote (April 9, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Although this is a seemingly trivial point , I find, along with Wolff, that it provides some insight into Bach's creative methods. >
Here I fully agree with Ed and it leads to what is (I hope) my last word on this--a summation of the position as I see it.

1 Bach's second cycle is like none of the others in that it seems to have been planned as a canon of original music WITHOUT recourse to a large number of reworkings of earlier compositions OR the use of music by other composers.

2 It falls into two clear sections a) up to and including BWV 1 and b) after BWV4 each defined principally by structural processes.

3 An obvious question arises----was it thus planned or was it enforced?

4 The Stubel theory supports the latter contention and appears to have no external supporting evidence apart from the date of the man's death and his (likely) personality and religious position.

5 The formertheory similarly has no external esupporting evidence and relies mainly upon what can be deduced from the music itself.

6 For myself both possibilities remain fully open; I have simply suggested that it is appropriate to challenge the outright rejection of the 'planned two part cycle' theory on the musical evidence available and to hold in mind an alternative possibility. I was slightly surprised at the general resistance to this non-controversial (as I thought) idea.

7 Like Alain this unsolved problem does not prevent me sleeping either:- but like Ed, I feel that consideration of it illuminates the music and perhaps is suggestive of Bach's working methods. This has been my experience which is why I brought it up in the context of the intros to the last 13 cantatas. One of many observations which i could quote as being of possible relevance pertains to the three cantatas which begin with the words of Christ and consequently with a bass aria rather than with a chorale fantasia. This seems to me to be quite likely to be something that Bach planned in advance rather than did because he was responding to a crisis. The case for the planning of Part 2 relies upon a large number of small observations of the music of this kind NONE of which is individually compelling but which, as a whole, can be interpretted as being indicative of a longer term strategy.

But apart from such single observations which might be seen as relevant to the discussion which may yet be referred to in the forthcoming intros (which were completed several weeks ago) that's all I have to say on the subject.

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 9, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< This has been my experience which is why I brought it up in the context of the intros to the last 13 cantatas. One of many observations which i could quote as being of possible relevance pertains to the three cantatas which begin with the words of Christ and consequently with a bass aria rather than with a chorale fantasia. This seems to me to be quite likely to be something that Bach planned in advance rather than did because he was responding to a crisis. The case for the planning of Part 2 relies upon a large number of small observations of the music of this kind NONE of which is individually compelling but which, as a whole, can be interpretted as being indicative of a longer term strategy. >
I like the notion of the longer term strategy in this cycle. Did Bach look at the calendar before him and choose a chorale for each Sunday which would be the basis of a yet-unwritten cantata? He certainly did that in the Orgelbüchlein collection where he prepared the blank manuscript pages by writing the chorale title and Sunday name at the top and then worked on the music intermittently. Did Bach have a list with him when he talked to his librettists and then ask them to create poetry that used those chorales? If so, his plan for wholly original music could have been formulated even before he arrived in Leipzig.

Ed Myskowski wrote (April 9, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< 3 An obvious question arises----was it thus planned or was it enforced?
4 The Stubel theory supports the latter contention and appears to have no external supporting evidence apart from the date of the man's death and his (likely) personality and religious position. >
First, I am going to be really picky, and remind everyone that Wolff calls it 'hypothesis', not 'theory'. Those are not synonyms to a scientist, and I don't expect to musicians either. As to the liner note writers Alain mentions, if they treat the hypothesis as fact, it is difficult to fault Wolff for that. Incidentally, Wolff cites one additional bit of supporting evidence: Stübel's poetic skills; it is unclear if this is an independent opinion or quoting Schulze. My impression of the cantata texts is that poetic skills could as well be considered disqualifying evidence for authorship, but I have made only the most cursory attempts to appreciate isolated bits of the original German.

As to planned or enforced, isn't it some of each that Wolff suggests? Bach had a larger scale plan, which he had to adjust if the Stübel hypothesis is correct. He had better than two months to accomplish this, from late January (Stübel's demise) until early April, the performance of the first cantatas without Stübel text. An enforced adjustment to the plan, but as you point out, perhaps welcome as well, by that time.

I have had the impression that you feel there is internal evidence for more than one author, in what we are calling Part 1 of Jahrgang II, as well as the examples you cite from Part 2. I don't especially need to see the evidence at this point, but I would like to confirm (or not) that I understood correctly that you believe there is such evidence?.

I do not have a scholarly position on this topic, as I have pointed out carefully throughout, I hope. My interest has merely been to point out that no evidence has been presented on this forum to disprove Wolff's carefully worded statements, citing Schulze. I do not have access to the Schulze reference, but I agree with Brad that any serious research on the topic needs to recover that reference, as well as any subsequent changes of evidence and/or interpretation. I for one, would welcome any such reports, whatever the conclusions, and however preliminary they may be. However, I will not be surprised if there is nothing new, and the status is pretty much as Wolff wrote.


