Cantata

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The idea of reviving the declamation of tragedies after the manner of the ancients led to the invention of recitative, which is attributed to Caccini and Giacomo Peri about 1600. It was at first confined to the opera, but the desire to adapt it to music for the chamber soon led to the invention of the Cantata, which in its earliest form was simply a music recitation of a short drama or story in verse by one person, without action, accompanied in the simplest manner by a single instrument.

The first change was the introduction of an air, repeated at different points in the course of the recited narrative; thus producing a primitive kind of rondo.

The cantata in this style was brought to great perfection by the Italians of the 17th century. The composer who produced the most perfect examples was Carissimi; apparently they are all for a single voice, or at most for two, with accompaniment of a single instrument – lute, violoncello, harpsichord, etc. Shortly after his time the accompaniment took a much more elaborate form, and the violoncello parts to some of Allessandro Scarlatti’s cantatas were so difficult that is was considered the mark of a very distinguished artist to be able to play them.

Carissimi was the first to adopt this form of composition for church purposes. His cantatas, like those of his contemporaries, are only known by the first few words, so that it would answer no purpose to quote their names. One only is mentioned as having been suggested by a special event – the death of Mary Queen of Scots.

Among his contemporaries the most famous cantata composers were Lotti, Astorga, Rossi, Marcello, Gasparini, and Allessandro Scarlatti, whose cantatas were extraordinarily numerous. One by Cesti, ‘O cara liberta,’ is said to have been especially famous. Specimens by most of these composers are quoted in Burney’s History, and a collection of twenty-six by Carissimi was published in London at the end of the 18th century, apparently after Burney had finished his work. Twenty-six by Marcello for different voices with accompaniment of different instruments have also been published, and a great number for soprano and contralto with harpsichord accompaniment.

At the beginning of the 18th century cantatas of more extended form and various movements were written by Domenico Scarlatti and by Pergolesi. The most famous was the ‘Orfeo ed Euridice,’ which the latter composed in his last illness. Handel also wrote cantatas after the same fashion, for single voices, both with accompaniments of strings and oboes, and with thorough bass for clavier, and many of these have been published. But they were not well known; and since is time this form of cantata has quite fallen into disuse, and has gradually changed into the concert aria, of which Mozart has left many fine examples, and of which Beethoven’s ‘Ah, perfido!’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Infelice,” are well known instances. The name Cantata is given to a composition by Mozart for three solo voices, chorus and orchestra in three movements, composed in or about 1783.

The Church-Cantata is a much more extended kind of composition, and of these Handel also wrote some, mostly in his younger days, and at present little known. The greatest and most valuable examples are in the Kirchen cantaten of Sebastian Bach. Mendelssohn adopted the same form in more than one of his early works which are written on chorales, and correspond closely with Bach’s cantatas, though not so entitled.

In modern times the Cantata is used to supply an obvious want. The idea was well as the use of ‘Cantata de Camera’ having quite gone out of fashion, the term is applied to choral works of some dimensions – either sacred and in the manner of an oratorio, but too short to be dignified with that title; or secular, as a lyric drama or story adapted to music, but not intended to be acted. Specimens of the former kind are very numerous.

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