The three cantatas on this recording are superlative examples of Bach's mature compositional style. Cantata 51 was composed in 1730, Cantata 11 in 1735, and Cantata 34 in its final form — sometime after 1745.
Bach gave the title "Oratorium" to three works composed between 1734 and 1738. These extended cantatas were prepared for performance on the principal festivals celebrating key events in the life of Christ; Christmas, Easter, and Ascension. But these oratorios are not of the type produced by such composers as Carissimi, Scarlatti, Handel, and others. Instead, they take as their model the so-called "oratorio" passions, such as his own St. John and St. Matthew Passions, in that they are substantially based on the Biblical narrative of the respective celebration. For the Christmas/Epiphany season of 1734-35, Bach composed a cycle of six cantatas to which he gave the collective title Oratorium Tempore Nativitis Christi (BWV 248). During the following four months, he composed an Ascension cantata with the title Oratorium Festo Ascensionis Christi (BWV 11). About three years later, probably in 1738, he reworked the Easter cantata he had originally written in 1725 and gave it the title, Oratorium Festo Paschatos (BWV 249). These three Oratorios, together with his three settings of the Passion (Matthew, Mark and John, BWV 244-245, 247), witness to Bach aligning himself with the particular Lutheran tradition of composing "Historia," that is, musical settings of the Biblical narratives associated with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Bach's notable predecessor was Heinrich Schiitz, who composed birth (BWV 435), passion (The Seven Last Words, Matthew, Luke, and John Passions, BWV 478-481), and resurrection (BWV 50) Historia, though he did not apparently compose a setting of the ascension narratives.
- Robin A. Leaver ©2001_Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Princeton, NJ
President of the American Bach Society