Chorale Cantata Cycle

William Hoffman wrote (May 18, 2014):
Bach’s chorale cantata cycle of 1724-25, is unique and a milestone among his “well-ordered church music.” The cantatas have a unified libretto in the basic form of opening fantasia and closing plain chorale, with the inner chorale stanzas paraphrased in arias and recitatives, poet unknown, often using chorale tropes of original music and text. Bach utilized 40 primarily Lutheran Reformation and later poetic chorales for entirely original cantatas with no borrowed Bach music, from the 1st Sunday after Trinity, June 11, 1724, to nine months later in the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1725, when he abruptly ceased further chorale cantata composition in the Easter-Pentecost season. Subsequently, Bach composed four more chorale cantatas to fill gaps in the church year, as well as four wedding pure-hymn cantatas, not part of the second cycle, and completed the Reformation Fest Cantata BWV 80, for a total of 53 homogenous chorale cantatas.

The Lutheran chorale formed the backbone of Bach’s vocal music composition as well as the church lectionary for all services. At the heart of Lutheran music and theology, the protestant hymn was harmonized for multiple voices in the first hymnbooks of 1524 of Martin Luther and Johann Walther. All Lutheran composers and poets contributed to the tradition and eventually many composed chorale concertos with biblical texts, forerunner of Bach’s chorale cantatas. With the development of the Neumesiter/Rudolstadt type of Italianate cantata with madrigaian texts in choruses, arias, and recitatives, Bach was perfsituated in Leipzig to combine both the strict stanzas of the chorale with the free poetry of the cantata.

Leipzig’s tradition of Lutheran Orthodoxy mixed with personal pietism nurtured all manner of sacred songs as well as actively practicing liturgical and confessing traditions. Popularity of hymn books and devotional books was particularly acute in the community of publishers, printers, and booksellers. A related Lutheran tradition of collections of emblematic, motto church year sermons and the centrality of the chorale, liturgical, and concerted music in the service enabled Bach to undertake his most challenging, focused, and rewarding endeavor to create a body of church music in virtually all its facets. Subsequently, Bach probably repeated his chorale cantata cycle in the early 1730s, Leipzig acquired the 48 scores in 1750 from Bach’s estate where they remain today at the Thomas Church, and in the mid 1750s, a series of chorale cantatas was reperformed by Bach’s choir and orchestra.

In 1724, Bach was fully prepared to undertake such a task as a chorale cantata cycle. In his previous, initial cycle, for which he provided original music at all main services, Bach had begun experimenting with the chorale. He had composed concerted chorale choruses and arias and had experimented with the use of chorale text and music tropes in some recitatives. In fact, Bach instituted work in chorale choruses and troped recitatves in his two Leipzig probe pieces, Cantatas BWV 22 and 23 in February 1723. His first four chorale cantatas for early Trinity Time use striking hymn tunes entering in different voices and musical styles. While the composition of strict hymn stanzas presented seemingly insurmountable obstacles perhaps forcing Bach to abbreviate his chorale cantata cycle, the identity of his collaborative librettist remains a greater mystery in a saga, an odyssey without parallel in Bach’s life.

Chorale Cantata Overview

A general outline of Bach’s chorale cantata cycle is found in Christoph Wolff 1999 liner notes in the Ton Koopman Complete Bach Cantatas on Erato, “The Leipzig church cantatas: the chorale cantata cycle (II: 1724-1725).” 1 “Bach's professional counterparts, like Telemann in Frankfurt and Hamburg or Stölzel in Gotha,

had composed complete cantata cycles at the time, though in each case they were to texts by a single author and hence conceived as a unit. Bach, in early 1723, was too pressed for time to carry out such a plan.

Consequently, he felt it all the more important to ensure that there was a unifying thread running through his second cantata cycle. Clearly for that reason he turned to a local librettist, who promised him a cycle of cantata texts that would be created according to a model which, though developed jointly, was principally of Bach's design. Each cantata was based on a hymn which, as well as being suitable for the relevant Sunday in the church year, would also where possible be linked to the gospel reading for the day.”

“Bach may not have been able to complete an entire cycle of chorale cantatas conceived as a unity but in terms of the sheer quantity of newly composed material, 1724-1725 was Bach's most productive cantata year,” says Wolff in his 1998 liner notes.2 “Moreover, with the chorale cantata Bach made what was probably his most his most significant contribution to the cantata form.” “From the outset, therefore, Bach establishes a broad stylistic and compositional framework for the conceptual ordering of the cycle. The link between movements within a single cantata is ensured at least textually by reference to the underlying hymn, which is given additional emphasis by a more or less close musical connection with the chorale melody. Thus, Bach achieves overall cyclical unity by linking the sequence of chorale cantatas with a common thread.”

