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Having Fun with Bach Cantatas
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love church music
In several recent public interviews and private conversations, I’ve mentioned how much fun I’m having with Bach cantatas. I’ve been listening to them every day for the last two months, and this has become one of the most enjoyable parts of my daily routine.
I do most of my cantata listening late at night, after everyone else has gone to sleep. For me, this is the most relaxing time of day. Some people have called me a workaholic, an accusation which makes me bristle—how can you call what I do work? (I prefer the terms vocation or calling.) But it’s true, I do clock in a lot of hours, albeit satisfying ones, and even I need time to unwind. And I know this sounds paradoxical, but I listen to music to unwind—although I’ve also been listening to it during the day for my vocation.
Even so, when I tell people about my fun cantata project, I get a little embarrassed. Perhaps it’s a sign of our times—or maybe just my own insecurities—that I immediately feel I have to defend this statement.
Sure, we’re still allowed to listen to Bach, but fun, really?
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If you care about music, you certainly need to listen to Bach, not merely because of his historical significance, but perhaps even more for the impressive cerebral aspect of his music. The quasi-mathematical appeal of his compositions has become almost a cliché—I note that the only book about Bach ever to win the Pulitzer Prize was Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, which makes this esteemed composer seem like a core component of a STEM curriculum.
From this perspective, Bach stretches your brain like calculus or chess. It’s a good mental workout. But when the party starts, Bach must immediately get replaced on the turntable. As Randy Newman once said: “That ain’t the way to have fun.”
Yet Bach himself had fun with his cantatas, which weren’t just pious musical exercises required for his job (excuse me, let’s call it a vocation). The most obvious examples are his secular cantatas, the best known of which is the so-called “Coffee Cantata,” almost a mini-comic opera—focused on the plight of a father trying to stop his single-minded daughter from drinking so much java. “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,” she proclaims, “sweeter than a thousand kisses.” And she warns dad that cutting off her supply will turn her into “a shriveled-up roast goat.”
But the sacred cantatas can be just as exuberant. Bach was very much attuned to musical enjoyment—he clearly took delight in his calling—and a few performers still approach his works from this perspective. I can’t watch Glenn Gould perform Bach without getting caught up in the sheer uninhibited joy he expresses at the piano. I haven’t encountered any cantata performances that are quite so freewheeling, but why not?
I plan to write on another occasion of Bach’s interest in dance music. For the time being, I’ll simply point out that he hung out with dance masters, and wrote hundreds of pieces that refer directly to dance styles, which he seemed to know very well—even Parisian dances such as the bourrée, which shows up in the title of 20 of his works, or the sarabande, perhaps Bach’s favorite judging by his frequent use of it, a secular dance originally from Spain with Arabic influence—and so sexy that the Jesuits tried to halt its spread. These dances hardly seem like necessary parts of the musical education for a Kapellmeister (which literally translates as “master of the church choir”). But even these secular ingredient got incorporated into his sacred cantatas, where you can find around 100 examples of dance-oriented movements.
For example, here’s a tenor aria from BWV 180 set to a sprightly bourrée rhythm.
I sometimes dream of a college class on Bach that would require the students to learn all these dances, and they would spend the academic term dancing gavottes, minuets, passepieds, gigues, and other spry steps along with the music. For the final exam, they would have to invent their own Bach-analian dance to a composition of their choice.
I even have a proposed a name for my imaginary course: An Introduction to BDM.
My son Thomas is the indirect reason for this late night listening project. During the pandemic, he came back home from college and did classes online, but for relaxation spent an hour or so playing Bach on our piano every day. When he finally returned to campus in August, he signed up for a course on Bach’s cantatas. I decided that I would listen to the same works he was studying and performing in class.
His Bach cantata course follows an interesting structure—it attempts to match, week by week, Bach’s second cantata cycle from 1724, a very fertile period for the composer. Hence I started my personal listening project in early September with Jesu, der du meine Seele (BWV 78), first performed in Leipzig on September 10, 1724. Bach was composing new music every week at this juncture, and the class would follow in his steps—with me doing the same two thousand miles away.
