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Chorale cantata cycle

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Johann Sebastian Bach's chorale cantata cycle is the year-cycle of church cantatas he started composing in Leipzig from the first Sunday after Trinity in 1724. It followed the cantata cycle he had composed from his appointment as Thomaskantor after Trinity in 1723.

Bach's second cantata cycle is commonly used as a synonym for his chorale cantata cycle, but strictly speaking both cycles overlap only for 40 cantatas. Two further chorale cantatas may belong to both cycles: the final version of Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, and the earliest version of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80; it is, however, uncertain whether these versions were first presented in Bach's second year in Leipzig. Bach composed a further 13 cantatas in his second year at Leipzig, none of them chorale cantatas, although two of them became associated with the chorale cantata cycle. After his second year in Leipzig, he composed at least eight further cantatas for inclusion in his chorale cantata cycle.

Around the start of the Bach Revival in the 19th century, almost no manuscripts of Bach's music remained in St. Thomas in Leipzig, apart from an incomplete chorale cantata cycle. In Leipzig the chorale cantatas were, after the motets, the second most often performed compositions of Bach between the composer's death and the Bach Revival. Philipp Spitta, in his 19th-century biography of the composer, praised the chorale cantatas, but failed to see them as a cycle tied to 1724–25. It took about a century after Spitta before Bach's cantata cycles were analysed in scholarly literature, but then Bach's ambitious project to write a chorale cantata for each occasion of the liturgical year was characterized as "the largest musical project that the composer ever undertook".

Development of the second cantata cycle and the chorale cantata cycle[edit]

Possibly the idea for writing a series of chorale cantatas was inspired by the bicentennial anniversary of the first publications of Lutheran hymnals (1524).[1] The first of these early hymnals is the Achtliederbuch, containing eight hymns and five melodies. Four chorale cantatas use text and/or melody of a hymn in that early publication (BWV 2, 9, 38 and 117). Another 1524 hymnal is the Erfurt Enchiridion: BWV 62, 91, 96, 114, 121 and 178 are based on hymns from that publication. BWV 14 and 125 were based on hymns from Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn, also published in 1524.

Apart from some cantatas composed after Palm Sunday 1725, the chorale cantata cycle and the second cantata cycle overlap, and the two designations are often used interchangeably in scholarly literature. Otherwise the cycle is described as breaking off after Palm Sunday or Easter 1725. There are some cantatas that belong to one of both cycles, but not to the other, for instance the chorale cantata for Trinity 1727 replaces the Trinity cantata of the second cycle composed in 1725. Also, some cantatas traditionally seen as belonging to the chorale cantata cycle are not chorale cantatas in a strict sense, for instance the cantata for the Sunday between New Year and Epiphany added to the chorale cantata cycle in 1727. Neither the second cantata cycle, nor the chorale cantata cycle are complete annual cycles as extant. Even a merging of both cycles into one, with some occasions having two cantatas, which hardly can be seen as an intention of the composer, would still be missing a few cantatas (e.g. for Easter 3 and Trinity XXVI).

Chorale cantatas composed as part of the second annual cycle (Trinity I 1724 to Palm Sunday 1725)[edit]

All extant church cantatas Bach composed for occasions from 11 June 1724 (Trinity I) to 25 March 1725 (Palm Sunday) are chorale cantatas. As such these cantatas have consecutive "K" numbers in the chronological Zwang catalogue for Bach's cantatas published in 1982. In the Zwang catalogue the cantata for Reformation Day Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, is inserted between the cantatas for Trinity XXI and XII, as a cantata premiered in 1724.[2] More recently, this cantata is, however, no longer considered to have been composed in 1724.[3]

Bach's last newly composed chorale cantata in his second year in Leipzig was Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1, for the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March, which fell on Palm Sunday in 1725. Of the chorale cantatas composed up to Palm Sunday 1725 only K 77, 84, 89, 95, 96 and 109 (BWV 135, 113, 130, 80, 115 and 111) were not included in the chorale cantata cycle that was still extant in Leipzig in 1830.[4]

Sundays after Trinity[edit]

In 1724 the period of the Sundays after Trinity included St. John's Day (24 June), Visitation (2 July, that year coinciding with Trinity IV), St. Michael's Day (29 September) and Reformation Day (31 October). That year the last Sunday after Trinity, that is the last Sunday before Advent, was Trinity XXV:[3]

