Church cantata (Bach)

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Church cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach are cantatas which he composed for use in the Lutheran church, mainly intended for the occasions of the liturgical year. The prescribed readings for each occasion are listed along with the cantata(s) for the occasion, including their BWV number, and the date of their first performance, if known.


Throughout his life as a musician, Bach composed cantatas for both secular and sacred use. In Weimar, he was from 1714 to 1717 commissioned to compose one church cantata a month. In the course of almost four years there he thus covered most occasions of the liturgical year.

As Thomaskantor, director of music of the main churches of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for the Thomasschule and for the church music at the main churches, where a cantata was required for the service on Sundays and additional church holidays of the liturgical year. When Bach took up his office in 1723, he started to compose new cantatas for most occasions, beginning with Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. He collected them in annual cycles, five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant.[1] Bach started a second annual cycle on the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724, planned to contain only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn, first O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, then works such as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1.

Leipzig observed tempus clausum, quiet time, in Advent and Lent, when no cantatas were performed. All cantatas for these occasions date from Bach's earlier time. He reworked some cantatas from this period for different occasions. The high holidays Christmas, Easter and Pentecost were each celebrated on three days. Additionally, feasts were celebrated on fixed dates, the feasts of Mary, Purification (Mariae Reinigung, 2 February), Annunciation (Mariae Verkündigung, 25 March) and Visitation (Mariae Heimsuchung, 2 July), and the Saint's days of St. John the Baptist (Johannis, 24 June), St. Michael (Michaelis, 29 September), St. Stephen (Stephanus, 26 December, the second day of Christmas) and St. John the Evangelist (Johannes, 27 December, the third day of Christmas). Further feasts on fixed days were New Year's Day (Neujahr, 1 January), Epiphany (Epiphanias, 6 January) and Reformation Day (Reformationsfest, 31 October). Sacred cantatas were also performed for the inauguration of a new city council (Ratswechsel, in Leipzig in August), consecration of church and organ, weddings, confession, funerals, and functions of the University of Leipzig.

The Lutheran church of Bach's time prescribed the same readings every year, a section from a Gospel and, recited before, a corresponding section from an Epistle. A connection between the cantata text and the readings was desired. The readings are listed for each occasion, Epistle and Gospel, and linked to the Bible text in the King James version, an English translation contemporary to Bach's time, which read the translation of Martin Luther.

The church year begins with the first Sunday in Advent, but Bach started his annual cycles on the first Sunday after Trinity, as John Eliot Gardiner points out:

It also marked the beginning of the second half of the Lutheran liturgical year: the Trinity season or "Era of the Church" in which core issues of faith and doctrine are explored, in contrast to the first half, known as the "Temporale" which, beginning in Advent and ending on Trinity Sunday, focuses on the life of Christ, His incarnation, death and resurrection.[2]

Roman numerals refer to the position of the given Sunday with respect to a feast day or season. For example, "Advent III" is the third Sunday in Advent and "Trinity V" is the fifth Sunday after Trinity. The number of Sundays after Epiphany and Trinity varies with the position of Easter in the calendar. There can be between 22 and 27 Sundays after Trinity. The maximum number of Sundays after Epiphany did not occur while Bach wrote cantatas.


Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before Christmas. In Leipzig, only on the first Sunday a cantata was performed, because it was a Fastenzeit (season of abstinence).

Advent I[edit]

Romans 13:11–14, night is advanced, day will come
Matthew 21:1–9, the Entry into Jerusalem

Advent II[edit]

Romans 15:4–13, call of the Gentiles
Luke 21:25–36, coming of the Son of man

Advent III[edit]

1 Corinthians 4:1–5, the ministry of faithful apostles
Matthew 11:2–10, John the Baptist in prison

Advent IV[edit]

Philippians 4:4–7, Be joyful in the Lord
John 1:19–28, testimony of John the Baptist


The Christmas season was celebrated from Christmas Day through Epiphany. In Leipzig, three days were observed, with a Christmas cantata performed every day. For the Christmas season of 1734 Bach composed the Christmas Oratorio in six parts, to be performed as the cantata in the service on the six feast days, three days of Christmas, New Year, the Sunday after New Year and Epiphany.

Christmas Day[edit]

Titus 2:11–14, God's mercy appeared (or
Isaiah 9:2–7, Unto us a child is born)
Luke 2:1–14, Nativity, Annunciation to the shepherds and the angels' song

Second Day of Christmas[edit]

On this day Leipzig celebrated Christmas and St. Stephen's Day in alternating years, with different readings.

For Christmas:
Titus 3:4–7, God's mercy appeared in Christ
Luke 2:15–20, the shepherds at the manger
for St. Stephen's Day:
Acts 6:8–15 and 7:55–60, Martyrdom of Stephen
Matthew 23:35–39, Jerusalem killing her prophets

Third Day of Christmas[edit]

Hebrews 1:1–14, Christ is higher than the angels
John 1:1–14, prologue, also called Hymn to the Word

Christmas I[edit]

Depending on the position of Christmas, there may be a Sunday before or after the New Year.

Galatians 4:1–7, Through Christ we are free from the law
Luke 2:33–40, Simeon and Anna with Mary in the temple

New Year's Day[edit]

On 1 January, the New Year was celebrated as well as the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

Galatians 3:23–29, By faith we inherit
Luke 2:21 Circumcision and naming of Jesus

New Year I[edit]

In some years, a Sunday falls between New Year's Day and Epiphany. It is known as the Sunday after New Year's Day or as the second Sunday of Christmas.

1 Peter 4:12–19, Suffering of Christians
Matthew 2:12–23, the Flight into Egypt


Isaiah 60:1–6, the heathen will convert
Matthew 2:1–12, the Wise Men From the East

After Epiphany[edit]

Depending on the date of Easter, a variable number (none up to four) of Sundays occurred between Epiphany and Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Epiphany I[edit]

Romans 12:1–6, the duties of a Christian
Luke 2:41–52, the finding in the Temple

Epiphany II[edit]

Romans 12:6–16, we have several gifts
John 2:1–11, the Marriage at Cana

Epiphany III[edit]

Romans 12:17–21, rules for life
Matthew 8:1–13, the healing of a leper

Epiphany IV[edit]

Romans 13:8–10, love completes the law
Matthew 8:23–27, Jesus calming the storm


Septuagesima is the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5, race for victory
Matthew 20:1–16, parable of the Workers in the Vineyard


Sexagesima is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 11:19–12:9, God's power is mighty in the week,
Luke 8:4–15, parable of the Sower


Estomihi or Quinquagesima is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

1 Corinthians 13:1–13, praise of love
Luke 18:31–43, Healing the blind near Jericho


During Lent, the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, "quiet time" was observed in Leipzig. Only the feast of Annunciation was celebrated with a cantata, even if it fell in that time. On Good Friday, a Passion was performed in Leipzig in a Vespers service.


Ephesians 5:1–9, advice for a righteous life
Luke 11:14–28, casting out a devil

Palm Sunday[edit]

Philippians 2:5–11, everyone be in the spirit of Christ (or
1 Corinthians 11:23–32), of the Last Supper
Matthew 21:1–9, Entry into Jerusalem


The Easter season comprises the time up to Pentecost, starting with three days of Easter.

Easter Sunday[edit]

1 Corinthians 5:6–8, Christ is our Easter lamb
Mark 16:1–8, Resurrection

Easter Monday[edit]

Acts 10:34–43, sermon of St. Peter
Luke 24:13–35, the road to Emmaus

Easter Tuesday[edit]

Acts 13:26–33, sermon of St. Paul in Antiochia
Luke 24:36–47, the appearance of Jesus to the Apostles in Jerusalem

Easter I[edit]

The Sundays between Easter and Pentecost have Latin names, derived from the beginning of the prescribed readings. The first Sunday after Easter is called Quasimodogeniti. Some sources name the Sunday after Easter the second Sunday in Easter, counting Easter Sunday as the first.

1 John 5:4–10, our faith is the victory
John 20:19–31, the appearance of Jesus to the Disciples, first without then with Thomas, in Jerusalem

Easter II[edit]

The second Sunday after Easter is called Misericordias Domini.

1 Peter 2:21–25, Christ as a model
John 10:11–16, the Good Shepherd

Easter III[edit]

The third Sunday after Easter is called Jubilate.

1 Peter 2:11–20, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man"
John 16:16–23, Farewell discourse, announcement of the Second Coming

Easter IV[edit]

The fourth Sunday after Easter is called Cantate.

