The Cantata

General Lifespan

Cantata. "To be sung." Not everything that is sung is classified as a cantata, though. "How can I tell if I am a cantata?" you ask? Here are some signs that you may be a cantata, and not an opera or oratorio.
  • You are all about one thing
  • You prefer smaller audiences
  • You do not tend to be overly-dramatic
  • You are broken into several small sections, or movements
  • You can be performed in 10-15 minutes

Like the oratorio and opera, the cantata will have multiple short contrasting sections, or movements, like arias (solo singer), duets, and choruses. These are generally strung together with recitative (that operatic sing-talking) and almost always have a bunch of instruments accompanying them.

Cantatas can be tough to spot in a crowd, being similar to the oratorio and the opera. Think of it like a continuum. Opera is the big monster of vocal music. High drama; complex; long. Then comes the oratorio - Opera's little brother. They tend to be shorter, don't have sets and staging, etc. Smaller than the oratorio is the cantata. Fewer performers and even shorter. If you go even smaller than the cantata - you hit the ballade.

Here's the visual (smallest to grandest):
Ballade - Cantata - Oratorio - Opera

The cantata was hugely popular in Italy in the 1600's. So popular that many composers wrote them as their primary work. Most of these were secular (non-church-related) pieces. Right around 1700 Germany took hold of the form, and brought it to church. The German cantatas tended to be more dramatic and more complex than the earlier Italian ones.

Most styles of music get larger and more complex over time, and the cantata is no exception. It does have a problem, though. If a cantata gets too long and complex - it runs smack into the oratorio. So the cantata and oratorio started to meld into each other in the mid to late 1700s.

Composers of Oratorios
Scarlatti, Telemann, Bach, Buxtehude, Stravinsky, Liszt, Scarlatti, Telemann, Bach, Scarlatti, and Telemann

A cantata is like a little oratorio... which in turn is like a little opera... kind of.

Interesting Note:

While researching this I found a bit of news I would have never guessed. Bach cheated! That's right! Our diligent composing machine who wrote over 300 cantatas (including a stint of more than one a week for 4 years) cheated by taking music he originally wrote for church services and changed the text for dramatic secular pieces.