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Bach's Nekrolog mentions five cantata cycles: "Fünf Jahrgänge von Kirchenstücken, auf alle Sonn- und Festtage" (Five year-cycles of pieces for the church, for all Sundays and feast days), which would amount to at least 275 cantatas, or over 320 if all cycles would have been ideal cycles. The extant cantatas are around two thirds of that number, with limited additional information on the ones that went missing or survived as fragments.
The listing below contains cycle information as available in scholarship, and may include cantatas that are or were associated with Bach (e.g., listed in the BWV catalogue), but were not actually composed by him.
Bach's earliest cantatas date from more than 15 years before he became Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723. His earliest extant cantatas were composed in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. In 1708 he moved to Weimar where he wrote most of his church cantatas before the Leipzig era. These pre-Leipzig cantatas are not generally grouped as one of the five cycles mentioned in the Nekrolog. The extant cantatas of the pre-Leipzig era are primarily known by their recasting as a cantata in one of the Leipzig cycles.
Bach started composing cantatas around 1707, when he was still an organist in Arnstadt. The first documented performances of his work take place in Mühlhausen, where he was appointed in 1708.
In Weimar, Bach was from 1714 to 1717 commissioned to compose one church cantata a month. In the course of almost four years there he thus covered most occasions of the liturgical year. The expression "Weimar cycle" has been used for the cantatas composed in Weimar from 1714 (which form the bulk of extant cantatas composed before Bach's Leipzig time).
As Thomaskantor, director of music of the main churches of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for the Thomasschule and for the church music at the main churches, where a cantata was required for the service on Sundays and additional church holidays of the liturgical year. When Bach took up his office in 1723, he started to compose new cantatas for most occasions, beginning with Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. He collected them in annual cycles; five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant.
The church year begins with the first Sunday in Advent, but Bach started his first Leipzig cycles on the first Sunday after Trinity, which "also marked the beginning of the second half of the Lutheran liturgical year: the Trinity season or "Era of the Church" in which core issues of faith and doctrine are explored, in contrast to the first half, known as the "Temporale" which, beginning in Advent and ending on Trinity Sunday, focuses on the life of Christ, His incarnation, death and resurrection".
Leipzig observed tempus clausum, quiet time, in Advent and Lent, when no cantatas were performed. All cantatas for these occasions date from Bach's earlier time. He reworked some cantatas from this period for different occasions. The high holidays Christmas, Easter and Pentecost were each celebrated on three days. Additionally, feasts were celebrated on fixed dates, the feasts of Purification of Mary (Mariae Reinigung, 2 February), Annunciation (Mariae Verkündigung, 25 March) and Visitation (Mariae Heimsuchung, 2 July), and the Saint's days of St. John the Baptist (Johannis, 24 June), St. Michael (Michaelis, 29 September), St. Stephen (Stephanus, 26 December, the second day of Christmas) and St. John the Evangelist (Johannes, 27 December, the third day of Christmas). Further feasts on fixed days were New Year's Day (Neujahr, 1 January), Epiphany (Epiphanias, 6 January) and Reformation Day (Reformationsfest, 31 October). Sacred cantatas were also performed for the inauguration of a new city council (Ratswechsel, in Leipzig in August), consecration of church and organ, weddings, confession, funerals, and functions of the University of Leipzig.
Bach's first (Leipzig) cantata cycle consists of cantatas or similar liturgical works (e.g. liturgical compositions in Latin) first performed from (first Sunday after Trinity) to (Trinity).
Bach's second (Leipzig) cantata cycle consists of cantatas first performed from (first Sunday after Trinity) to (Trinity). The first 40 cantatas of this cycle are chorale cantatas, thus this cycle is also known as the chorale cantata cycle (at least the first 40 cantatas of the cycle are known thus). Bach's chorale cantatas written at a later date and restagings of earlier chorale cantatas are also usually understood as being included in this cycle.
Bach's third (Leipzig) cantata cycle is traditionally seen as consisting of cantatas first performed from the first Sunday after Trinity in 1725 to Trinity Sunday in 1726, or otherwise before the Picander cycle. More recent scholarship assigns the qualification "between the third and the fourth cycles" to the few known cantatas written from 1727 to the start of the fourth cycle.