Anatomy of a Chorale Cantata

The contrast with the previous cycle is striking. Where Bach relied on scriptural dictum usually related to the day’s gospel as a unifying element and one that the congregation would readily recognize and understand, now the other element of text found in the first Lutheran sacred cantatas, the chorale with its particular and familiar melody and spiritual teaching theme, emerged within the framework of the modern, Italian style cantata but with a particularly German cast. Where the heterogeneous initial cycle of 1723-24 had used a variety of dominant chorus and lesser solo cantata types, with various orderings of the types of movements, poetic texts, and musical styles with one-third recycled from Weimar, this virtually all-new homogeneous, unified cycle always relied on one essential musical form – opening chorus, alternating recitatives and arias, and closing plain chorale – driven by a prescribed melody and unified text set to demanding polyphonic choral music, instructive recitatives and reflective arias, with more complex instrumental accompaniment.

At the same time, Bach was observing important Leipzig musical, as well as liturgical teaching and confessing traditions. His predecessors as cantor had composed basic chorale concertos using all the stanzas unaltered in a chorus with a string of simple arias, sometimes as part of a series of chorale sermons. The beloved and iconic Lutheran chorale was particularly popular with hymnbooks that had a wealth and variety of hymn themes and melodies. In addition to celebrating milestone Lutheran events such as the Augsburg Confession and Reformation Day, 1724 was the bicentenary of Luther’s foundational three hymnals first published in 1524. Bach “may have collaborated with Salomon Deyling, the lead city church official, to revive Johan Schelle’s complete chorale-based cycle,” suggests John Eliot Gardiner in his new Bach musical biography, BACH: Music in the Castle of Heaven.3 This would have enabled Bach, with the presiding pastor preaching the day’s sermon, to exploit the particular chorale theme, which did not always relate directly to the day’s Gospel but had suitable teachings, or to one of the preferred hymns, but could be linked to the pastor’s cycle of emblematic sermons based on a unified series of symbols.

Lutheran Chorale Tradition

‘Bach adheres to early Reformation tradition in the selection of the specific chorale poet in the 52 extant chorale cantatas. The emphasis is on the initial Reformation hymns of Luther and his cohorts (1524-1550) as well as the choice of melodies, observes Alfred Dürr in “Bach’s Chorale Cantatas.” 4 Of the 52 chorale cantatas, 17 chorales are from the original Reformation period (11 texts by Luther), using 25 Reformation melodies. The next largest number are the most recent, established personal chorales from the period of 1651-1697), led by Paul Eber with two and the best-known “representative poet of these decades, Paul Gerhardt” in Cantata 92, says Dürr (Ibid.: 182). Bach also uses two each chorales by Justus Jonas, Martin Moller, Cyriacus Schneegas, Philip Niccolai. Johann Heermann, Johann Rist, and Samuel Rodigast. “All other poets are represented by one text,” says Dürr.

While Bach in the 1730 increasingly turned to chorales of his time, says Dürr (Ibid.), he used no chorales in his chorale cantatas from the Freylinghausen pietist hymnal or from poets of the Orthodox movement, Erdmann Neumeister, Salomo Fanck or Benjamin Schmolk. Bach made up for this by presenting two Gottfried Heinrich Stözel chorale cantata double cycles in 1734-35, "Saitenspiele testeddes Hertzens" (Music Playing of the Heart), and c. 1737, "Das Namenbuch Christi," (Book of Names of Christ), using Schmolck texts. Schmolck, a noted pietist theologian, writer, and poet in Gotha, set familiar chorale melodies to original texts, a practice that became commonplace in the 1730s, especially in hymnals of home devotional sacred songs such as the geistliches Lieder Bach contributed to the Schemelli Gesangbuch of 1736.

Chorale Cantata Cycle

The opportunity to compose a set of chorale cantatas enabled Bach to begin with four distinct and representative works observing the first Sundays in Trinity Time, the omnes tempore last half of the church year emphasizing doctrinal thematic teachings based on specific chorales. Each of the works is introduced with a chorus using a striking hymn tune in different voice and musical style: BWV 20, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort I (Trinity +1), soprano voice, French Overture; BWV 2, Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Trinity +2), alto voice, motet; BWV 7, Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (John the Baptist); tenor voice Italianate concertante; and BWV 135, Ach Herr, mich armen Sünde (Trinity +3), bass voice, chorale fantasia.

