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