In the "third cycle" period Bach also performed many cantatas composed by his second cousin Johann Ludwig Bach a Leipzig premiere. For the period from Purification, to Trinity XIII, there are extant copies by Johann Sebastian Bach and his usual scribes for 16 cantatas (JLB 1-16), covering nearly half of the occasions in that period. Another cantata, JLB 21, was likely also given its Leipzig premiere in this same period (Easter, ), but was for some time misattributed to Johann Sebastian Bach as his cantata BWV 15.
Bach's fourth (Leipzig) cantata cycle, known as the Picander cycle, consists of cantatas performed for the first time from (St. John's Day) to (fourth Sunday after Trinity), or later in 1729, to a libretto from the printed cycle of 70 cantata texts for 1728-29 by Picander. Later additions to this cycle and Picander librettos without extant setting from Bach's time in Leipzig can be seen as belonging to this cycle.
Cantatas not belonging to any of the previous: e.g. first performed after the Picander cycle, uncertainty when it was first performed or for which liturgical occasion it was composed, etc. Generally it is not believed that cantatas composed after the Picander cycle amount to a cycle in its own right, at least there are not enough extant cantatas to unambiguously conclude that a fifth Leipzig cantata cycle ever existed.
The Lutheran church of Bach's time prescribed the same readings every year, a section from a Gospel and, recited before this, a corresponding section from an Epistle. A connection between the cantata text and the readings (or at least one of the prescribed hymns for the occasion) was desired. Relevant readings and hymns are linked to the church cantata article for each occasion.
Roman numerals refer to the position of the given Sunday with respect to a feast day or season. For example, "Advent III" is the third Sunday in Advent and "Trinity V" is the fifth Sunday after Trinity. The number of Sundays after Epiphany and Trinity varies with the position of Easter in the calendar. There can be between 22 and 27 Sundays after Trinity. The maximum number of Sundays after Epiphany did not occur while Bach wrote cantatas.
Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before Christmas. In Leipzig, only on the first Sunday a cantata was performed, because it was a Fastenzeit (season of abstinence).
Vergiß es, doch, mein Herze, nicht (no known setting by Bach)
The Christmas season was celebrated from Christmas Day through Epiphany. In Leipzig, three days were observed, with a Christmas cantata performed every day. For the Christmas season of 1734 Bach composed the Christmas Oratorio in six parts, to be performed as the cantata in the service on the six feast days, three days of Christmas, New Year, the Sunday after New Year and Epiphany.
There is no extant Bach-cantata for Epiphany V, nor for Epiphany VI, Sundays that did not occur every year. In Bach's first year in Leipzig the last Sunday before Pre-Lent was Epiphany IV. In his second year it had been Epiphany III (Bach's chorale cantata for Epiphany IV was composed a decade later, see above). In his third year in Leipzig the last Sunday before Pre-Lent was Epiphany V, on which occasion he staged a cantata by Johann Ludwig Bach. In the Picander cycle the last Sunday before Pre-Lent was also Epiphany V, but there is no extant cantata for that occasion in 1729.
Erwache, du verschlaffnes Herze (no known setting by Bach)
Picander provided a libretto for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany in his 1728-29 cycle of cantata texts, although that Sunday did not occur in the liturgical year for which he wrote his cycle. Epiphany VI did not occur in any of the years Bach was composing his cantata cycles.
BWV 23, final version: this version was possibly premiered in 1730 or 1731, see above
During Lent, the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, "quiet time" was observed in Leipzig. Only the feast of Annunciation was celebrated with a cantata, even if it fell in that time. On Good Friday, a Passion was performed in Leipzig in a Vespers service.
Böse Welt, schmäh immerhin (no known setting by Bach)
The only two extant church cantatas Bach composed for Annunciation (see below) are also Palm Sunday cantatas. He composed one for this combined occasion in Weimar (BWV 182). In Leipzig Annunciation was the only occasion for which concerted music could be performed during Lent, apart from the Passion performed on Good Friday. When 25 March, the normal date for the feast of Annunciation, fell in Holy Week the feast for Annunciation was moved forward to Palm Sunday, which happened in 1728, the second time Bach restaged his Weimar cantata for the combined Annunciation and Palm Sunday occasion.
The other cantata Bach composed for the combined occasion was the last chorale cantata written in his second year in Leipzig, first performed on (BWV 1). In 1729, the Picander cycle year, Annunciation fell more than two weeks before Palm Sunday (10 April). Picander did however not provide a separate libretto for Palm Sunday in his 1728-29 cycle: he proposed to use the same libretto as for Advent I (see above). There is no extant setting of this libretto by Bach, nor of the separate Annunciation libretto.
