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 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

Could you repeat that?

Substantially, I say something only once, i.e. repeat little or nothing. (Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, p. 102)

So, essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything just repeated patterns, musical patterns. (Terry Riley, Interview with Gamall Awad and Ammon Haggerty for Rhythmos Magazine, October 1992)

Is repetition in music interesting and engrossing, or annoying and banal? Some people dislike minimalism (the Terry Riley variety) because it’s too repetitive; others like it because for them it produces a sense of calm and well-being, or some other state of consciousness that they’re seeking. Contemporary worship songs are often criticized for mindless repetition of lyrics and musical content, or defended for being so repetitive, or sometimes compared favorably with the repetition found in some of the Psalms. Excessive repetition of particular musical clichés is one of the marks of amateurish song writing and composition. Masterful use of repetition is one of the marks of great song writing and composition. On the other hand, Schoenberg did not endear himself to the general population by studiously avoiding repetition in his music, but there is something to be said for the creative freedom and “developing variation” for which Schoenberg strove.

From a performer’s perspective, understanding repetition in music is one of the keys to gaining a deeper understanding of the essence of the music you are performing. For example, my work at learning a contemporary composition for piano generally goes through several stages: 1) This is incomprehensible nonsense! I have no motivation to keep plowing through this stuff – the music isn’t worth it; 2) Oh, wait! There’s actually some thematic material here that somehow connects to the thematic material there, and it kind of makes sense; 3) I sort of like this part – it’s an interesting development of the main rhythmic motive and melodic progression; 4) This piece is growing on me – I actually like it (after repeated practice sessions)!

I believe (but would have a difficult time proving) that the best music contains repetition on multiple levels that is not always obvious on first hearing, or first performing. This can be true of the simplest folk song, or the most complex symphonic score. The most obvious repetitions are the patterns that either attract or repel us initially. In the case of popular music, the songs that disappear from charts quickly are probably the ones that only repeat obvious clichés; songs that remain popular over time probably have repetitions at other levels that aren’t as obvious at first, but which add to the overall interest of the song.

To illustrate this idea, here are some observations about repetition in one of the greatest Protestant hymn tunes ever written (if judged by its staying power, universal recognition, or use in other major works such as Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony).












(Original manuscript image from; markings are mine)

Martin Luther followed the practice of German Meistersinger and Minnesinger by using Bar form in this hymn tune. The first part of the tune is comprised of a phrase that is repeated (the Aufgesang), and a second (usually longer) phrase not repeated (the Abgesang). Since this is a strophic hymn, the entire hymn tune is repeated with each new stanza. The manuscript above shows two stanzas: two lines of text per stanza in the Aufgesang, and one line of text per stanza in the Abgesang.

Within each stanza there are some interesting repetitions. The first (labeled A in red) takes the form of a descent of a fourth from the highest pitch (“F”) to the tenor or dominant pitch (“C”) in the Aufgesang. The second, also in the Aufgesang (labeled B in red), descends from “B♭” to the lower “F.” The Abgesang begins with an ascent from the lower “F” to the dominant “C,” followed by ornamental neighbor tones above and below the dominant “C” and a drop back to the lower “F.” This is followed by a retrograde (backwards) statement of A, an ascent of a fourth from the dominant “C” up to the highest note “F” (labeled A (rev) in red), another repetition of A (labeled in red), and another descent of a fourth from “D” to “A” (labeled C in red). The phrase containing both A and B at the end of the Aufgesang is then repeated at the end of the Abgesang (labeled D in blue).

The entire melody for Ein feste Burg is contained within the range of a single octave. The repetitive use of the descending (or sometimes ascending) fourth interval, which subdivides the octave into two parts (essentially the two major tetrachords which form a major scale), paired with the contrasting descent of a fourth from the 6th note of the (modern major) scale to the third note (“D” to “A” – labeled C in red) in the middle of the Abgesang, gives this melody unity without sounding like mindless repetition. Unity is also achieved by using the D unit at the ends of the Aufgesang and Abgesang.

Why has Ein feste Burg lasted for so long, and remained singable for almost 500 years? Perhaps there was something of lasting value to the art and craftsmanship of the Meistersinger.


Wikipedia article on Bar form.

Finale from Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 “Reformation.”

Bach – Cantata BWV 80 – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

Luther’s Hymn Melodies: Style and form for a Royal Priesthood, by James L. Brauer.


Chronological Snobbery

[Chronological snobbery is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 207.)

I was guilty of chronological snobbery in High School. My snobbery was not intentional, but practical, an indifference, apathy, and laziness toward history and Latin – those classes were too much work! I can blame the snobbery on my immaturity, and my immaturity on my youth, but it was aided and encouraged by a Zeitgeist that valued “modernity” and “progress” over tradition and classical education. For example, my high school implemented a new open approach to English classes that allowed me to bypass traditional literature courses for film and media studies (this was in the mid-1970s). Only when I was older did I realize how foolish my attitude and choices were.