An accounting of the actual performances of the chorale cantatas shows that from the period of the First Sunday after Trinity with Cantata BWV 20 (11 June 1724), Bach composed 40 chorale cantatas until the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March 1725) with Cantata BWV 1, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” During that nine-month period, Bach systematically produced chorale cantatas for virtually every Sunday and all the feasts days. At that time he did not compose and present three chorale cantatas for the following services: the 4th Sunday after Trinity since it coincided with the Feast of John the Baptist (24 June 1724, BWV 7); the 6th Sunday after Trinity (16 July 1724), when no work was presented but a chorale cantata text completed and later set as BWV 9; the 12th Sunday after Trinity 27 August 1724), when no work was presented. Interestingly, Bach subsequently filled these three gaps with chorale cantatas composed individually and added to the cycle until 1735: Cantata BWV 177 for Trinity +4 in 1731, Cantata BWV 9 for Trinity +6 in 1735, and Cantata BWV 137 for Trinity +12 in 1725). In addition, for the period of Trinity Time through the Feast of the Annunciation during Lent, Bach composed two additional chorale cantatas on Sundays that did not occur in 1724-25: Cantata BWV 140 was composed in 1731 for the last Sunday in Trinity Time (+27), and Cantata BWV 14 for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany that did not occur in 1725. During the Easter-Pentecost Season of 1725, Bach composed no chorale cantatas for the 12 services, ending with the Trinity Sunday Festival. Bach did repeat chorale Cantata BWV 4 for Easter Sunday (1 April 1725) and in 1730 completed Cantata BWV 80 for the Reformation Festival. For the three-month Easter-Pentecost period, Bach did compose Cantata BWV 129 in 1726-27 for the Trinity Sunday Festival and Cantata BWV 112 for Misericordias Domini (2nd Sunday after Easter), c.1731. Thus Bach added seven chorale cantatas to the cycle and included Cantata 4 and Cantata 80 in this cycle for a total of 49. In addition, between 1730 and 1735 Bach composed four undesignated, pure-hymn chorale cantatas that are appropriate for weddings or for anytime: BWV 97, 100, 117, and 192 – for a grand total of 53. Virtually all the chorale cantatas composed from 1725 onwards are set to original, pure-hymn texts, also known as per omnes versus.

The most used category of chorale cantatas is the standard model: opening chorus (Stanza 1), alternating recitatives and arias (stanzas paraphrased), and closing plain chorale (final stanza). In all, 27 cantatas follow this pattern and are primarily found in the de tempore first-half of the church year of seasons in the life of Jesus Christ. They are: 1, 2, 7, 8, 10, 14, 20, 26, 33, 41, 62, 78, 96, 99, 111, 114, 115, 116, 121, 123, 124, 127, 130, 133, 135, 138, 139. Within this model form Bach composed BWV 127 with three chorales, BWV 135 with a closing chorale chorus, and BWV 138 with three chorale choruses: one opening fantasia, one closing chorale chorus, and a troped chorale chorus within a recitative. Cantata BWV 114 has a chorale aria, set to one stanza and first found in Cantata BWV 4.

The next category were chorale cantatas with interpolated chorale and poetic recitative materials in the chorale paraphrased inner movements, treated in various ways and usually found during the omnes tempore Trinity Time having lesser-known chorales. The most common insertions are the chorale trope in the recitative found in seven cantatas: BWV 3, 38, 91, 94 (2 tropes), 122, 125, and 126. In eight cantatas Bach used multiple insertions, with as many as two troped recitatives and a separate chorale aria in BWV 92, 93, 101, 113, 122, 125, 126, and 178. Cantata 180 has a troped recitative and chorale aria.

In all, Bach composed 11 pure-hymn cantatas (per ones versus). Six are written for church year services: BWV 4 (Easter Sunday), 107 (Tr. +7), 112 (Easter +2), 129 (Trinity Fest), 137 (Tr.+12), and 177 (Tr.+4). Two of Bach’s most popular chorale cantatas use all the stanzas and insert additional poetic material. Cantata BWV 80, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” for the Reformation Fest, has all four stanzas including an opening chorale fantasia, an internal chorale chorus, a closing plain chorale, and a chorale duet, plus two recitatives and two arias in original Salomo Franck poetry. Cantata BWV 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” for the last Sunday in Trinity Time, uses all three stanzas as a chorus fantasia, chorale trio aria, and closing plain chorale, plus a recitative and two dialogues for soprano-Soul and bass-Jesus.

