The meaning of the term changed over time, from the simple single voice madrigal of the early 17th century, to the multi-voice 'cantata da camera' and the 'cantata da chiesa' of the later part of that century, from the more substantial dramatic forms of the 18th century (including the 200-odd church and secular cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach) to the usually sacred-texted 19th-century cantata, which was effectively a type of short oratorio.
The term originated in the early 17th century simultaneously with opera and oratorio. Prior to that all "cultured" music was vocal. With the rise of instrumental music the term appeared, while the instrumental art became sufficiently developed to be embodied in sonatas. From the beginning of the 17th century until late in the 18th, the cantata for one or two solo voices with accompaniment of basso continuo (and perhaps a few solo instruments) was a principal form of Italian vocal chamber music.
A cantata consisted first of a declamatory narrative or scene in recitative, held together by a primitive aria repeated at intervals. Fine examples may be found in the church music of Giacomo Carissimi; and the English vocal solos of Henry Purcell (such as Mad Tom and Mad Bess) show the utmost that can be made of this archaic form. With the rise of the da capo aria, the cantata became a group of two or three arias joined by recitative. George Frideric Handel's numerous Italian duets and trios are examples on a rather large scale. His Latin motetSilete Venti, for soprano solo, shows the use of this form in church music.
Differences from other musical forms
The Italian solo cantata tended, when on a large scale, to become indistinguishable from a scene in an opera, in the same way the church cantata, solo or choral, is indistinguishable from a small oratorio or portion of an oratorio. This is equally evident whether we examine the unparalleled church cantatas of Bach, of which nearly 200 are extant (see list of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach), or the Chandos Anthems of Handel. In Johann Sebastian Bach's case many of the larger cantatas are actually called oratorios; and the Christmas Oratorio is a collection of six church cantatas actually intended for performance on six different days, though together forming as complete an artistic whole as any classical oratorio.
The term cantata came to be applied almost exclusively to choral works, as distinguished from solo vocal music. In early 19th-century cantatas the chorus is the vehicle for music more lyric and songlike than in oratorio, not excluding the possibility of a brilliant climax in a fugue as in Ludwig van Beethoven's Glorreiche Augenblick, Carl Maria von Weber's Jubel-Kantate, and Felix Mendelssohn's Die erste Walpurgisnacht. Mendelssohn's Symphony Cantata, the Lobgesang, is a hybrid work, partly in the oratorio style. It is preceded by three symphonic movements, a device avowedly suggested by Beethoven's ninth symphony; but the analogy is not accurate, as Beethoven's work is a symphony of which the fourth movement is a choral finale of essentially single design, whereas Mendelssohn's Symphony Cantata is a cantata with three symphonic preludes. Robert Schumann wrote the cantata Paradise and the Peri. The full lyric possibilities of a string of choral songs were realized by Johannes Brahms in his Rinaldo, that—like the Walpurgisnacht—was set to a text by Goethe. Other cantatas, Beethoven's Meeresstille, works of Brahms and many notable small English choral works, such as cantatas of John Henry Maunder and John Stanley, find various ways to set poetry to choral music. The competition for the French Prix de Rome prescribed that each candidate submit a cantata. Hector Berlioz failed in three attempts before finally winning in 1830 with Sardanapale. While almost all of the Prix de Rome cantatas have long since been forgotten (along with their composers, for the most part), Debussy's prize-winning L'enfant prodigue (1884, following his unsuccessful Le gladiateur of 1883) is still performed occasionally today. Late in the century, Gustav Mahler wrote his early Das klagende Lied on his own words, between 1878 and 1880, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor created a successful trilogy of cantatas The Song of Hiawatha between 1898 and 1900.
Twentieth century and beyond
Cantatas, both of the chamber variety and on a grand scale, were composed after 1900 as well. In the early part of the century, secular cantatas once again became prominent, while the 19th-century tradition of sacred cantatas also continued. Ralph Vaughan Williams composed both kinds: "festival" cantatas such as Toward the Unknown Region (1907), Five Mystical Songs (1911), and Five Tudor Portraits (1936), and sacred cantatas including Sancta civitas (1926), Benedicite (1930), Dona nobis pacem (1936), and Hodie (1954). Joseph Ryelandt also composed secular and sacred cantatas, such as Le chant de la pauvreté Op.92 in 1928 and Veni creator Op.123 in 1938. Béla Bartók composed the secular Cantata Profana, subtitled "The Nine Splendid Stags" and based on a Romanian folk tale, in 1930. Of Anton Webern's last three compositions, two are secular cantatas: Cantata No. 1, op. 29 (1938–39), and Cantata No. 2, op. 31 (1941–43), both setting texts by Hildegard Jone. Webern had begun sketching a Third Cantata by the time he was killed in 1945. Sergei Prokofiev composed Semero ikh (1917–18; rev. 1933), and in 1939 premiered a cantata drawn from the film music for Alexander Nevsky.
Patriotic cantatas celebrating anniversaries of events in the Revolution or extolling state leaders were frequently commissioned in the Soviet Union between 1930 and the middle of the century, though these occasional works were seldom among their composers' best. Examples include Dmitri Shostakovich's Poem of the Motherland, op. 47 (1947) and The Sun Shines over Our Motherland, op. 90 (1952), and thee works by Prokofiev, Zdravitsa! [Hail to Stalin] (1939), along with two festival cantatas, the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, op. 74, and Flourish, Mighty Homeland, op. 114, for the thirtieth anniversary of the same event. Dmitry Kabalevsky also composed four such cantatas, The Great Homeland, op. 35 (1941–42), The Song of Morning, Spring and Peace, op. 57 (1957–58), Leninists, op.63 (1959), and About Our Native Land, op. 82 (1965).
In 1940, the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos created a secular cantata titled Mandu çarará, based on an Indian legend collected by Barbosa Rodrigues. Igor Stravinsky composed a work titled simply Cantata in 1951–52, which used stanzas from the 15th-century "Lyke-wake Dirge" as a narrative frame for other anonymous English lyrics. Hans Werner Henze composed a Cantata della fiaba estrema (1963), as well as a number of other works that might be regarded as cantatas, such as Kammermusik (1958, rev. 1963), Muzen Siziliens (1966), and El Cimarrón (1969–70). Momente (1962–64/1969), one of the most important works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, is often described as a cantata. Benjamin Britten composed at least three works he designated as cantatas: the Cantata Academica, op. 62 (1959), the Cantata Misericordium, op. 69 (1963), and Phaedra, op. 93 (1975). Alberto Ginastera also composed three works in this form: the Cantata para América Mágica, op. 27 (1960), Bomarzo, op. 32 (1964), and Milena, op. 37 (1971), and Gottfried von Einem composed in 1973 An die Nachgeborenen based on diverse texts, the title taken from a poem of Bertolt Brecht. Mikis Theodorakis composed the cantatas According to the Sadducees and Canto Olympico. Ivan Moody wrote in 1995 Revelation. Cantatas were also composed by Erik Bergman, Osvald Chlubna, and Dimitri Nicolau.
Timms, Colin, Nigel Fortune, Malcolm Boyd, Friedhelm Krummacher, David Tunley, James R. Goodall, and Juan José Carreras. 2001. "Cantata". 2001. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.