James 1:17–21, "Every good gift comes from the Father of lights"
John 16:5–15, Farewell discourse, announcement of Comforter

Easter V[edit]

The fifth Sunday after Easter is called Rogate.

James 1:22–27, doers of the word, not only listeners
John 16:23–30, Farewell discourse, prayers will be fulfilled


Acts 1:1–11, prologue, farewell and Ascension
Mark 16:14–20, Ascension

Ascension I[edit]

The Sunday after Ascension is called Exaudi.

1 Peter 4:8–11, "serve each other"
John 15:26–16:4, Farewell discourse, the promise of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, and announcement of persecution


Pentecost Sunday[edit]

Pentecost Sunday (1. Pfingsttag) is also called Whit Sunday.

Acts 2:1–13, the Holy Spirit
John 14:23–31, Farewell discourse, announcement of the Spirit who will teach

Pentecost Monday[edit]

Pentecost Monday (2. Pfingsttag) is also called Whit Monday.

Acts 10:42–48, sermon of Peter for Cornelius
John 3:16–21, "God loved the world so much ..." from the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus

Pentecost Tuesday[edit]

Pentecost Tuesday (3. Pfingsttag) is also called Whit Tuesday.

Acts 8:14–17, the Holy Spirit in Samaria
John 10:1–10, the Good Shepherd


On Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, the Trinity is celebrated.

Romans 11:33–36, depth of wisdom
John 3:1–15, the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus

Sundays after Trinity[edit]

A variable number of Sundays occurs between Trinity and the first Sunday in Advent, a maximum of 27, if Easter is extremely early.

Trinity I[edit]

1 John 4:16–21, God is Love
Luke 16:19–31, the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus

Trinity II[edit]

1 John 3:13–18, Whoever doesn't love, remains in Death
Luke 14:16–24, parable of the great banquet

Trinity III[edit]

1 Peter 5:6–11, Cast thy burden upon the Lord
Luke 15:1–10, parable of the Lost Sheep and parable of the Lost Coin

Trinity IV[edit]

Romans 8:18–23, "For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God."
Luke 6:36–42, Sermon on the Mount: be merciful, judge not

Trinity V[edit]

1 Peter 3:8–15 "Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts"
Luke 5:1–11, Peter's great catch of fish

Trinity VI[edit]

Romans 6:3–11, "By Christ's death we are dead for sin"
Matthew 5:20–26, Sermon on the Mount: better justice

Trinity VII[edit]

Romans 6:19–23, "the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life"
Mark 8:1–9, The Feeding of the 4000

Trinity VIII[edit]

Romans 8:12–17, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God"
Matthew 7:15–23, Sermon on the Mount: warning of false prophets

Trinity IX[edit]

1 Corinthians 10:6–13, warning of false gods, consolation in temptation
Luke 16:1–9, parable of the Unjust Steward

Trinity X[edit]

1 Corinthians 12:1–11, different gifts, but one spirit
Luke 19:41–48, Jesus announces the destruction of Jerusalem, Cleansing of the Temple

Trinity XI[edit]

1 Corinthians 15:1–10, on the gospel of Christ and his (Paul's) duty as an apostle
Luke 18:9–14, parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Trinity XII[edit]

2 Corinthians 3:4–11, the ministration of the Spirit
Mark 7:31–37, the healing of a deaf mute man

Trinity XIII[edit]

Galatians 3:15–22, law and promise
Luke 10:23–37, parable of the Good Samaritan

Trinity XIV[edit]

Galatians 5:16–24, works of the flesh, fruit of the Spirit
Luke 17:11–19, Cleansing ten lepers

Trinity XV[edit]

Galatians 5:25–6:10, admonition to "walk in the Spirit"
Matthew 6:23–34, Sermon on the Mount: don't worry about material needs, but seek God's kingdom first

Trinity XVI[edit]

Ephesians 3:13–21, Paul praying for the strengthening of faith in the congregation of Ephesus
Luke 7:11–17, Raising of the Young man from Nain

Trinity XVII[edit]

Ephesians 4:1–6, admonition to keep the unity of the Spirit
Luke 14:1–11, Healing a man with dropsy on the Sabbath

Trinity XVIII[edit]