Genesis of Chorale Cantata Cycle

Bach also had made effective use of hybrid chorale and poetic materials in original Leipzig Cantatas BWV 43, 95, and 173, points out W. Gillies Whittaker in The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.5 Whittaker’s substantial two-volume study is divided by cantata types: borrowed materials, solo cantatas, choral cantatas, and chorale materials. Chorus Cantata 43, “Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen” for Ascension Festival 1726 is divided into two parts with an old Rudolstadt poetic and original chorale texts. Cantata 95, “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” for the 16th Sunday after Trinity 1723 has an opening with two different chorale choruses flanking a recitative followed by a separate recitative leading to a different chorale aria. Cantata 173, “Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir,” for the third Sunday after Epiphany 1724, has an elaborate opening of a chorale chorus with three troping recitatives for tenor, bass and soprano responding to the chorale text.

The genesis of Bach’s unique chorale cantata cycle began when Bach presented his audition test piece, Cantatas BWV 22, “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” and BWV 23, “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn,” as a double bill on Quinquagesima Sunday, February 7, 1723. They use closing extended chorale choruses in the basic format of ritornelli episodes in two parts with a homophonic four-part chorus and elaborate instrumental accompaniment. These were the precursor of the opening chorale chorus fantasia found in all Bach’s chorale cantatas. Cantata 23 also has a tenor recitative with cantus firmus in a four-part instrumental setting – a unique and important form found in the chorale cantata inner movements poetic paraphrase in 15 cantatas.

Chorale Cantata Elements

“The concept of an independent instrumental texture as a setting for the chorale, however, had been realized not only in the audition and Cycle 1 finales mentioned earlier but also in three opening chorale-choruses from Cycle 1, those of Cantatas 138, 95 and 73,” says Richard D. P. Jones in his recent The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, Volume 2.6 “In all three cases, however, the chorale is troped by recitative.” “Of all the cycle 1 cantatas, No. 138, approaches nearest to the chorale cantatas of Cycle II, for three of its six movements, nos. 1, 2, and 6 are based on the first three verses of one and the same chorale,” says Jones (Ibid.: 127).

Interestingly, another 12 earlier cycle 1 compositions Ibid.: 126) have elaborate closing chorale choruses (BWV 75, 76, 25 and 49 in two parts; 23, 48, and 190 in different arrangements of the same chorale; and 77, 25, 48, and 107 in wordless instrumental chorales sounded in choruses. Bach composed only one chorale cantata of the second cycle, BWV 107, that has a closing chorale chorus, instead of the usual plain chorale setting. It also is Bach’s only Cycle 2 example of a complete original hymn text setting (seven stanzas), called per omnes versus, in one internal recitative and four successive arias. The reasfor this sole example is that “perhaps on this occasion Bach’s librettist was for some reason unable to supply the usual hymn paraphrase.

The significance of this cycle is the “great composer at the height of his powers meeting the challenges of a self-imposed regimen week by week and adjusting his choice of form, his approach and tone of voice to each underlying theme, each symbol and each metaphor arising from the text laid out in front of him,” says Gardiner (Ibid.: 320). This second cycle afforded Bach the opportunity, particularly with fresh, tailored poetic texts, to be “flexible and prone to widely different responses from one year to the next.”

Innovation & Balancing Act

Bach’s chorale cantata cycle involved both innovation and a balancing act with his librettist,” says Klaus Hofmann in his 2003 liner notes to the Masaaki Suzuki BIS cantata recordings.7 <<Bach’s chorale cantatas proved to be an innovation, based on no previous models but realizing through the traditional madrigalian cantata form of varied length choruses, arias, and recitatives the import or meaning of all the strophic stanzas. To achieve this Bach developed a basic pattern of movements, beginning with the opening chorus, expanded into a fantasia with active instrumental accompaniment in ritornello passages with the four voices, polyphonically, exploring the text setting and chorale melody through musical permutation and word-painting. In the succeeding stanzas, the librettist’s poetic paraphrase of original text is set to new melodies in alternating recitatives and arias, usually about five, to accommodate chorales usually with a minimum of four stanzas and perhaps as many as 12 where multiple stanzas are paraphrased in one movement. To these mostly repetitive da-capo arias, Bach utilized more effective obbligato instruments as a separate voice. As with virtually all his sacred cantatas, the chorale cantata closes with the traditional four-part harmonization here with the final stanza set to the unaltered chorale melody that summarizes the collective theme of the particular sacred hymn. This Bach’s chorale cantatas enabled him to provide original music using hymn texts and melodies familiar to the congregation in an immediate and accessible musical sermon.

