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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 24 x 16 x 2.3 cm
TITLE Analyzing Bach Cantatas by Eric Chafe
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xvii + 286p. Hard back. Price: £40.
ISBN 0-19-512099-X
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP, UK.
DESCRIPTION Detailed analysis of selected cantatas by Bach from both text and music in their historical and theological context.
WORKS COVERED BWV 1-2, 7-9, 12-13, 18, 21, 25, 27, 28, 38, 40-1, 46, 52, 58, 60-1, 63-4, 68, 70-1, 75-77, 90, 95, 106, 109-10, 117, 119, 121, 127, 130, 135, 147-8, 153, 155, 156, 161, 172-3, 177, 185, 190, 213-4, 249, 591, 992, (bold indicating those intensely discussed)
READERSHIP serious readers interested in learning about Bach’s cantatas and the background of the genre in great depth
comprehensive discussion of the historical background of Bach's cantatas

Bach’s cantatas are getting as popular as ever. This trend is set to continue for some time; Bach wrote so many of them that there are still many cantatas which are yet to be fully discussed and appreciated. With their increasing popularity, the literatures are on the increase, too. So what does this book offer? Are there anything new or interesting for the author to say?

The most fundamental point the author makes is that Bach’s cantatas are among the highest achievements of Western musical art. All his discussions ultimately lead to justify this single point. In order to understand Bach’s cantatas better, it is essential that as Chafe shows, we have to examine in detail every element that they are made of, i.e. the text and music along with their historical backgrounds, not separately but holistically; in doing so, we need to cover such issues as Lutheran liturgy and theology, modal tradition and music theory of the day. The author certainly argues carefully and thoughtfully what Bach might have intended in his music---e.g. how the cantata texts reflect Lutheran interpretation of scripture, how the principles of Lutheran hermeneutics work in Bach’s music, how the text and music interact, and how Bach’s tonal structure and modal harmony relate to the theological content of his cantatas. Readers should note that his ‘analysis’---the term he uses in the title---is nothing to do with those approaches by Schenker and other analysts; much of his musical analysis is non-technical, and for this reason, the book should appeal to wider readership.

1. The Hermeneutic Matrix.
Basic Principles
Aspects of the Liturgical Year
2. The Lutheran “metaphysical” tradition in music and music theory
3. Cantata 21, “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”
Commentary on the Individual Movements
4.  Modal Questions
The Seventeenth-century Background
Bach and Modal Tradition
“Durch Adams Fall”--Andreas Werckmeister on the Hypophrygian Mode
5. Bach’s Reflection on the Past: Modal Chorales in Cantata Designs
“Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” in Cantatas 18 and 109
“Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh’ darein” in Cantatas 153 and 2
“O grosser Gott von Macht” in Cantata 46
6. Two Chorale Cantatas
Cantata 121: “Christum wir sollen loben schon”
“Es ist das Heil uns kommen hier” (Cantata 9)
7.  Cantata 77: The Theological Background
“Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot”: The Chorale and Its History
The Text of Cantata 77
8. “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, Lieben”: An Analysis of Cantata 77
Commentary on the Individual Movements
9.  Cantata 60: “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”
very dense and absorbing 

Starting with the contents, some readers may be puzzled by his chapter headings, as there seem many abstract terms which do not tell them straight away the logic and structure of his arguments; the heading of Chapter 2 ‘Lutheran “metaphysical” tradition’ may be particularly bewildering. Yet when you read along the book, the author’s tactful narration should unfold the thrilling course of thoughts, as he demonstrates quite successfully how Bach attempted to bring out the Lutheran dogma in music. The actual musical analyses of the cantatas are treated as examples to substantiate his specific theoretical arguments, and therefore only a handful of cantatas, mostly from the early Leipzig period, are discussed in depth. Thus there is considerable scope for future expansion if the author wishes to.

It is clear that Chafe has read widely, and although the size and scope of his bibliography are modest for this type of book, he accommodates recent research by German scholars working in theological aspects that are considered important (e.g. Axmacher, Petzoldt and Steiger, to name but three), which is excellent. While he addresses an impressive range of issues and discusses them in depth, he does not pretend to cover everything in equal weight. Numerology is one such area, which he touches only briefly, as he clearly sees it as not as important as the other issues in Bach’s compositional process. There is one important omission, however; it is regrettable in my opinion that he does not discuss the biblical allusions in the cantata texts that were discussed more recently by Melvin Unger and Ulrich Meyer, though I cannot imagine what difference it could have made to his already powerful discussion of Bach’s cantata text.

Like many of his other writings, Chafe’s language can be difficult to follow at times, partially due to the way he says things and partially due to the amount of details he puts into his argument. Some readers may also be frustrated by the small type-face as well as its very tight line spacing with which the book is produced. Yet the amount of information it provides amply compensates for those trivial matters. Through his engaged discussion on a rich variety of ideas emerges the essence of Bach’s cantatas; it is a tremendous intellectual gain. While it may take a long time to digest what Chafe has to say, it is a satisfying, highly stimulating experience to share his enormous insight into some of the most amazing treasures---Bach’s cantatas.

Published online on 20 September 2000

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