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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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.