Every emotion is laid bare and dissected, and the painful paradoxes of being human are brought to vivid life.”

The term “cantata,” invented in Italy in the 17th century, refers to music written for voice and instruments. It applies broadly to works for solo voice, multiple soloists, or vocal ensemble, with instrumental accompaniment.

When J. S. Bach arrived in Leipzig for his new job as music director of St. Thomas Church in 1723, he undertook to compose a cantata for every Sunday and feast day of the church year. These cantatas, based on Biblical or choral texts, were generally placed before the sermon as a musical counterpart to the preacher’s message. During his first five years, he composed some 300 cantatas; however at least a third of these have been lost.

While many of his contemporaries were actively engaged in writing cantatas (Telemann being the most well-known), Bach seized on this form to do some of his most experimental composition. He frequently used musical ideas to illuminate, deepen, and sometimes contradict the message found in the text. By 1714, Bach began to use poems written by contemporaries to expand on a Biblical or liturgical theme and explore some of the personal implications for the listener.
The cantata, in Bach’s hands, morphed from a work of devotion to a work of penetrating psychological exploration; every emotion is laid bare and dissected, and the painful paradoxes of being human are brought to vivid life. Every musical device available to an 18th century composer is put into service, and Bach invents new ones to startle his listeners into engagement with the subject.

The complexity, ambition, and harmonic daring of the greatest Bach cantatas have absolutely no rival among Baroque composers, and were probably puzzling and disturbing to his listeners, as they can also be to us today. 
At Emmanuel Music, we find in the power, brilliance, and immediacy of Bach’s music a poignant representation of the human condition and humanity’s relationship with something beyond itself, which can be called “the divine.” The tradition of performing cantatas during the Sunday morning service at Emmanuel Church began in 1970, under the direction of founding Music Director Craig Smith, and continues through the present day, weekly from September to May.

Adapted from Pamela Dellal's essay "What is a Cantata?"
Read Pamela's essay

Parts of a Cantata


A movement for a solo voice (or duet or trio) and instrumental accompaniment.


A sung movement meant to resemble speech. Recitatives were more narrative or dramatic than arias, focusing on explaining or preaching a concept to the congregation.


A hymn intended to be sung by the entire congregation. These tunes and texts were very familiar to Bach’s congregation in Leipzig. A familiar phrase could automatically recall the rest of the content and add a layer of meaning to the music.

Cantata Reflections

BWV 180

Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele

(Adorn yourself, O dear soul)

After Craig died in Nov. 2007, it was decided to change the cantata scheduled for the following Sunday to something that could serve as an impromptu memorial for him. Lenny and Michael chose BWV 180 as it was one of Craig’s favorites, and also has a sweet warmth and almost elegiac quality to its opening movement.

I think I’ll never hear that opening without remembering that day vividly. Many Emmanuel musicians joined the ensemble and, standing shoulder to shoulder, we were both supported by everyone’s grief and almost overcome by it. It was almost an out-of-body experience, but when the cantata finally ended we had a collective feeling that we had offered something beautiful as a fitting tribute to our lost maestro.
Pamela Dellal
Bach Institute Co-Director, alto

BWV 56

Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen

(I will gladly carry the Cross)

When I listen to the second aria of BWV 56, "Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch" ("Finally, finally my yoke"), I think about the day I got my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It was a beautiful Monday, and my vaccination location was downtown. While I waited for my husband to have his appointment after mine, I went down to the Boston Public Garden for the first time in a long time. All the trees were in spring bloom, and I also felt a bloom and a dance in my heart, something I had almost forgotten the feeling of. This aria has that same feeling for me, of bubbling joy and hope that bursts through spontaneously.
Megan Bisceglia
Engagement Manager

BWV 139

Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott

(Fortunate the person who upon his God)

For me, Bach’s music is defined by its inclusive elegance. It’s just so Regal, with a capital ‘R’. I suspect that’s why I’m so drawn to his style. His particular gracefulness, and the grace of those who perform his music, is both satisfying and deeply relaxing for me, in both performance and in listening. To me, the opening movement of BWV 139 dances so elegantly, I can’t help but smile at the warmth and invitation in the very first measures. I feel like the best, most elegant version of myself when I sing a gorgeous chorale tune surrounded by all of the intricately connected moving parts.
Carley DeFranco

BWV 72

Alles nur nach Gottes Willen

(Everything according to God's will alone)

“It's all good”—a phrase we often hear and that I often say.  Cantata BWV 72 amplifies this thought.  Joy, trust, comfort, acceptance—all according to a master plan—our lives are supported by a higher power, and we can place our trust in it. No matter what is happening all around us, we can rely on this higher power to see us through, to give us strength.  Cantata BWV 72 conveys joy from the first chorus through the comfort of the final chorale.

After Craig Smith's passing, our beloved John Harbison put his life on hold to serve as Acting Artistic Director, shepherding Emmanuel Music through the period as we embarked on a search for Craig’s successor. When the Search Committee made its decision to appoint Ryan Turner, I called John to tell him the news, and the first words out of his mouth were "Alles nur nacht Gottes Willen”.  That phrase became my internal mantra as I navigated the challenges and triumphs of my tenure at Emmanuel Music.  
Pat Krol
Former Executive Director