Advent 1724 to Epiphany 1725[edit]

Occasion Second
1 Advent I BWV 62
2 Christmas BWV 91
3 Christmas 2 BWV 121
4 Christmas 3 BWV 133
5 Christmas I BWV 122
6 New Year BWV 41
7 New Year I (BWV 58)
8 Epiphany BWV 123
9 Epiphany I BWV 124
10 Epiphany II BWV 3
11 Epiphany III BWV 111
12 Epiphany IV BWV 14
13 Epiphany V
14 Epiphany VI
15 Septuagesima BWV 92
16 Purification BWV 125
17 Sexagesima BWV 126
18 Estomihi BWV 127
19 Annunciation
Palm Sunday
20 Easter (BWV 4)
(BWV 249)
21 Easter 2 BWV 6
22 Easter 3 (BWV 158?)
23 Easter I BWV 42
24 Easter II BWV 85 BWV 112
25 Easter III BWV 103
26 Easter IV BWV 108
27 Easter V BWV 87
28 Ascension BWV 128 (BWV 128)
29 Ascension I BWV 183
30 Pentecost BWV 74
31 Pentecost 2 BWV 68 (BWV 68)
32 Pentecost 3 BWV 175
33 Trinity BWV 176 BWV 129
34 Trinity I BWV 20
35 Trinity II BWV 2
36 St. John's D. BWV 7
37 Trinity III BWV 135
38 Trinity IV BWV 177
39 Visitation BWV 10
40 Trinity V BWV 93
41 Trinity VI BWV 9
42 Trinity VII BWV 107
43 Trinity VIII BWV 178
44 Trinity IX BWV 94
45 Trinity X BWV 101
46 Trinity XI BWV 113
47 Trinity XII BWV 137
48 Trinity XIII BWV 33
49 Trinity XIV BWV 78
50 Trinity XV BWV 99
51 Trinity XVI BWV 8
52 St. Michael's D. BWV 130
53 Trinity XVII BWV 114
54 Trinity XVIII BWV 96
55 Trinity XIX BWV 5
56 Trinity XX BWV 180
57 Trinity XXI BWV 38
58 Reformation D. (BWV 80b) BWV 80
59 Trinity XXII BWV 115
60 Trinity XXIII BWV 139
61 Trinity XXIV BWV 26
62 Trinity XXV BWV 116
63 Trinity XXVI
64 Trinity XXVII BWV 140

A new liturgical year starts with the first Sunday of Advent: when a cantata cycle is listed without taking the chronology of composition into account, this is where the list starts.[4] The period from Advent 1724 to Epiphany 1725 included Christmas (25 December), New Year (1 January) and Epiphany (6 January):[3]

In Leipzig concerted music was not allowed for the second to fourth Sunday of Advent (silent time), so the next cantatas in the cycle are those for Christmas:[3]

In 1725 the next occasion was Epiphany, while there was no Sunday between New Year and Epiphany:[3]

Sundays after Epiphany[edit]

There were six Sundays between Epiphany and Lent in 1725:[3]

The three last Sundays before Ash Wednesday are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Estomihi. In 1725 the feast of Purification (2 February) fell between the first and the second of these Sundays:[3]

Lent up to Palm Sunday[edit]

In Leipzig there was no music during Lent (starting on Ash Wednesday), except for Annunciation (25 March) and the Passion music on Good Friday. In 1725 Annunciation coincided with Palm Sunday:[3]

After this cantata the consecutive set of chorale cantatas breaks off.[3]

Continuation of the second annual cycle[edit]

Newly composed cantatas, to make the year cycle complete up to Trinity Sunday, were no longer in the chorale cantata format, possibly because Bach lost his librettist, likely Andreas Stübel, who died on 31 January 1725. [1]

Only three cantatas staged between Good Friday and Trinity of 1725 became associated with the chorale cantata cycle. Bach's second year cycle of cantatas is complete apart from the cantatas for Christmas II, Epiphany IV–VI, and Trinity IV, VI, XII and XXVI–XXVII. For most of the occasions that lack a cantata in the second cycle there are however extant chorale cantatas.

Good Friday and Easter[edit]

Bach did not present much newly composed music for the Good Friday and Easter services of 1725. The St John Passion, which was a repeat performance of the previous year, now in the St. Thomas church (where Bach had initially attempted to stage its premiere), did, however, contain four new movements (BWV 244/29, 245a, 245b and 245c).

