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The Cantata


Cantata comes from the Italian word cantare, which means "to sing." In its early form, cantatas referred to a music piece that is meant to be sung. However, as with any musical form, the cantata has evolved through the years. Loosely defined today, a cantata is a vocal work with multiple movements and instrumental accompaniment; it can be based on either a secular or sacred subject.

Early cantatas were in the Italian language and were written in sacred (church cantata) or secular (chamber cantata) styles. 17th century composers for the cantata include Pietro Antonio Cesti, Giacomo Carissimi, Giovanni Legrenzi, Luigi Rossi, Alessandro Stradella, Mario Savioni and Alessandro Scarlatti; the most prominent composer of cantatas during that period.

Before long, the cantata was making its way to Germany courtesy of Johann Hasse; one of Scarlatti's students. German composers such as George Frideric Handel wrote cantatas based on the Italian style, but were later written in German. In France, 18th century composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote cantatas in their native language as well.

Johann Sebastian Bach is perhaps the most prominent composer of cantatas. Bach wrote both secular and sacred cantatas and developed what is known as "chorale cantata."

Through the years, the cantata form has evolved and is no longer restricted to solo voice or voices; it now encompasses choruses and orchestras. During the 20th century, composers such as Benjamin Britten further contributed and developed the cantata form.

The Structure of A Cantata

  • Early form - Alternated recitative, arioso (short lyrical piece) and aria-like sections
  • After 1700 - 2 to 3 da capo arias separated by recitative
  • 18th century - 3 arias with recitative intro for each (particularly in England and France)
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