In many respects Bach and his librettist must have started this cantata year as an experiment, as a spiritual adventure. There were no immediate artistic models; the project was a foray into unknown territory – the combination of the modern cantata style with traditional hymns for the congregation. Rarely has an artistic synthesis proved so rewarding. Bach and his poet must have been conscious of the balancing act that they were attempting, and seem to have undertaken to do full justice not only to their artistic ideals but also to the moral purpose of sacred music. And thus, in these cantatas, what was then referred to as ‘popular’, as universally comprehensible, comes especially to the fore. At a high level of artistry – and at the same time in an easily understood and unmistakable manner – the music illustrates the meaning of the text; words and music come together in a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (complete art work) and, simultaneously, a ‘musical sermon’ in which the function of the music is vividly to convey and imprint the meaning of the text upon the listener.>> © Klaus Hofmann 2003

Compositional Challenges

The challenges Bach faced in the initial chorale fantasia chorus were dictated by the nature of the rigid text. First, the instrumental ritornelli passages often treat the opening as an introductory sinfonia, the length of the initial chorale line helping determine the length of the sinfonia, with the emphasis on a solo oboe voice in the character of the text, supported by strings. The length of the chorale determined the number and extent of each ritornello passage with different motives, while the character of the text helps determine how Bach developed the instrumental materials. The initial entry of the lead voice followed by the unadorned, strict cantus firmus, usually in the traditional canto or soprano voice, dictates the permutations and combinations of the individual vocal phrases and the manner in which they enter following the succeeding ritornelli.

The rare Bar form repeat of the chorale (about one in twenty) influenced Bach’s sense of repetition and balance, in contrast to the ABA strict tripartite repeat form of the poetic da-capo aria. In the Stollen/Abegesang AAB tradition of the Meistersinger with a repeat of the first line Stollen (A) to the same melody set to a different text, followed by the lengthier Abgesang (B) text, Bach had the opportunity to exploit the cantus firmus phrase as a varied motto in the four voices. Two variants are the reprise of the initial Stollen melody, the so-called Reprisenbar, or AABA scheme, and the so-called Gegenbar, in which the Stollen is sung once and the Abgesang twice (ABB).

Bach internally in the chorale cantatas uses a variety of settings of the troped chorale within the explanatory recitative. Bach also uses poetic recitatives alone without extraneous material in all his chorale cantatas. He often paraphrases two or more stanzas in one recitative in a chorale than has more than the usual six stanzas, in order to accommodate chorales with more stanzas. The arias usually are much more concise and straightforward, paraphrasing one stanza, predominately set in da-capo (ABA) or reprise from (ABA1), or a variant thereof. As in the opening chorale fantasia, Bach in the arias emphasizes particular verbatim images in the chorale text with occasional word-painting or solo instrumental support or a combination. As Bach quite often does in his other cantatas, the instrumental support varies in each aria, utilizing flute, oboe, strings, or continuo, or a combination.

The closing plain chorale, the last stanza of the hymn text, summarizes the poet’s message. Bach’s harmonization emphasizes particularly words. Some chorales also have unifying repeated motto lines in each stanza, or have phrases such as “Allelujah” or “Kyrie-leis.” Bach supports each of the four voices with colla parte instruments also found in the opening chorus fantasia. Of particular note are instruments such as the horn sounding the cantus firmus, particularly in the four traditional wedding chorales: “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan,” “Sei Lobb und Ehr’ dem Höchsetn Gut,” “Nun danket alle Gott,” and “In allen meinen Taten.”

Cantata Cycle Incomplete

After composing 40 chorale cantatas in the cycle, Bach ceased to compose any during the Easter-Pentecost season, the final quarter of the church year. Speculation about the reason ranged from the lack of a librettist, decline in the quality of the choir, and a weariness coupled with a desire to return to the more traditional cantata form. In an objective sense, composing the same form using chorale texts may have presented limitations and frustrations Bach no longer sought to conquer. Embedded in the rigid requirements were pitfalls and restrictions that could have inhibited his growth as a composer, placed him in a straightjacket, and led to a seeming dead end or restrictive corner.

The record shows that Bach in the next decade composed five cantatas to fill gaps in the Trinity Time top Lent portion of the church year: BWV 177, 9, 137, 140 and 14. Bach placed his early Cantata 4 for Easter Sunday in the cycle and repeated it and eventually composed Cantata 80 for the Reformation Festival, not part of the church year. For the major gap of 12 services in the Easter-Pentecost season, including five festival days for Easter and Pentecost, Bach composed only two: BWV 1126 for Misericordias Sunday (Second after Easter), and BWV 129 for the Trinity Sunday Festival. It is possible that Bach couldn’t find suitable Easter and Pentecost chorales to set as chorale cantatas either because several had only three verses, other chorales were not well-known, or their texts had few musical values in the cantata form, whether as pure, unaltered hymns, or as poetic paraphrases. The record also shows that in the third cycle and successive works, Bach comptraditional chorus and solo cantatas mostly to old, published texts. There were no significant new directions in Bach’s cantata output except for the nine original progressive, operatic texts of Leipzig poetess Mariane von Ziegler that Bach set in the Easter-Pentecost season of 1725 but included in his third cycle distribution to his sons.

