“I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.”  

These are the words of Johann Sebastian Bach, who remains as one of the most productive composers of all time.  More than 1,126 works are currently surviving, and we don’t really know how many more works he composed that did not survive the time. According to a prominent Bach scholar, perhaps only 10% of his compositions survived. If that is true, he would have composed more than 11,111 works during his lifetime!

We can all work hard, but it would be quite difficult to match his work ethic and the final output! There are approximately 230 surviving cantatas that are attributed to Bach; I’m sure he wrote many more during his career.

 

What is a cantata, then?

Originally intended as secular music in the early 17th century, a cantata is a vocal chamber music piece with multiple movements alternating between recitatives and arias.  When Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, he immediately began to write cantatas for each Sunday for the next five years as well as additional cantatas for special events such as funerals and weddings. However, Bach never used the term ‘cantata’ for his church music.  It is only after his death that scholars began to use the term “cantata” for Bach’s sacred church music.

While the majority of his cantatas are sacred, they vary greatly in form and instrumentation and evolved throughout his career. Some are written for solo singers, others for full choruses; some are intended for small chamber ensembles, and others for grand orchestras.

His early cantatas are generally known as chorale concertos, mainly from his years in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen (1706-1708). These compositions are quite different from the recitative and aria cantata format, which he began to develop years later.

 

What differentiates these early cantatas, or chorale concertos, from his later works?

Bach’s early cantatas use biblical passages for the text rather than contemporary poetry and they often begin with an instrumental sinfonia or musical introduction.  Through these instrumental sonfonias, composers often attempt to introduce a main theme for the entire work.

There are only a few chorale concertos remaining from Bach’s early period, but all are truly
masterworks:

  • Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150
  • Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4
  • Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106

 

 

In our upcoming Cantata Insights Series, Colorado Bach Ensemble will perform Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit (God’s time is the best time).  Also known as the Actus Tragicus, cantata #106 is one of the most sublime works Bach composed—at the age of only 22.

 

This cantata’s instrumentation is rather unique, requiring two violas da gamba. The viola da gamba, or gamba, is a bowed, fretted, stringed instrument which first appeared in the 15th century and became quite popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. As an obsolete instrument, it is quite challenging to find the instruments and accomplished players with their own gambas. We are more than fortunate to have two fantastic gambists in Colorado who will be performing with us: Hannah Robbins and Ann Marie Morgan.

Hannah Robbins (Web Site)

Ann Marie Morgan (Web Site)

I hope you consider joining us to experience a performance of this rare early Bach cantata. There will be two performances: February 17 in Fort Collins and February 19 in Cherry Hills Village.

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