On Easter, 1 April 1725, Bach had two cantatas performed:

  • A revised version of the per omnes versus chorale cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden, the first version of which had likely been composed 18 years earlier.
  • Kommt, fliehet und eilet, in 1725 indicated as a cantata, is what in later versions would become Bach's Easter Oratorio. It was a parody of a secular cantata he had composed for 23 February 1725: the Shepherd Cantata, possibly his first collaboration with Picander. Probably Picander was also the librettist who provided the parody text for the 1725 Easter cantata.

Easter Monday to the second Sunday after Easter[edit]

There are three extant Bach cantatas premiered in the period from Easter Monday to the second Sunday after Easter 1725. A shared characteristic of these cantatas is their structure: they start with a passage from the bible (vox Christi in the last of these cantatas), followed by an Aria, then a chorale for one or two voices, Recitative, Aria, and a concluding four-part chorale. The librettist of these cantatas is unknown, but is likely the same for all three.[5]

The first Sunday after Easter, Quasimodogeniti, concludes the Octave of Easter, and the next Sunday is called Misericordias Domini:[3]

None of these cantatas were included in the chorale cantata cycle remaining at St. Thomas in 1830: the Easter II cantata retained in that incomplete cycle was a later composition.

Cantatas with a libretto by C. M. von Ziegler: third Sunday after Easter to Trinity 1725[edit]

All further second cycle cantatas had Christiana Mariana von Ziegler as librettist. These cantatas are also the only ones for which Bach appears to have collaborated with this librettist. The occasions for which these cantatas were written include Jubilate, Cantate, Rogate, Ascension, Exaudi, Pentecost, and Trinity:[3]

None of the von Ziegler cantatas are chorale cantatas in the strict sense, although the Ascension cantata and the Pentecost Monday cantata open with a chorale fantasia. These two cantatas (BWV 128 and 68) are sometimes associated with the chorale cantata cycle,[3] especially the second one while it was included in the chorale cantata cycle that remained at St. Thomas until the 19th century.[4]

Chorale cantatas composed after Trinity 1725[edit]

Bach continued to compose chorale cantatas after his second year in Leipzig, at least up to 1735. However, the chorale cantata cycle that survived the 18th century remains an incomplete cycle, primarily missing a few cantatas for the Easter to Trinity period.

BWV 80[edit]

The chorale cantata for Reformation Day (31 October) Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, originated in several stages:[6]

  • The chorale cantata apparently retained most, if not all, movements of the Alles, was von Gott geboren cantata (BWV 80a), written in Weimar. The libretto of this early version of the BWV 80 cantata survives, but its music is only known from its subsequent versions. BWV 80a is neither a Reformation Day cantata, nor a chorale cantata, but it contains an extract of Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" hymn.[6][7]
  • BWV 80b, a.k.a. the first Leipzig version of the Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott chorale cantata for Reformation Day, is the only version of the cantata of which autograph pages survive: these autograph fragments, which are also the only evidence of this version, ended up in three libraries in two continents, and give a very incomplete picture of the version.[8] Its first performance date is the object of scholarly informed guesses (31 October implied for the below dates):
    • 1723: according to Christoph Wolff (1991).[9] Thus BWV 80 may be the only other chorale cantata, apart from BWV 4, for which an early chorale cantata version preceded Bach's second year in Leipzig. In 1723 Reformation Day coincided with Trinity XXIII: a more conventional view is that in 1723 Bach probably chose for a repeat performance of his 1715 cantata for that occasion (BWV 163).[10]
    • 1724: The 1982 Zwang catalogue places the first performance of BWV 80's early chorale cantata version in 1724.[2] In that case there would be 41 extant chorale cantatas with a first performance in Leipzig between Trinity Sunday 1724 and Easter 1725 (not included). Nonetheless, the chorale cantata qualifier is not entirely correct for the BWV 80 and 80b versions of the cantata, due to the inner movements of these versions largely deriving from a pre-existing libretto elaborating on other topics beside the Lutheran hymn.[6][11]
    • The third cantata cycle years 1725 (BWV 79),[6][12] 1726 and 1727 (mourning period without figural music)[8] are usually not seen as possible dates for the first performance of the BWV 80b version.
    • In 1728 Reformation Day again coincided with Trinity XXIII: a Picander libretto for that occasion may have been set by Bach. However, conventional scholarship assigns 1728–1731 as the period during which the BWV 80b version of the cantata was likely performed for the first time.[3][6][8]
  • Bach's ultimate BWV 80 version originated some time after the 80b version, and was completed before it was copied in the 1740s. As such, this version of the cantata is seen as a later addition to the chorale cantata cycle.[3][6][11]
  • Two movements of the BWV 80 version known from the BGA edition have an orchestration which the composer's son Wilhelm Friedemann extended with trumpets after his father's death.[6][11]