I might still be guilty of chronological snobbery, but I now concede that there are some old ways of doing things which are still valid, and in many ways superior to newer ways of doing things.  For example, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms all either studied or were influenced by Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, a book with  influence that spanned at least two centuries and three major musical stylistic periods. Its influence can still be seen in modern counterpoint texts and courses.

Actually, species counterpoint (Fux’s contrapuntal method) is still a thing. Counterpoint and other rule-based, abstract approaches to studying music theory and composition, such as four-part voice-leading exercises, encourage and develop mental and procedural habits that provide a strong basis for evaluating and refining creative musical processes. Unfortunately, modern music technology and a focus on immediate gratification have made it possible to detour around these seemingly mundane and outdated procedures, and with them the mental discipline that results from pursuing them.

Certainly this . . .

Fun & Exciting (Beatmaker 3)!!

. . . is more appealing than this . . .

Boring (Open Music Theory)?

(From Open Music Theory: Composing a First-Species Counterpoint (Kris Shaffer)

In the long run, musicians who work at the latter (counterpoint and similar exercises) are likely to be in a better position to create appealing and enduring music than those who ignore it. This is not to say that studying strict counterpoint is a prerequisite to making appealing music, but the habits of mind that composers of the past cultivated through their study and practice of things like counterpoint produced a “mental infrastructure” that allowed them to create music that, by virtue of its adherence to principles that transcend temporal styles, has endured.  Contemporary musicians (or would-be musicians) make a mistake if they assume that there is nothing to learn from the past. I’m often struck by how “stuck” popular music can  be in its own idioms (this, for example).  The best musicians draw from a well that is both wide and deep.

On the other hand, exclusive reliance on printed music can also be a form of “chronological snobbery.” Popular music is often (but not always) created in an aural, improvisatory, and technological context, with less (if any) reliance on notated sheet music.  Interestingly, classical musicians and teachers are starting to realize the value of these skills (see here and here for examples). After all, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were all gifted improvisers, and C. P. E. Bach devoted an entire section of his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the true Art of playing Keyboard Instruments) to the art of improvisation and realizing figured bass. The classical emphasis on interpreting and being faithful to the composer’s score has resulted in training and practice that often ignores or minimizes the development of improvisational skills.

Yo-Yo Ma, the famous cellist, is among a small but growing group of very famous classical musicians who are leading the way in a new way of making music that incorporates a blend of improvisation, classical sensibility, and popular or folk music traditions.  There are also a number of popular and jazz musicians doing the same thing – musicians like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Sting, The Bad Plus, Bobby McFerrin, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, and  Bela Fleck.

Concerning the first type of “chronological snobbery” (among non-classical musicians), there are good reasons for studying music and musical techniques of the past. Even though musical styles vary and change, there are certain underlying principles that don’t change, and which can be applied to a wide range of styles. The Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker recognized this. As Steve Larson points out,

Schenker emphasized – as the essential pedagogical meaning of species counterpoint – a focus on “fundamental musical problems”:

The purpose of counterpoint, rather than to teach a specific style of composition, is to lead the ear of the serious student of music for the first time into the infinite world of fundamental musical problems. Constantly, at every opportunity, the student’s ear must be alerted to the psychological effects . . .

One appeal here is that “the infinite world of fundamental musical problems” is relevant to pieces as varied as a Bach prelude, a Beethoven sonata, and a Brahms song (in fact, I would argue that this “world of fundamental musical problems” is also relevant to repertoire much broader than that which interested Schenker). Note also the emphasis on “the ear” – Schenker returns repeatedly to this point. (Steve Larson, “Another Look at Schenker’s Counterpoint,” Indiana Theory Review Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1994), pp. 36-37)

This viewpoint is echoed and expanded by the editors of the Open Music Theory textbook:

The “fundamental musical problems” we will address in the study of counterpoint center around the way in which some basic principles of auditory perception and cognition (how the brain perceives and conceptualizes sound) play out in Western musical structure. (Open Music Theory, “Introduction to strict  voice-leading”)

Concerning the second type of “chronological snobbery” (among classical musicians), there are also good reasons for incorporating aural and improvisatory skills in music-making. In any case, creating music in a satisfactory manner requires much work, practice, and study. Amateur musicians and dilettantes might prefer to take a narrow, limited approach which keeps them happy in their world, but those who are responsible for producing music for a larger audience can continually work to broaden and strengthen their experience, knowledge, and skills if they want to produce music of lasting value.


Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor – Hush Little Baby

Wynton Marsalis on Classical Music

Bela Fleck – Bach Partita No. 1003 / Sinister Minister

Sting: A Winter’s Night

The Bad Plus – Variation d’Apollon (Stravinsky)

Behind Pat Metheny’s “Road to the Sun”, written for LAGQ

Brad Mehldau, After Bach