Within Bach's context, a cantata is a multi-movement sacred work for voices and instruments, with outer movements based on a German chorale (Golden 2010). Bach's cantatas were influences by the stile antico, employing Franco-Flemish influenced imitative polyphony, the concertato style, text painting, and paraphrase (Golden 2010). However, the cantatas also feature modern Baroque elements of theology and monody used as the texture.
Bach's Cantata No. 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, is based on a pre-existing chorale tune, common for cantatas in the late Baroque era, particularly in Bach's cantatas. Bach commonly reused previously written work, primarily because he was writing one cantata a week for sacred services. The pre-existing tune is used in the first movement as somewhat of a cantus firmus, showing Bach's interest in old-fashioned techniques (Golden 2010). The tune can be heard in the soprano part in measure 21 of the first movement. Ritornello form dominates the first movement, with alternation occurring between ritornello and chorus. A Baroque motif called passus duriusculus (the painful passage) consists of a descending chromatic fourth forming an ostinato in the bass line (Bonds 2013). This is an element of painting in the music, where the music conveys the affect, common throughout the Baroque period. The use of major-minor tonality is clear, giving the phrase greater structure and organized phrases and periods. This is increasingly common throughout the Baroque period. As other compositions in the Baroque period, rhythm and pulse are very constant and seem to be a driving factor. Voices and instruments are used in a seamless manner throughout the composition, perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of the Baroque period, especially the late Baroque period.
It may be interesting to compare Bach's Cantata No. 78 with Handel's famous oratorio, the Messiah. Obviously, the two works are different genres, with Bach's a cantata and Handel's an oratorio. Handel, in comparison to Bach, seems to use older traditions less commonly in his choral works. He is more concerned with a national style (English) that was emerging during the Baroque period. He wrote in English rather than German, which was a new innovation at the time. Handel's compositions were more driven by audience tastes rather than Bach, who was driven by a job within a sacred realm. Text painting is used frequently in Handel's Messiah, more so than in Bach's cantata. The Messiah relies on narration rather than a dramatic plot. Both Handel and Bach draw upon theology and modern religious themes and ideals for their music.
Bach's Cantata No. 78 is extremely interesting, and I personally found it fascinating. His seamless combination of older techniques with modern techniques shows his personal, complex style of composition that, when heard, is easily attributed to Bach. I chose this work due to its popularity at this time and because, as an instrumentalist, I am more familiar with his instrumental works than his choral works.
"J.S. Bach- Cantata BWV 78 - Jesu, der du meine Seele." YouTube video, 5:22. Posted by "Bachstiftung," upload January 6, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIWJOKmsgLs
Mark Evans Bonds. A History of Music in Western Culture. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2013.
Rachel Golden. (2010, November) Baroque Period. Musicology 210. Lecture conducted from University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Wilhelm Rust (editor). Jesu, der du meine Seele. Creative Commons Attribution. http://imslp.org/wiki/Jesu,_der_du_meine_Seele,_BWV_78_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian)