The Beauty of Bach’s Church Cantatas

My most intimate experiences of J. S. Bach have been through his keyboard music, both as performer and teacher. Plumbing the depths of his non-organ keyboard output is a life-long occupation in itself; moving sideways to explore the church cantatas in any kind of depth would require another lifetime. In lieu of a full-scale immersion, I’m hoping to spend as much time as possible listening to them and reading about them and occasionally looking at some of the scores.

Recently I created a small Spotify playlist of Bach Cantatas, and was surprised by how attractive and pleasant the music is. These cantatas represent a high point in the history of Protestant church music. On the face of it, many might consider them to be too high-brow or esoteric for the average modern-day listener. I was not expecting to be attracted to them for continued and repeated listening. Although certain movements from some cantatas have made it into the “popular” repertoire (e.g. wedding book arrangements of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze), I rather expected them to be, on the whole, not much more exciting than the old LP recordings of Gregorian Chant I was required to listen to in my undergrad days. Chant can be beautiful, but it was never intended to please the listener; its purpose was to blend into the liturgy, and is best understood in that context, notwithstanding its fleeting popularity in 1990s chill rooms.

For me, Bach’s cantatas are an entirely different matter. I don’t know if it’s the seemingly perfect blend of vocal and instrumental resources, the wide variety of expressive devices and textures, or the rhythmic vitality of many of the movements, but something about them keeps me listening. Like Gregorian Chant, the cantatas were designed for church services, not concert halls or private chambers. Unlike Gregorian Chant, the cantatas utilize the full spectrum of musical resources available at the time they were composed. They express a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and colors. They hold up well as pieces to be performed and listened to even outside of a church service.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Selected Bach Cantatas – English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Popular and Classical Music

The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. (Charles Rosen, The Classical Style, p. 332)

[I]t is better to write good Gershwin than bad Ravel, which is what would happen if you worked with me. (Maurice Ravel, quoted in “When Ravel Met Gershwin,” Carnegie Hall blog, April 2012)

I really did want to be in Depeche Mode, I still want to be in Depeche Mode. I joined choir when I was 18 years old. I grew up in Nevada, so I went to UNLV for my bachelor’s degree, and I joined choir just on a fluke and the first piece we sang was this piece by Mozart, his “Requiem.” It absolutely changed my life. That’s when I knew there’s something much bigger that I want to do. (Eric Whitacre, quoted in “Q&A with Iconic Composer Eric Whitacre on the Virtual Choir and his 2019 Interactive NAMM Show Performance,”  Kaitlyn Tang,, December 12, 2018)

So if people begin to replace their taste for rock with classical music sometime around middle age, why is this a bad thing? Why is age 40 considered too late? Why are only young people in their 20s deemed a suitable subset of the population? Just because Madison Avenue covets that age group does not mean that symphony orchestras have to campaign for that same sector.
In other words, why don’t we see what a wonderful demographic older people are? They have the most disposable income, the most free-time to attend concerts, and are the most appreciative in finding culture that nourishes them. If they have grown tired of the simple structures of popular music in our culture, and they have graduated to something more interesting and rewarding—halleluiah! (Michael Torke, “The Future of Classical Music Audiences,” Michael Torke blog, January 13, 2018)

I would commission a piece that involved everybody in the community. It would include all generations, amateurs, professionals, non-musicians. Each person would find his or her own expressive voice and join together into a coherent narrative. (Yo-Yo Ma, “Facing the music: Yo-Yo Ma,” The Guardian, November 7, 2016)

Jazz musicians everywhere are all still trying to be little Beethovens: They’re trying to make their improvised variations imaginative and interesting. (Brad Mehldau, “Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane: Installment 2 – Who Needs a Good Melody Anyways?”,

Musical Links

Haydn, Symphony No. 94 “Surprise Symphony,”, II. Andante

Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major

Gershwin, An American in Paris

Eric Whitacre, What If, Virtual Youth Choir

Michael Torke, Saxophone Concerto

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, NPR Tiny Desk Concert

Brad Mehldau, After Bach: Rondo