Occasions without an extant second cycle cantata[edit]

Bach composed more cantatas for his chorale cantata cycle after Trinity 1725, apparently in an effort to have a complete standard year cycle consisting exclusively of such cantatas:[3]

  • Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV 58: cantata for New Year I (= Christmas II). An early version of this cantata, for 5 January 1727, is partially lost. The later extant version, premiered 4 January 1733 or 3 January 1734, was published by the Bach-Gesellschaft in their volume Vol. 122, p. 133 ff. There had not been a Sunday between New Year and Epiphany in 1725: although the cantata is not completely consistent with the chorale cantata format it was intended as the chorale cantata cycle's New Year I cantata.
  • Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, composed for Epiphany IV 1735 (there hadn't been an Epiphany IV Sunday in 1725). This is the only chorale cantata of the chorale cantata cycle that was ostensibly composed after 1734, in contrast to Philipp Spitta's assumption in the 19th century that almost all chorale cantatas had been composed after 1734. It is however true that Bach revised some of his chorale cantatas in the last years of his life, and that these are the versions usually published.
  • Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 177, composed for Trinity IV 1732 (in 1724 Trinity IV had coincided with Visitation)
  • Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, BWV 9, an Achtliederbuch chorale cantata, composed for Trinity VI 1732. There is no extant cantata composed for Trinity VI 1724.
  • Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren, BWV 137, a per omnes versus chorale cantata, composed for Trinity XII 1725. There is no extant cantata composed for Trinity XII 1724.
  • Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, composed for Trinity XXVII 1731: there had not been a Trinity XXVII Sunday in 1724.

All six of these chorale cantatas remained in the chorale cantata cycle kept at St. Thomas.[4]

Replacing second cycle cantatas[edit]

Two chorale cantatas replacing other cantatas composed for occasions between Easter and Trinity 1725 also remained in the St. Thomas collection:[3][4]

Other chorale cantatas[edit]

There is uncertainty regarding four additional extant chorale cantatas as to time of origin (narrowed down to late 1720s–early 1730s) and occasion, all of them using hymn text without modification, but none of them included in the chorale cantata cycle kept at St. Thomas:[3][4]

Some of these may have been intended for a wedding ceremony and/or as a generic cantata that could be used for any occasion.


Although we have no account of the reception of Bach's chorale cantatas by the congregation in Leipzig, we know that some of these cantatas were the only works that the city of Leipzig was interested in keeping alive after Bach's death: his successors performed several of them.[1] After Doles, who was Thomaskantor until 1789, the practice of performing Bach cantatas in Leipzig was interrupted until Kantor Müller started to revive some of them from 1803.[4]

Bach's early biographers (his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Friedrich Agricola in the Nekrolog and Forkel in his 1802 biography) gave little or no attention to individual cantatas, and confined themselves to mentioning that Bach had composed five complete cycles of church cantatas. Scholarship later indicated the chorale cantata cycle as Bach's second cycle of church cantatas. The performance parts of 44 chorale cantatas were about all that was left of Bach's music in the St. Thomas church by 1830. In 1878 Alfred Dörffel described this incomplete cantata cycle in the introduction of the thematic catalogue for the first 120 cantatas published by the Bach Gesellschaft.[4]

Far from seeing a chorale cantata cycle tied to Bach's second year in Leipzig, Philipp Spitta, in the 1880 second volume of his Bach-biography, described the chorale cantata as a genre Bach only converged to in his later years.[13] Like Spitta, Reginald Lane Poole (1882) and Charles Sanford Terry (1920) saw the chorale cantata as a development of the composer's later years, and failed to list more than a handful, let alone a cycle, of such cantatas premiered between Trinity 1724 and Easter 1725 in their chronological lists of Bach's cantatas.[14][15] Questionable chronologies and minor differences aside, they followed in Spitta's footsteps praising Bach's so-called "later" chorale cantatas as an epitome of the composer's art.[13][16][17]