1 Corinthians 1:4–8, Paul's thanks for grace of God in Ephesus
Matthew 22:34–46, the Great Commandment

Trinity XIX[edit]

Ephesians 4:22–28, "put on the new man, which after God is created"
Matthew 9:1–8, Healing the paralytic at Capernaum

Trinity XX[edit]

Ephesians 5:15–21, "walk circumspectly, ... filled with the Spirit"
Matthew 22:1–14, parable of the great banquet

Trinity XXI[edit]

Ephesians 6:10–17, "take unto you the whole armour of God"
John 4:46–54, healing the nobleman's son

Trinity XXII[edit]

Philippians 1:3–11, Thanks and prayer for the congregation in Philippi
Matthew 18:23–35, parable of the unforgiving servant

Trinity XXIII[edit]

Philippians 3:17–21, "our conversation is in heaven"
Matthew 22:15–22, the question about paying taxes, answered by Render unto Caesar...

Trinity XXIV[edit]

Colossians 1:9–14, prayer for the Colossians
Matthew 9:18–26, the story of Jairus' daughter

Trinity XXV[edit]

1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, the coming of the Lord
Matthew 24:25–28, the Tribulation

Trinity XXVI[edit]

2 Peter 3:3–13, look for new heavens and a new earth
Matthew 25:31–46, the Second Coming of Christ

Trinity XXVII[edit]

1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, be prepared for the day of the Lord
Matthew 25:1–13, parable of the Ten Virgins

Fixed festivals within the Liturgical Year[edit]


The Purification of Mary (Mariae Reinigung) and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple are celebrated on 2 February.

Malachi 3:1–4, the Lord will come to his temple
Luke 2:22–32, the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, including Simeon's canticle Nunc dimittis


The Annunciation (Mariae Verkündigung) is celebrated on 25 March.

Isaiah 7:10–16, prophecy of the birth of the Messiah
Luke 1:26–38, the angel Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus

St. John's Day[edit]

The day of John the Baptist (Johannistag) is celebrated on 24 June.

Isaiah 40:1–5, the voice of a preacher in the desert
Luke 1:57–80, the birth of John the Baptist and the Benedictus of Zechariah


Visitation, the visit of Mary with Elizabeth, including her song of praise, the Magnificat, is celebrated on 2 July.

Isaiah 11:1–5, prophecy of the Messiah
Luke 1:39–56, Visitation

St. Michael's Day[edit]

St. Michael's Day (Michaelis) is celebrated on 29 September.

Revelation 12:7–12, fight of Michael with the dragon
Matthew 18:1–11, heaven belongs to the children, the angels see the face of God

Reformation Day[edit]

Reformation Day is celebrated on 31 October.

2 Thessalonians 2:3–8, be steadfast against adversaries
Revelation 14:6–8, fear God and honour him

Occasions outside of the liturgical year[edit]

Consecration of church and organ[edit]

Revelation 21:2–8, the new Jerusalem
Luke 19:1–10, conversion of Zacchaeus

New council[edit]

The election or inauguration of a new town council was celebrated with a service. Normally this was an annual event. The cantata written for such celebrations were indicated with the term "Ratswechsel" (changing of the council) or "Ratswahl" (election of the council).



Different occasions[edit]



  1. ^ Christoph Wolff (1991). Bach: Essays on his Life and Music. ISBN 978-0-674-05926-9. 
  2. ^ John Eliot Gardiner (2004). "Cantatas for the First Sunday after Trinity / St Giles Cripplegate, London" (PDF). Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  3. ^ Texte zur Leipziger Kirchen-Music auf die Heiligen Pfingst-Feyertage und das Fest der H. Dreyfaltigkeit 1727. Leipzig: Immanuel Tietzen, 1727. Quoted in "Recent Discoveries in St Petersburg and their Meaning for the Understanding of Bach’s Cantatas" by Tatiana Shabalina, pp. 77-99 in Understanding Bach 4, 2009
  4. ^ Bach Digital Work 0157 at
  5. ^ Zweite Mühlhäuser Ratswahlkantate BWV Anh. 192 / Anh. I 4→; BC (B 2) at
  6. ^ Mincham, Julian. "BWV 71". Retrieved 18 May 2015. 
  7. ^ Eidam, Klaus (2001). "Ch. V". The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-01861-0. 

External link[edit]