Definitions

cantata

cantata

[kuhn-tah-tuh]
cantata [Ital.,=sung], composite musical form similar to a short unacted opera or brief oratorio, developed in Italy in the baroque period. The term was first used in 1620 to refer to strophic variations in the voice part over a recurrent melody in the bass accompaniment. Gradually the cantata came to contain contrasting sections of recitative and aria separated by instrumental passages, often in the current operatic style. In the second half of the 17th cent. the secular cantata was standardized by Stradella, Alessandro Scarlatti, and other members of the Neapolitan school into two arias with recitatives. This form was very popular through the 18th cent. as a vehicle for virtuoso singing. In France the cantata was adapted by Rameau to contain three arias with recitatives. In Germany the sacred cantata was more popular than the secular. It incorporated extensive choral and instrumental sections. A particular variety, the chorale cantata, utilized the verses of hymns and frequently the hymn tunes in various parts of the cantata. This type, as written by J. S. Bach, opens with a chorus, which is followed by recitatives and arias for each soloist, and then closes with a harmonized chorale. After Bach the cantata became, in general, a diminutive form of the oratorio.

Work for voice or voices and instruments of the Baroque era. From its beginnings in early 17th-century Italy, both secular and religious cantatas were written. The earliest cantatas were generally for solo voice and minimal instrumental accompaniment. Cantatas soon developed a dramatic character and alternating sections of recitative and aria, paralleling the simultaneous development of opera, and they came to resemble unstaged operatic scenes or acts. In Germany the Lutheran cantata developed more directly out of the expanding choral motet, and almost always involved a chorus. A single chorale (hymn) often served as the basis for an entire cantata, which might have up to 10 diverse numbers, including duets, recitatives, and choral fugues. The most celebrated are the approximately 200 written by Johann Sebastian Bach. After circa 1750 the cantata gradually declined.

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A cantata (derived from the Italian word 'cantare' meaning 'to sing') is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment and often containing more than one movement.

Historical context

The term did not exist prior to the 16th century, when all "cultured" music was vocal. It originated in the early 17th century simultaneously with opera and oratorio. With the rise of instrumental music during this period the term emerged as the instrumental art became sufficiently developed to be embodied in sonatas. From the middle of the 17th until late in the 18th century a favorite form of Italian chamber music was the cantata for one or two solo voices, with accompaniment of harpsichord and perhaps a few other solo instruments. It consisted at first of a declamatory narrative or scene in recitative, held together by a primitive aria repeated at intervals. Fine examples may be found in the church music of Giacomo Carissimi; and the English vocal solos of Henry Purcell (such as Mad Tom and Mad Bess) show the utmost that can be made of this archaic form. With the rise of the da capo aria, the cantata became a group of two or three arias joined by recitative. George Frideric Handel's numerous Italian duets and trios are examples on a rather large scale. His Latin motet Silete Venti, for soprano solo, shows the use of this form in church music.

Differences between other musical forms

The Italian solo cantata tended, when on a large scale, to become indistinguishable from a scene in an opera, in the same way the church cantata, solo or choral, is indistinguishable from a small oratorio or portion of an oratorio. This is equally evident whether we examine the unparalleled church cantatas of Bach, of which nearly 200 are extant (see list of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach), or the Chandos Anthems of Handel. In Johann Sebastian Bach's case many of the larger cantatas are actually called oratorios; and the Christmas Oratorio is a collection of six church cantatas actually intended for performance on six different days, though together forming as complete an artistic whole as any classical oratorio.

The essential point, however, in Bach's church cantatas is that they formed part of a church service. Many of Bach's greatest cantatas begin with an elaborate chorus followed by a couple of arias and recitatives, and end with a plain chorale. This has often been commented upon as an example of Bach's indifference to artistic climax in the work as a whole. But no one will maintain this who realizes the place which the church cantata occupied in the Lutheran church service. The text was carefully based upon the gospel or lessons for the day; unless the cantata was short the sermon probably took place after the first chorus or one of the arias, and the congregation joined in the final chorale. Thus the unity of the service was the unity of the music; and, in the cases where all the movements of the cantata were founded on one and the same chorale-tune, this unity has never been equalled, except by those 16th-century masses and motets which are founded upon the Gregorian tones of the festival for which they are written.

In modern times the term cantata is applied almost exclusively to choral, as distinguished from solo vocal music. It is just possible to recognize as a distinct artistic type that kind of early 19th-century cantata in which the chorus is the vehicle for music more lyric and songlike than the oratorio style, though at the same time not excluding the possibility of a brilliant climax in the shape of a light order of fugue. Ludwig van Beethoven's Glorreiche Augenblick is a brilliant pot-boiler in this style; Carl Maria von Weber's Jubel Cantata is a typical specimen, and Felix Mendelssohn's Die erste Walpurgisnacht is the classic. Mendelssohn's Symphony Cantata, the Lobgesang, is a hybrid work, partly in the oratorio style. It is preceded by three symphonic movements, a device avowedly suggested by Beethoven's ninth symphony; but the analogy is not accurate, as Beethoven's work is a symphony of which the fourth movement is a choral finale of essentially single design, whereas Mendelssohn's Symphony Cantata is a cantata with three symphonic preludes. The full lyric possibilities of a string of choral songs were realized by Johannes Brahms in his Rinaldo, that- like the Walpurgisnacht- was set to a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The remaining types of cantata (beginning with Beethoven's Meeres-stille, and including most of those by Brahms's and many notable small English choral works) demonstrate the many ways a poem may be set to choral music.

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