“I probably still retain negative associations with church music, the result of prolonged childhood exposure. . . . It took me a long time to recapture the sense of transcendence and metaphysical awe that sacred music, at its best, can possess.”
I welcomed this structure, although others might find it too constraining. Bach composed so much liturgical music—including around 200 sacred cantatas—that an outsider often struggles to find an entry point. It’s like counting the stars in the heavens or searching for the best words in the dictionary. This chronological approach, capturing the composer at top form during a period of peak productivity, encouraged me to pay closer attention to the specific context in which each work was created, giving me a reason to probe how the music related to church readings and the liturgical calendar.
And I have to admit that, although I’ve listened to lots of Bach over the years, I’ve tended to focus on his instrumental works. My familiarity with his church music has hitherto focused mostly on St Matthew Passion, which I listen to during Lent season each year, and the Mass in B minor. I’ve dabbled a bit in the cantatas, but the sheer amount of this music has always seemed daunting.
I also must confess, somewhat reluctantly, that I probably still retain negative associations with church music, the result of prolonged childhood exposure to contaminants, or at least their aural equivalent. This was an era when the authorities decided that religion would be more relevant if the music at services resembled folk rock songs on the radio—perhaps not a terrible idea if they had access to compositions of a similar quality and tunefulness. We’re at church and feelin’ groovy! But Simon and Garfunkel weren’t available nor, apparently, anyone else with comparable songwriting skills. (That said, Paul Simon has turned Bach’s sacred music into hit songs on at least two occasions—but that’s a topic for another day.) The resulting attempt to create the appearance of a grassroots musical revival via a top-down purge merely led to an embarrassing reliance on pastiche and faux populism.
I recall with amusement my brother’s quip, in response to the rising tide of goofy church music: “I deserve to suffer for my sins, but must so much of that punishment take place in church?” Needless to say, Bach deserves an exemption to any criticism of this sort. Even so, the aversions of childhood aren’t always rational, and it took me a long time to recapture the sense of transcendence and metaphysical awe that sacred music, at its best, can possess.
That said, I’m hardly the only Bach admirer to give these works a low priority. That’s certainly true of classical radio stations, which are much more willing to broadcast, for example, the Brandenburg Concertos (perhaps never performed during Bach’s lifetime, or even paid for by the Margrave of Brandenburg, who now owes his lasting fame to these works) than the liturgical music that represents around half of the composer’s surviving output. Many even assume that these were workaday projects, written to pay the bills, so to speak, while Bach let his creative juices flow more freely in more secular projects.
But the more deeply you probe into the aspirations and attitudes of this composer, the larger these works loom in his oeuvre. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has argued that they stand out as the “most ambitious of all compositional projects”—especially the second cantata cycle of 1724-25. “The cantatas represent an almost superhuman artistic and spiritual achievement,” claims Mark Ringer in his new book Bach’s Operas of the Soul, adding that “they are at the absolute center of Bach’s creative life.” Yet, he notes sadly, “they are a closed book to a majority of serious listeners.”
I now had an excuse to fill this gap in my knowledge. It helped that I spoke with my son on the phone two or three times each week about the Bach cantatas we were both now studying. And I have to say I envied him a bit, because his course was devoting a significant amount of time to performing the works as well. And I know from experience that there’s no better way to grasp the inner life of a work of music than by performing it.
Here are some observations on the Bach cantatas—mostly focused on elements that listeners typically don’t associate with liturgical music.
(1) This music is much flashier than church music has any right to be. I don’t tend to think of church as a place to show off virtuosity, especially among earnest Lutherans, but again and again I heard passages in Bach’s cantatas that were obviously designed to showcase musical technique. For example, the flute parts really begin to stand out around the time of Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99), first performed on September 17, 1724. A likely explanation is that the great French virtuoso Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin was visiting Leipzig at the time, and Bach had enlisted him in these performances
You will hear many other showy instrumental or vocal parts in the sacred cantatas, and they no doubt represent the composer’s desire to feature the best talent available to him. In Leipzig, for example, the stadtpfeifers—the word translates literally as town pipers—included a number of virtuoso brassplayers, and this local resource helps explains the demanding horn parts in some of the music of this period. Or consider the cantata examples in these extracts from Bach tenor arias.