Bach's Passion settings are not listed as cantatas, nor are such Passions usually included in cantata cycles. As an indication of which Passion was performed in the course of which cycle they are listed here:
BWV 158? - dating of the cantata is uncertain (see below). Despite its brevity (four movements) the cantata appears as a pasticcio involving two movements of an earlier (Weimar?) cantata for Purification. Its two outer movements fit it to the Eastertide occasion: the text for the first movement is based on the gospel reading for Easter Tuesday, and its last movement sets a stanza of Luther's Easter hymn "Christ lag in Todes Banden", echoing the chorale cantata based on that hymn which was performed at Easter 1724 and 1725.
The Sundays between Easter and Pentecost have Latin names, derived from the beginning of the prescribed readings. The first Sunday after Easter is called Quasimodogeniti. Some sources name the Sunday after Easter the second Sunday in Easter, counting Easter Sunday as the first.
A variable number of Sundays, up to 27 if Easter is extremely early, occurs between Trinity and the next liturgical year, which starts with the first Sunday of Advent.
Bach's first two Leipzig cantata cycles start on the first Sunday after Trinity: it was the first occasion of his tenure as Thomaskantor (: BWV 75), and the next year he composed the first cantata of his chorale cantata cycle for this occasion (: BWV 20).
After his cantata for Trinity 1725 (BWV 176, see above), which concluded his second year in Leipzig, there are however no extant cantatas before BWV 168 for the ninth Sunday after Trinity, considered the first cantata of the third cycle. For the first Sunday after Trinity 1726 he composed BWV 39, considered as a later addition to the third cycle.
The incomplete fourth cycle was supposed to start on St. John's Day , followed by a cantata for the fifth Sunday after Trinity on , at least as far as the first print of Picander's libretto of this cycle is concerned. Bach's oldest extant setting of a libretto of this cycle is however a cantata for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, , and when the cycle's librettos were printed for the second time in 1732 Picander indicated 1729 as the year of the cycle.
The elusive fifth cycle has an even less clear start. It is not known which cantatas exactly belonged to this cycle: it may have been a collection of cantatas written before Bach's Leipzig time that were not otherwise added to one of the other numbered cycles, and of cantatas written at a later date.
BDW 1669: Johannes Agricola's chorale "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" was published in Leipzig as the text for the cantata performed on Trinity III 1725. As it is the same text that was used for the Trinity IV cantata BWV 177 (see below) it may have been an early version of that cantata. Alternatively the 1725 publication may refer to a setting by someone else, e.g., Telemann (BDW 1669)
Georg Philipp Telemann's Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden, TWV 1:836 (1724; misattributed to Bach as BWV Anh. 157, BDW 1468)
The Annunciation (Mariae Verkündigung) is celebrated on 25 March, or (in Leipzig) on Palm Sunday when 25 March falls in Holy Week (see above). Bach's only extant Annunciation cantatas were composed in years when Annunciation coincided with Palm Sunday.
Erdmann Neumeister's 1711 cantata libretto Gelobet sei der Herr, der Gott Israel was printed in 1725 in Leipzig as the text of the cantata performed on that day: whoever set the libretto (Bach? Telemann?), no composition is extant (BDW 1673)
The election or inauguration of a new town council was celebrated with a service. Normally this was an annual event. The cantata written for such celebrations were indicated with the term Ratswechsel (changing of the council) or Ratswahl (election of the council).
In Mühlhausen the celebration was held on 4 February:
1709: second Ratswahl cantata for Mühlhausen, BWV 1138.1 (formerly BWV Anh. 192) - There is some evidence that such a cantata was printed, but the work is otherwise unknown, no part of an actual composition has been recovered. Bach had started working in Weimar in 1708, but in Mühlhausen the organ of the church where he had been organist was still in the process of being remodelled according to his plans, works he supervised until their completion in 1709.
1710: third Ratswahl cantata for Mühlhausen, BWV 1138.2 (lost)
Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV 200, c. 1742 (fragment of lost cantata, possibly for Epiphany or Purification, arrangement of the Aria "Dein Kreuz, o Bräutgam meiner Seele" from the Passion Oratorio "Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld" of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel by Johann Sebastian Bach (Source: BJ 2008, p. 123, Peter Wollny))