Chorale Cantata Obstacles

The chorale text stanza form was the biggest obstacle to Bach, says Albert Schweitzer in his Bach biography, Johann Sebastian Bach.8 “If the majority of these chorale cantatas do not make an effective whole, the fault lies in the texts, which consist of a string of strophes without any inner dramatic coherence, and without sufficient distinction between them. Moreover there are too many strophes in most of the chorales. Cantatas worked out on these chorale lines require short hymns, in which every verse suggests a different musical characterization. These ideal chorales are very few in number.”

The attempt to cast a rigid hymn stanza into a different poetic text form suitable for a da-capo aria or expansive recitative had too many inherent pitfalls, says Whittaker (Ibid.: 435). While the use of completely unaltered hymns was attractive in many ways, it brought in its train serious difficulties. The various type of composition found in cantata chorus, aria, duet, recitative, arioso provide a scheme which unites diverse qualities, and they must needs have different rhythmical plans. The unvarying scansion of a number of hymn-verses, sometimes running to twelve, defeats this end. A chorale stanza is not always cast in a mould suitable for recitative or aria, and problems present themselves which the composer did not always solve satisfactorily.”

Citing pure-hymn Cantatas 97 and 117, each nine-verses long, Whittaker says the “lengthy stanza gives rise to an uncommonly protracted aria.” The prevailing tripartite aria type of Bach’s day began with the principal A section, was followed by a shorter B section of contrasting “thought and imagery,” and usually lead to a restatement of the A section (da-capo), a portion of the opening a section (dal segno), or a variation of the material in the A section, perhaps in rondo or repetitive form. Consequently the latter lines in a verse did not necessarily lend themselves to contrasting treatment. Turning to the recitative, Whittaker observes that because the hymn-cantata text in the same length in all numbers, there is no opportunity for short and long dramatic or reflective recitatives.

Another major weakness in the chorale cantatas was their subject matter often did not make reference to the appointed Gospel or Epistle of the day but rather to a general mood or moral teaching. While this character lent itself more to the Trinity Time of themes and teachings, there is no mention of the unique parables, miracles, and other teachings found in the second half of the church season. Further, while the direction of many Bach cantatas as they unfold often moves from pessimism to optimism, with dramatic contrasts and word painting particularly between preaching recitative and reflective aria, the rigid and repetitive hymn stanzas offered no relief or contrast.

Chorale Cantata Librettist(s)

Among those suggested as the librettist for Bach’s chorale cantatas is Leipzig theologian and pastor Andreas Stöbel (1653-1725), lead by scholar Christoph Wolf (Ibid, see Footnote 1). “We cannot identify with certainty the author of the texts, since he did not produce any completed work in print; from May-June 1724, he plainly delivered each text to Bach in manuscript as it was finished. The latest research, by Hans-Joachim Schulze in Die Welt der Bach-Kantaten, Vol. 3, [1998] suggests that the writer was very likely to have been Andreas Stöbel, the former Co -Rector of the Thomasschule. Stöbel, theologically trained and an accomplished poet, died on 31 January 1725. In fact, the date of death provides convincing evidence for identifying Stöbel as the probable author of the chorale cantata texts, since delivery of the texts stopped abruptly at the end of January. Consequently, Bach was unable to maintain the unified concept of a chorale cantata cycle and had to fill in the rest of the cycle -from Easter to the 1st Sunday after Trinity - with other texts.”

While various Bach writers and scholars continue to support the Stöbel theory, BCW contributor Thomas Braatz in his 2007 BCW article, “The Rise and Fall of the Stöbel Theory,” shows that Schulze in his 2006 extensive study of Bach’s cantatas makes no further mention of his theory.9

A general description of the work of the anonymous chorale cantata librettist is found in Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work.10 “There probably was only one author involved, who would of course have allowed Bach to make alterations. In the inner sections of the libretti, the author at first remained so faithful to the original words of individual hymn verses that his texts lack originality, but later on – and perhaps at Bach’s behest – he made his words more descriptive and emotionally affecting, then finally followed a kind of middle road.”

