In spite of all these problems of acquaintance, some Bach enthusiasts (I among them) believe that Bach's cantata oeuvre contains some of the most grandiose music, not only of Bach himself but of Western music in general. As far as I am concerned, this has little to do with the particular texts or religious setting of these works. Most of Bach's cantata production can be enjoyed and fully appreciated in almost complete abstraction from its original goals. First of all, there is much purely instrumental music in the cantatas. For me, it has always been one of the mysteries of the phonographic industry that there are dozens of releases of the Brandenburg Concertos, but, to my knowledge, not a single anthology of the many sinfonias that can be found in the cantatas. Many of these works, like the long sinfonia at the beginning of BWV 42, are among the best instrumental works that Bach wrote, of a quality comparable to the Brandenburg Concertos.
Second, it is somewhat anachronistic to see Bach's church music as religious art per se. Unlike the later Romantics, the Baroque composer does not seek to express his personal religious feelings and other ego-emotions. Central to a Baroque composer's concerns is the expression of objectively conceived Affekten (passions), such as the elementary wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness and their various composites. The Baroque composer disposes of a number of convential means to express these objective passions. Sadness, for instance, requires a slow movement and minor tonality. Within these conventions, there are certain margins for individual invention and expressiveness. It is with reference to such margins that we must characterize Bach's genius. With few exceptions, his music reaches the highest peaks of inspired inventivity and beauty within a fixed framework of conventions of Affekt-expression.
The crucial point of these considerations is that there are no exclusively religious Affekten. The passions in question are of a more universal nature and are the same in religious and non-religious contexts. This is not the wishful thinking of 20th century post-Christian Bach interpretation, but, on the contrary, the essence of Bach's own practice. A substantial percentage of Bach's church music has a worldly origin and was adapted for church use by rewriting the texts according to the so-called parody technique. Even such alleged pinnacles of religious inspiration as the St. Matthew Passion contain many key parts with a worldly origin, in this case a Trauermusik for Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. In short, the view of Bach as the ultimate Christian composer expressing individual religious emotions probably is a Romantic distortion that does little justice to Baroque composition practice.
Since more or less convential Affekt-expression is so central to Bach's "method" of composition, a thorough study of the cantatas is crucial to the understanding of Bach's music in general. Since music was seen as related to rhetoric in Bach's time, the texts give important clues as to the intended emotional and intellectual content of the music. In general, one can learn from the cantatas what a certain type of music, including purely instrumental music, is supposed to express.
Personally, I believe that from the connection between text and musical expression we can also learn about Bach's private preoccupations. In spite of the supposedly objective character of Baroque music, it appears that Bach is more inspired by certain texts than by others. Although some caution seems desirable, it has, for instance, often been observed that Bach is always much inspired by texts evoking "the last hour", the moment of dying and the coming union with Christ. Although this theme has certain roots in Lutheran orthodoxy, it is by and large a form of mysticism of the kind stressed by the pietists in Bach's days. Arguably, this is not an orthodox Christian idea at all but a variant of the mysticism that can be found in all cultures and all times. In a double sense, then, Bach is not a narrow Christian composer but a composer of universal human Affekt-expression, with a particular sensitivity to the relation between dying and mystical union with a metaphorical Christ.
The word "career" presumably deserves some emphasis in connection with Bach's cantata production. On the whole, one gets the impression that Bach, whenever free to do as he wanted, put most of his energy in keyboard and other instrumental music. Much of his cantata production is connected to the duties of office or to the preparation of career steps. Bach's cantata activity in Weimar forms an interesting example. Around 1713 Bach adopts the new Neumeister type of cantata composition, which, with its recitatives and da capo arias, was inspired by the Italian opera. Most texts were written by Salomon Franck, but Bach also used texts by Neumeister and particularly by Georg Christian Lehms (see picture on the right). After his appointment as Konzertmeister in 1714, his office seems to require a regular cantata production of one per month. When Bach hopes to succeed Capellmeister Johann Samuel Drese (who died on 1 December 1716) he intensifies his canatata production but he simply stops writing cantatas altogether when it becomes clear that he will passed by for the function! So much for writing cantatas to the honor of God.
In Köthen (1717-1723) Bach's office does not require regular cantata production. Apart from homage cantatas and cantatas for special occasions (mostly written by Menantes, pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Hunold) this period was dominated by the composition of keyboard and other instrumental music. This does not seem to have frustrated Bach at all, because he always maintained later on that this was the happiest period of his life. Hardly the opinion of an arch-cantor, in other words.
Bach lived in Leipzig from 1723 till his death in 1750. The first five of the Leipzig years were really the only period in Bach's life dominated by cantata production. Bach worked harder than ever before in those years and is supposed to have written 5 yearly runs (i.e., 5 x 59 cantatas) altogether. The first annual cycle of 1723-1724 included many Weimar works, but for the second cycle, 1724-1725, Bach wrote nearly one cantata per week. After a short interruption in 1725, Bach wrote a third cycle over the next two years. It is not exactly known when Bach wrote the remaining two cycles. About two-fifths of Bach's cantata production is lost (apart from Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, no other cantata appeared in print during Bach's lifetime). The Leipzig cantatas were written by various poets. Around 1725, Bach used (and adapted) texts written by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (BWV 103, 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175, 176), a poetess of Gottsched's school (picture on the left). From around 1727, Picander (pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici) became Bach's most important text poet. Picander was postmaster of Leipzig, and later also wine inspector (not the first friend of Bach's who had something to do with wine or beer).
