The story of Bach's cantatas begins with his first employment at the age of 18, in August of 1703, when he was appointed organist to the New Church in Arnstadt having recently dazzled the congregation with his brilliant performance at the dedication of their new organ. While his duties as organist did not require the composition of cantatas, Bach nevertheless produced some of his earliest choral works at this time, including Cantata 150: Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich – Lord, my soul doth thirst for thee which is probably his earliest, and the Easter Cantata 4: Christ lag in Todesbanden - Christ lay by death enshrouded which he most probably composed as a test piece in 1707 when he successfully applied for the position of organist in Mühlhausen. Also significant during his Arnstadt years is the celebrated story of his unauthorized 3-4 month absence in 1705 to hear the famous organist-composer Buxtehude in Lübeck; Bach's earliest cantatas owe a considerable debt to the inspiration and musical formats of Buxtehude.
2. Mühlhausen 1707-1708: Cantata 71.
Moving to Mühlhausen in July 1707, he remained there only a year, during which his position as organist again made no choral demands. Bach did however produce a major work during this period which must have considerably impressed the congregation and church/civic dignitaries: Cantata 71, Gott ist mein König, composed for the annual inauguration of the city council, February 1708. Cantata 131 may also date from Mühlhausen.
3. Weimar 1708-1714: Few sacred choral works at this time.
Bach had hoped that at Mühlhausen he would begin to realize a long-term objective: the establishment of a proper church music 'to the glory of God'. But the growing influence of the Pietists who tended to frown on church music led Bach to look elsewhere and on June 25, 1708, he sent in his letter of resignation to the authorities at Mühlhausen, having been offered a two-fold position as member of the chamber orchestra and as organist to the Ducal Court at Weimar. Once again however, his position offered scant opportunity for choral composition (probably only a handful of compositions including 18, 54, and 199) - a situation surely unsatisfactory for Bach and one which was not to change until 1714. In 1713 Bach applied for a position in Halle for which he composed a test cantata, possibly 21. This application may have been genuine, though more likely it was Bach's way of putting pressure on the Ducal Court at Weimar to improve his position. Whatever the circumstances, "on Friday March 2, 1714, His Serene Highness the Reigning Duke most graciously conferred upon the Court Organist Bach, the title of Concertmaster…" which entailed the practical duty of producing one new choral composition each month. At last the first major period of cantata writing was about to begin.
4. Weimar 1714-1717: The first major period of cantata-writing.
Bach's promotion to Concertmaster in 1714 dated from March 2nd. He was required to produce one cantata each month, and the fourth Sunday following his new appointment fell on March 25th, the double feast day of Palm Sunday and Annunciation. It was for this very special occasion that Bach composed Cantata 182: Himmelskönig, sei willkommen - King of Heaven, be Thou welcome. At least 20 cantatas can be established with reasonable certainty as dating from this period, including Cantata 152 of which the opening instrumental Sinfonia is very much in Weimar style, and the Christmas Cantata 142: Uns ist ein Kind geboren - For unto us a Child is born. The famous Reformation Cantata 80: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott - A sure stronghold is our God also had its origins in Weimar, though not initially as a Reformation cantata. A feature of the Wilhelmsburg Palace at Weimar was the Chapel, in which cantatas would have been performed. It was referred to in 1702 as „a world-famous masterpiece of architecture". Set into the ceiling like a cut-out was the spacious musicians' gallery complete with recently renovated organ. Indeed prior to Bach's new appointment in 1714 the Gallery had been totally renovated, enlarged, and equipped with new seating and benches. The acoustics had been improved with a re-designed ceiling, and reflected down into the marble-walled chapel below, the sound would certainly appear to be coming from Heaven. Bach would certainly have considered himself well on his way to fulfilling his aim of providing a "well-regulated church music" consisting of choral music covering the Lutheran church year. However an internal feud broke out between the two jointly-reigning princes, prompting Bach once again to seek a new position, this time at the princely court of Cöthen.
5. Cöthen 1717-1723: A secular court without church music.
Bach arrived at the small Court of Anhalt-Cöthen to hold the position of Capellmeister, the highest rank given to a musician during the baroque age. His master was the young prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, barely twenty-five years old, the son of a Calvinist. As the Calvinists were antagonistic to the splendors of the Lutheran liturgy, there was no church music at Cöthen; however, the young Prince's religious beliefs did not bar him from enjoying a cheerful and cultivated style of living complete with secular cantatas and instrumental music featuring the latest styles and fashions. So apart from the occasional secular cantata in celebration of royal occasions, Bach was to take a break from cantata composition and concentrate on instrumental works. Bach enjoyed his time here; however in 1721 the Prince married, and his new wife discouraged the Prince's musical activities, prompting Bach once again to seek new pastures. The post of Capellmeister at Leipzig became vacant and appeared attractive, both for the position itself, and the wider cultural and educational opportunities it offered for Bach's growing sons.