The changes in the paraphrasing sections of the chorale cantata libretti, beginning in 1724, led Bach scholar Harald Streck in his 1971 dissertation study of Bach’s cantata texts, “Die Verskunst in den poetischen Texten zu den Kantaten J. S. Bachs” (University of Hamburg), to attempt to classify four different librettists’ groups of the chorale cantata texts: Group 4, earliest, possibly by various authors and of inferior poetic quality (BWV 20 to 127); and subsequently interspersed are Group 2, BWV 101 to 180; Group 1, BWV 78 to 124; and Group 3, BWV 33 to 125.11

Other theories regarding the librettist(s) of the chorale cantata cycle have focused on Christian Weise (1671-1736), Bach’s pastor at St. Thomas Church. Christoph Wolff, New Grove Bach Family, 1983: 130, says Weise “is a possibility,” and Robert L. Marshall, The Compositional Process of JSB, v. 1: 1972: FN 28), cites Alfred Dürr raising the “remote possibility” that both principal Leipzig pastors, Weise and Deyling, who preached many of the sermons when Bach’s cantatas were performed, may have alternated in writing at least some of the chorale cantata texts (Dürr, “Zur Textvorlage der Choralkantaten J. S. Bachs,” Kderygma und Melos; Christhard Mahrenholz 70 Jahre, Kassel: 1970: 222f).12


1 Wolff 1999 notes,[AM-3CD].pdf;, scroll down to C-11.
2 Wolff 1998 notes,[Erato-3CD].pdf; BCW Recording details,, scroll down to C-10.
3 Gardiner Bach biography, Chapter 9, “Cycles and Seasons” (Alfred A, Knopf: New York, 2013: 318). The other three initial 1524 Lutheran hymnals are Geystlich Gesangk-Buchlyn, Das deutsche Kirchenlied, and Etliche Cristliche lyder Lobegesang/und Psalm.
4 Dürr, in Bach essays, edited by Yo Tomita (Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub., 2011: 182ff), originally published in 1967. German version as “Gedanken zu Bachs Choralkantaten” in W. Blankenburg, ed.; Johann Sebastia Bach (Darmstadt 1970: 507-17).
5 Whittaker (Oxford University Press: London, 1959).
6Jones, Volume II: 1717-1750. “Music to Delight the Spirit” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013: 146).
7 Hofmann notes,[BIS-CD1321].pdf; Suzuki BCW Recording details,
8 Schweitzer, translated Ernest Newman from the German edition 1908 (Macmillan Co: New York, II:245).
9 Schulze, Die Bach-Kantaten: Einführungen zu sämtlichen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs (Leipzig/Stuttgart, 2006); see Braatz’s article,
10 Geck, English translation John Hargaves (Harcourt Books, 2006:367f).
11 These groups are outlined in Arthur Hirsch’s "Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantatas in Chronological Order" (BACH, July 1973: 19, 25). Hirsch has liner notes in Helmut Rilling’s Bachakademie Hänssler recordings.
12 Besides Dürr’s “Bach’s Chorale Cantatas” (Gedanken zu Bach’s Choralkantaten), the most recent studies of the chorea cantata are: Renata Steiger, ed., Johann Sebastian Bachs Choralkantaten als Choral Bearbeitungen, Internationale Arbeits Gemainschaft für Theologische Bachforschung Bulletin 3; Heidelberg 1991, and Friedhelm Krummacher, Bach’s Zyklus der Choralkantaten: Auifgeben und Lösungen, Göttingen, 1995, as cited in An Introduction to Bach Studies, Daniel R. Melamed and Michael Marissen (Oxford University Press: New York, 1998: 116).


To come: The chorale in Bach’s work, Bach’s chorale cantata predecessors, and Motets & Chorales for 1st Sunday after Trinity.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 18, 2014):
Chorale Cantata Cycle & Luther Hymn Book Bicentennial

William Hoffman wrote:
< A general outline of Bach’s chorale cantata cycle is found in Christoph Wolff 1999 liner notes in the Ton Koopman Complete Bach Cantatas on Erato, “The Leipzig church cantatas: the chorale cantata cycle (II: 1724-1725).” 1 >
I can't find the reference at the moment, but Gardiner suggests that the chorale-cantata cycle was part of a tribute to the 200-year commemoration of Luther's hymn book. Is this a substantive hypothesis? We're people celebrating the publication?

Julian Mincham wrote (May 18, 2014):
The chorale-cantata cycle 1724-5.

Following Will's introduction to this most significant group of cantatas, readers might like to glance over the introduction to the essays on each of these works from my cantata website

IT is interesting to discover that many movements from the first (1723-4) cycle indicate ways in which Bach was working towards this model. Clearly he had it in mind for some time before BWV 20 hit the congregations!

Another list member, Dr Linda Gingrich, has also made an in-depth study of a number of these works.


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Last update: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 05:33