The curious fact here is that Bach, as I probed more deeply into the music, repeatedly reminded me of Duke Ellington—who always composed music matched to the strengths and weaknesses of the current members in his band. We don’t generally consider the classical repertoire from that perspective—we assume composers write works based on inspiration, not a calculated assessment of the musicians at hand—but it was increasingly clear to me that Bach made significant adjustments to his approach based on the skills available to him at Sunday services.
(2) The recitatives in the cantatas are like the hip-hop interludes in pop songs. This observation came from my son, who compares Bach’s approach to the many commercial hits with a rap commentary following a pop vocal—a shift that intensifies and furthers the narrative power of the song.
I found this helpful, because I tended to treat these sections as the boring parts of the cantata, lacking the melodic inventiveness and complexity I associate with this composer at his best. Sometimes I’d even skip over the recitative in my playlist, to get to the next aria. If this were a movie, I’d be out of my seat to get popcorn.
But when we conceptualize the recitative in this way, as a kind of declamatory rap, it now seems more integrated into the dramatic flow and emotional power of the music. This is why paying close attention to the cantata texts, drawing on translations if necessary, is so useful. Bach wasn’t just setting words to music, but trying to convey a holistic worldview and story.
(3) These works probably originated in a quasi-jazz-like process of creation. I probably have biases when listening to classical music, no doubt because my formative experiences in music were shaped by an obsession with improvisation. But was Bach really so different? Much like a jazz musician, Bach frequently drew from the familiar songs of his time as a basis for both improvisation and compositions, but in his era these weren’t the kind of popular songs relied on by jazz artists, rather they came from the Lutheran hymnbook. At a certain juncture in his career, the music and words of these works became building blocks for his cantatas. But these same works had been his frequent sources of spontaneous inspiration at the organ before taking on this more lasting form.
We might benefit in our own time by breaking down the well-defended borders between composition and improvisation. If we knew more about Bach’s methods and preferences, I suspect they would provide rich commentary on how this might be done. But even the better documented biographies of revered classical music composers of a century later (Beethoven, Schubert, etc.) tell the same story.
(4) Bach wanted his cantatas to possess a holistic narrative flow. We know that Bach enjoyed opera—at least he took his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach to see the opera in Dresden on several occasions. He never composed an opera, but it’s clear that he wanted his liturgical music to possess a similar dramatic power. I had some dim understanding of this before immersing myself in these compositions. Even so, I was surprised when I heard liturgical interludes that sounded like the romantic duets in operas. In these instances, you almost want to ignore the texts—contradicting what I said previously—because the music seems so ready for courtship and lighthearted banter. You just need slightly different words and a setting outside of church, but the music itself is already suitable for secular entertainments.
Consider Bach’s early cantata known as Actus Tragicus (BWV 106), which was composed for a funeral. I know enough German to be sure the singers are declaring that: “God’s time is the very best time”—probably referring to a glorious afterlife for the deceased. But the music is so ebullient, that I can easily imagine them singing: “Spring is the time for lovemaking” or “Let’s sneak off behind the haystack.” Perhaps I’m projecting, but listen for yourself and try to find any hints of funereal bereavement or lamentation in this cantata movement (starting at the three-minute mark).
I suspect that this festive sensibility conveys some sense of Bach’s conception of the afterlife. In any event, this lightheartedness recurs in other works of this sort. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, discussing the entry of the sopranos in Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben (BWV 8), another cantata explicitly dealing with death, goes so far as describe the tone as “fairground swing.”
(5) Finally, cantatas are fun (did I say that already?)—and I suspect Bach himself wanted us to feel that way. I’ve written elsewhere about Bach’s lifestyle, which was far more uninhibited than most people realize, and certainly had nothing somber or ascetic about it. Although church services are fundamentally and functionally different from commercial entertainment, Bach probably believed that his music should capture the attention of parishioners, and sweeten the sometimes overly austere Lutheran worldview. The very fact that familiar hymns were an essential part of these works, mixed in with quasi-operatic ingredients, suggests a desire to please, not merely edify or sermonize.
I keep coming back to the concept of fun, and not simply because it was part of my own approach to this music. But it’s too often a missing ingredient in the presentation of classical music—despite the constant agonized debates about how to make these works more relevant or accessible. These discussions rarely seem to address matters of listener delight and enjoyment, almost as if those are forbidden or unattainable goals. If you doubt me, go to Google and do a search on the phrase “We need to make classical music more. . . “—and see how the search engine fills in the blank. You won’t find ‘fun’ on the list.
I can’t emphasize this fact enough: Any attempt to energize the classical music world that doesn’t give proper attention to the audience’s enjoyment will eventually fail. You can perhaps deliver a short-term result by making something seem trendy, or even by bullying and shaming people into acquiescence—you better approve of this important music, or we will mock and ridicule you. . . . etc., etc. But that has never worked in the long term. People want to get pleasure from music, and if you don’t deliver it in some meaningful dose, you won’t have a loyal audience. The people who come to your concert because it is trendy, will be the first ones to leave when something newer and more fashionable appears. If you pay attention to the hustle and bustle of the music scene, you can watch—and even measure—this happening in real time.
Bach’s cantatas are a good test case of this approach. If we can make church music fun—some would call that an oxymoron—what can stop us from doing the same for other artistic experiences? That’s a different was of conceptualizing high culture, but maybe an aesthetics of pleasure is precisely what we need right now. I have a hunch the audience already grasps that, especially coming out of a pandemic where they were deprived of shared moments of transcendence and ecstasy, qualities which music is custom-made to deliver.
Some suggestions for listening:
I’ve constructed a Qobuz playlist of Bach cantatas. But I need to say that it reflects my perhaps quirky personal taste for more intimate approaches to this composer’s vocal music—and an aversion to grandiloquent or overly solemn renditions of the cantatas. I focused primarily on the works assigned in my son’s course, but freely added or subtracted other cantatas, driven again by how much I enjoyed a performance.
Much debate has surrounded the practice, advocated by Joshua Rifkin and others, of using only one voice per vocal part in this music. I make no claims for the historical accuracy of this approach, which is still a point of heated ongoing polemic and disputation. But I do personally enjoy the clarity and translucency of the counterpoint when there are fewer singers per part. So I have a particular fondness for Rifkin, and others of a similar mindset, such as Eric Milnes, and Sigiswald Kuijken.
Yes, I realize this is heresy in certain official circles. So I’ve made a point of listening to a wide range of approaches to the cantatas, and including them in my playlist. I would need to do that, in any case, because if I stick with just my favorite conductors, I immediately run into huge gaps on the streaming platforms. As a result, I’ve bounced around, and have increasingly done comparisons—so much easier now in the age of streaming—especially among the better documented conductors. Among those, I especially like Masaaki Suzuki’s recordings with the Bach Collegium Japan. But I can also happily endorse the monumental cantata projects of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Philippe Herreweghe. I’ve only scratched the surface with Karl Richter, Christophe Coin, and Ton Koopman, and will thus reserve judgment for the time being.
I know many people prefer Spotify playlists to Qobuz, but I try to steer folks to the latter platform, which I believe is fairer to musicians and more concerned about the listener experience. However, if you absolutely need an extensive Spotify playlist, let me share the link to a 10-hour-plus cantata playlist curated by Bach scholar Michael Marissen—which is somewhat longer than my 6-hour Qobuz playlist.
If forced to give a ranking, my personal preference leans toward: (1) Rifkin, (2) Suzuki, (3) Gardiner, (4) Kuijken. But if you decide to undertake a similar listening project, I strongly recommend comparing and contrasting different approaches, because the interpretative freedom allowed by these works can be much more extreme than in the standard symphonic repertoire.