6. Leipzig 1723-1750: At last – a well-regulated church music.
When Bach took over the St. Thomas cantorate in the spring of 1723 as the leading musician of the leading cantorate in Protestant Germany, he achieved at long last the opportunity to realize his artistic aspirations: "the ultimate goal of a regulated church music," which he had described in 1708 to the Mühlhausen town council and which he had tried to pursue, on a more restricted level, at the Weimar court. Bach at once embarked on a program to provide a piece of concerted music - a cantata - for every Sunday and feast day of the ecclesiastical year, except for the Lenten weeks preceding Christmas and Easter, when concerted music was traditionally suspended. This self-appointed task would require no fewer than sixty cantatas annually, an enormously challenging task (especially during the first several years) demanding extraordinary concentration and discipline.
That Bach was ultimately successful in his aim, not only of producing cantatas for the entire church year, but of producing five such cycles, is borne out by the summary of works in Bach's Obituary which clearly lists "five full annual cycles of church pieces, for all the Sundays and holidays". Unfortunately only the first three cycles have come down to us in recognizable and relatively intact form, so very little can be said about the character of the fourth and fifth cycles. It is clear however that the first five years of Bach's tenure as Leipzig Cantor were by far his most productive period of cantata composition.
The cantata supplied the principal music piece in the liturgy of the main service, and as such it highlighted a passage from the biblical lesson then interpreted it as well. Thus all of Bach's Leipzig cantata texts follow a standard pattern firmly grounded in the two-fold structure of a Lutheran sermon: explicatio and applicatio, biblical text and theological instruction followed by practical and moral advice. The libretto ordinarily opens with a biblical dictum, usually a passage from the prescribed Gospel lesson that serves as a point of departure (opening chorus). It is followed by scriptural, doctrinal, and contextual explanations (a recitative-aria pair), leading to considerations of the consequences to be drawn from the lesson and the admonition to conduct a true Christian life (another recitative-aria pair). The text concludes with a congregational prayer in the form of a hymn stanza (chorale).
On the first Sunday after Trinity 1723, Bach began his first annual cycle of cantatas with Cantata 75, followed the next week by another extensive, two-part composition - Cantata 76: Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes - The Heavens declare the Glory of God. A few weeks later came Cantata 105: Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht - Judge not Thy servant oh Lord, and Cantata 46: Schauet doch und sehet – Look therefore and see, if any grief be found such as my grief, two incredibly moving cantatas which mark a new plateau of artistic accomplishment in the church cantata genre, both in the intricacy of their compositional design and in the striking rhetorical power of their opening choruses. The same might be said for the opening chorus of Cantata 25: Es ist nichts gesundes an meinem Leibe - There is no Health in us, as well as the strikingly simuilar Cantata 103: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen - Ye shall weep and wail from the second yearly cycle. Also from the first year's group are Cantata 65: Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen - They shall come out of Sheba, for the Feast of Epiphany which rounded off Bach's first Christmas - for which he produced the Magnificat BWV 243 with interpolated Christmas verses. He also revised and re-presented Cantata 182: Himmelskönig, sei willkommen - King of Heaven, be Thou welcome during his first ecclesiastical year's cycle.
Cantatas from the second year's cycle include Cantata 93: Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten - He who suffers God to guide him, Cantata 68: Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt - God so loved the world, and a re-presentation of the Easter Cantata 4: Christ lag in Todesbanden - Christ lay by death enshrouded.. An example from the third cycle is Cantata 36: Schwingt freudig euch empor - Lift up your voices with joy for the Fourth Sunday before Christmas. One of several later additions to the five yearly cycles was Cantata 140: Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme - Sleepers wake, the voice is calling. For another very stirring work, Cantata 80: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott – A sure stronghold is our God, Bach returned, in 1740, to a Weimar composition, adding two choruses which turned it into a cantata for the Reformation Festival. Cantata 76 was later revised for this same Festival.
The cantor and music director at St. Thomas' was also required to produce suitable music for special and civic occasions, of which the town council election pieces constitute a particularly important group. They were performed at the service that took place annually on the Monday after St. Bartholomaeus' Day (August 24) at St. Nicholas', after the formal election of the new city council and the rotation of the burgomaster seats. As the city council election service was a major communal-political event, Bach would have taken special care with a performance that invariably required a large ensemble and festive scoring with trumpets and timpani. A Leipzig newspaper reports on the civic events of August 31, 1739, on which occasion "the Royal and Electoral Court Composer and Capellmeister, Mr. Joh. Seb. Bach, performed a music that was as artful as it was pleasant..."
The German word kunstvoll in the sense it would have been understood in baroque Germany, cannot adequately be translated by the word 'artful'. Kunst in baroque Germany signified not so much 'art', as 'craft', and kunstvoll would better be translated as 'intricately crafted' as indeed Bach's music always was. His Leipzig audience would have readily perceived the wealth of detail, the intricate contrapuntal patterns woven around a well-known chorale melody in one of his opening cantata movements. But the report adds that the music was also 'pleasant', and herein lies a feature equally valid today: Bach's music can be heard with as much pleasure by those with little or no understanding of the underlying patterns. For those who persist, or for those with a prior knowledge of baroque musical forms, Bach's music gains with every repetition, as yet more detail is revealed.