Cantata – RPC music notes, Sun 8 Dec 2019

Classic Choral Society & Orchestra, Artistic Director: Janiece Kohler
United Church of Christ, Blooming Grove, NY Dec 2016

Over and over as we regard history, things we might have supposed to be older turn out to have fairly recent causes, and one such example is the tradition in Protestant Churches of “Special Music” and at this time of the year, that special instance of Special Music, the ‘Christmas Cantata.’

The Italian term ‘Sonata’ describes a multi-movement work for instruments. Its root ‘Sona-‘ comes from sound: it is music to be heard. The related term ‘Cantata’ describes a work similar in most ways, except that it incorporates voices, and comes from ‘Canta-‘: it is music to be sung. The seemingly parallel terms Sonata and Cantata are in fact not parallel, though – the former describes how the piece is received (through sound), whereas the latter describes how it is offered (by singing). Presumably Cantatas, also received through sound, should just be a special case of ‘Sonata’, right?

Wrong. In the Biblical context singing, as opposed to other sorts of music making, seems to have a special imperative all its own. True, the Psalms and a handful of other biblical stories mention instruments, but instances and explicit exhortations to singing, perhaps the most intimate and personal way of making music, far outnumber them.

So much so, that when in Reformation times our denomination’s Calvinist precursors were ‘cleaning house’ of various corrupt and non- or dubiously-scriptural practices, instruments (including the organ) were summarily removed from worship, while singing remained. Along with selling indulgences (essentially ‘salvation paid for in cash’) and the instruments went the elaborate ritual practices and sublime choral music of the Catholic tradition. Ah, you say, but what about the Lutherans and the great Cantata tradition of Bach? Yes, on this point (as well as others) Lutherans and Calvinists appear to have differed, and Lutheran worship retained, at least in principal churches, a place for elaborate music.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when scholars of both music and liturgy became deeply interested in returning to both the works and the ‘authentic’ practices of earlier times. The Calvinist streams of Protestantism had by then re-introduced instruments and non-scriptural sung texts (i.e. ‘hymns’). And a society placing some emphasis on music in education and public life was producing fine musicians to lead public worship, who felt drawn to the riches of the Cantata tradition, then re-emerging mostly on the concert stage. The accomplished and aspirational church musician sought occasional special musical goals for their church choirs and other ensembles, and found in history (or created brand-new in history’s honour) – the Cantata.

So, music from an earlier tradition is restored (as we do at RPC this morning with masterpieces of the German Baroque before Bach), and a new repertoire of Christmas, Lenten and Easter Cantatas emerges, mostly in the English west – not every week as in the impressive practice of Bach at Leipzig – but rather on special occasions and in special seasons.

The Church Cantata today reminds us of the unique role of singing in worship throughout God’s church, of the aspirations of choirs like other ministry teams working in service, and the compelling ability of artistic beauty to offer us a window upon a Gospel of truth.

-CD