A cantata is, simply put, a small oratorio. Like its more extended sister, it can be described as an opera without action, costume or scenery. The word is the feminine form of the Italian: “cantato” = “sung”. It began as a sort of small concert-opera performed in the halls and courts of the privileged; usually a series of short solo vocal pieces.
By the middle of the 18th century it had assumed guises in both secular and religious roles; and whilst the old solo form began a life of its own as the “scena” – concert versions of operatic scenes or arias – the cantata itself had begun fleshing out into settings for one or more vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestral ensemble. Handel whose early Italian style cantatas had been chamber works, embraced the newer form - called “masques” in his day - with two of his most enduring works: “Acis and Gatatea” and “Alexander’s Feast”. His contemporary in Germany J.S. Bach was also writing writing secular cantatas: “Coffee Cantata”, “Peasant Cantata” and the like.
German Protestantism took a liking to the cantata as a musical component of the religious service, which found form in the “Cantatas de Chiesa” or church cantatas, culminating in the numerous, justly popular cantatas of Bach. He wrote one for each day of the ecclesiastical year, and about 200 survive. Today there are at least four sets of these either on record or in the process of being recorded, most of them using “original instruments “ and played using scholarly interpretations of the techniques of the time. They vary in length from about 10 minutes to over half an hour, are settings of a mixture of scripture and religious verse, and frequently make great use of the “Chorale”, one or other of various well-known hymns, sung by the congregation.
The English love of congregational singing brought about the cantata developing a more choral format there than on the Continent, then, during the 20th century the form enjoyed popularity as a concert art form under the imagination of Benjamin Britten, with works such as “Cantata Misericordium” (on the Good Samaritan parable) and “Rejoice in the Lamb” to words by the 18th century poet and asylum inmate, Christopher Smart. Its secular concert hall credentials were bolstered by the transformation by Sergei Prokofiev of his film score to Aexander Nevsky to a cantata for mezzo-soprano, large chorus and orchestra.