The three editions of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV) that appeared in the second half of the 20th century gave little attention to the cycles of Bach's cantatas: the principles for assigning BWV numbers, as laid down by Wolfgang Schmieder for the catalogue's first edition in 1950, did not result in the chorale cantatas being identifiable as a group or cycle in the catalogue.[18] In the New Bach Edition cantatas were grouped by liturgical function (occasion), so also in that edition the chorale cantatas did not come out as a group or cycle.[19]

In the 21st century Klaus Hofmann has termed the cycle "the largest musical project that the composer ever undertook: the 'chorale cantata year'".[20][1] The bach-digital.de website, managed by, among others, the Bach Archive, provided the "chorale cantata" qualification for all compositions belonging to this group (all other church cantatas at that website being indicated as sacred cantatas). It is the only cycle of Bach cantatas that is recognisable as a group on that website.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d Hofmann, Klaus (2002). "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20 / O eternity, thou thunderous word" (PDF). bach-cantatas.com. p. 5. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
  2. ^ a b Philippe (and Gérard) Zwang. Guide pratique des cantates de Bach. Paris, 1982. ISBN 2-221-00749-2. See Johann Sebastian Bach: Correspondance Catalogues Zwang — Schmeider at www.musiqueorguequebec.ca
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Günther Zedler. Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach: Eine Einführung in die Werkgattung. Books on Demand, 2011. ISBN 9783842357259, p. 32–37
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Alfred Dörffel. Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe Volume 27: Thematisches Verzeichniss der Kirchencantaten No. 1–120. Breitkopf & Härtel, 1878. Introduction, pp. V–IX
  5. ^ John Eliot Gardiner (2004). "Cantatas for the First Sunday after Trinity / St Giles Cripplegate, London" (PDF). bach-cantatas.com. p. 2. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Alfred Dürr, translated by Richard D. P. Jones. "6. The Reformation Festival: BWV 80, 79", pp. 707–714 in Part II: Church Cantatas of The Cantatas of J. S. Bach: With Their Librettos in German-English Parallel Text. Oxford: OUP, 2006. ISBN 0199297762
  7. ^ Work 00100 at Bach Digital website (09/03/2017)
  8. ^ a b c Work 00101 (17/6/2017), and subsequent manuscript pages F-Ppo A. Mickiewicz Rkp. 973 (23/6/2017), RUS-SPsc BWV 80b (26/7/2017) and US-PRscheide BWV 80b (19/7/2017), at Bach Digital website
  9. ^ Christoph Wolff. "The Reformation Cantata Ein feste Burg", pp 152–161 in Bach: Essays on His Life and Music. Harvard University Press, 1991. ISBN 0674059263
  10. ^ Work 00198 at Bach Digital website (10/03/2017)
  11. ^ a b c Work 00099 at Bach Digital website (19/07/2017)
  12. ^ Work 00098 at Bach Digital website (18/07/2017)
  13. ^ a b Philipp Spitta, translated by Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller Maitland. Book V: The Final Period of Bach's Life and Work, Chapter III: "The later Chorale Cantatas" pp. 64–108 in Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685–1750 Volume 3. Novello & Co. 1884–1885.
  14. ^ Reginald Lane Poole. Sebastian Bach. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington. 1882, p. 133
  15. ^ Johann Nikolaus Forkel translated with notes and appendices by Charles Sanford Terry. Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe; London: Constable. 1920, pp. 198–199
  16. ^ Poole, o.c. p. 88ff.
  17. ^ Forkel/Terry, o.c. p. 174ff.
  18. ^ Wolfgang Schmieder, editor. "Introduction" of Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1950.
  19. ^ The New Bach Edition – Series I: Cantatas Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine at the Bärenreiter website
  20. ^ Sadie, Stanley, ed. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Oxford University Press. pp. II 331–5, V 26–7, 746, XIV 511–4. ISBN 978-0-19-517067-2.
  21. ^ "Choralkantate"[permanent dead link] at www.bach-digital.de

Further reading[edit]

Church cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach by chronology
Preceded by Bach's second cantata cycle
Succeeded by