Bach's cantata output in the 1720s is one of the most astonishing creative explosions in the history of Western music, even if one considers that Baroque composers were extremely productive in general. Georg Philipp Telemann, for instance, could write a cantata in one day and was said to write an eight-part motet as if he were writing a letter. Telemann wrote 40 operas, 44 Passions, and 12 yearly cycles of cantatas. Bach's predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) had written 14 yearly cycles, and the absolute world champion cantata writing was Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725), who wrote almost 2000 cantatas. Although nobody has heard even a fraction of the more than 3500 cantatas of only these three composers, it is generally assumed that they were routine productions and much less original than Bach's cantatas. What is so astonishing about Bach, however, is that his cantatas were also the results of certain routines but that many are masterpieces nevertheless. During these early Leipzig years, Bach also gave the first performance of the St. John Passion (1724) and produced the Magnificat (1723) and the St. Matthew Passion (1729, in recent times on little evidence pushed back to 1727, to escape the for some people unbearable conclusion that ten key sections of the "pinnacle of religiously inspired music" were parodies of a Trauermusik for Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, as mentioned above).
It is very important to realize that, even in his Leipzig years, Bach the alleged arch-cantor, only gave priority to cantata writing during the short period between 1723 and 1729. Maybe Bach was strongly motivated to prove his mastership because he was considered only third choice for his job. It is even more likely, given Bach's later priorities, that he worked so hard in order to obtain artistic freedom, to have a sufficient supply of church pieces, so that he could devote the rest of his creative energy to projects of his own choice (with few exceptions, these were instrumental projects). Apart from the oratorios, the B Minor Mass and some revisions and completions, most cantatas after 1730 were homage and congratulatory pieces, produced on a commercial basis for high-ranking citizens of the city of Leipzig or to please influential members of the nobility that could help him with his career.
The first time I saw the term "careerist" applied to Bach was in a text by the great Bach scholar Christoph Wolff (in the booklet coming with John Eliot Gardiner's CD version of the B Minor Mass). This term seemed to summarize rather well my growing and somewhat uneasy feeling about Bach's career behavior when I was writing the biographical notes. Since Hildesheimer's biography of Mozart, we are used to the idea that heavenly music can be written by a human being with rather earthly concerns. From Mozart's correspondence, the undeniable fact emerges that he was often occupied with a somewhat infantile anal eroticism. Like Mozart, Bach was not a saint at all. In a very earthly way, he was much concerned with money and social status, both as a composer and as a citizen. I agree with Wolff that there is nothing illegitimate about this, although Bach went very far indeed when, in the 1740s, he sought the favors of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. The crucial point is that Bach was not an ordinary citizen, but the court composer of the Elector of Saxony, who had just been defeated by Prussia in the second Silesian war. Unless I am overlooking something, it must be said that Bach's behavior was rather opportunistic in this context, the more so because earlier on he had sought the favors of the Elector with much humble flattering and many congratulatory compositions for practically the whole royal family.
All in all, then, I think the key to understanding Bach's motivation is, apart from his very obvious professional concerns with music, the upward social mobility and ambition of somebody emancipating himself from the almost medieval milieu of Thuringian town pipers to the ranks of the emerging bourgeoisie in early-capitalist Leipzig. Like in many similar cases, his spectacular upward mobility generated true explosions of energy. The same can be observed in the gigantic output of his contemporaries like Telemann. That Bach also created immortal masterpieces in the proces, is a matter of happy accident and the result of Bach's genius, not of his motivation, which is not different from that of his contemporaries who produced second-rate music or worse. Like in the case of Mozart, it seems an error to confuse the superior output of genius with some special kind of inspiration, religious or otherwise.
In a way, then, the somewhat disconcerting question must be asked whether Bach really liked to write cantatas. Much more so than his instrumental output, the cantatas are part and parcel of Bach's career planning. What a glorious career it has been!
The first three CDs came out in May (1995) and are of very promising quality. Needless to say, there are many other high-quality performances of the Bach cantatas. I am simply not in a position, financially or time-wise, to do justice to all the other releases, for instance to the only other complete collections, the Leonhardt-Harnoncourt and Rilling versions. No comparative judgment is implied here about the Koopman recordings and the other ones. My choice is exclusively based on the pragmatic consideration that the ERATO project seems to be the only opportunity for me to build up a (hopefully) consistent and complete collection of the Bach cantatas and to keep up with it in writing the commentaries.
In writing the commentaries, I have noticed that it is very difficult to present information that goes beyond what can be found in Alfred Dürr's great two-volume book on the cantatas (Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach. Mit ihren Texten. DTV/Bärenreiter, Kassel, etc., 1971 (1985)). The same can be said of all other commentaries in the zillions of booklets coming with the various cantata editions on CD. To the extent that I will make use of Dürr's information, I will try to acknowledge that as much as possible. I have also profited from the wealth of information that can be found in the three-volume book that comes with the Koopman CDs (so far, I have only seen volume 1 of the Dutch version: Chr. Wolff, Ed., De wereld van de Bach-cantates. Deel 1: Johann Sebastian Bachs Geestelijke Cantates: van Arnstadt tot Köthen. Abcoude, 1995. (With an introduction by Ton Koopman)). Furthermore, I will try to take advantage of recent findings of Bach research and also give my own impressions about the various cantatas.
Since I am following a particular performance of the cantatas, I will base myself on the German texts and instrumentations as found in the Koopman recordings. Indications of the duration of particular cantatas are naturally based on the the same performances. For the English translation of the German texts, I have not chosen for poetic rewritings but for word-by-word glosses that must be seen as a means to make the German more accessible. This project can be followed without any knowledge of German, but some knowledge of German greatly adds to the enjoyment of the cantatas. All English translations are my own.
Copyright (1995) text: Jan Koster, Haren, The Netherlands.