The cantata as a musical genre was developed in Italy in the baroque period. Cantatas, which were generally quite operatic and consisted of recitatives and arias separated by instrumental sections, could be secular or religious. The secular cantata was the norm in Italy and France, whereas the sacred cantata was more popular in Germany. The chorale cantata used verses of hymns and hymn tunes throughout.
Although he also wrote secular cantatas (such as the famous “Coffee Cantata"), J.S. Bach primarly wrote sacred chorale cantatas for the Lutheran church service. This is the type of cantata that was written by Bach, and it opened with a chorus, was followed by recitatives and arias, and then closed with a harmonized chorale. Masterful instrumental music also played a role in Bach's cantatas. (adapted from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001)
Bach wrote more than 300 cantatas (in addition to everything else!), but nearly half of them are lost to us. (You may begin sobbing now.) When I learned that only one of his cantatas was printed in his lifetime, it amazes me that we’ve recovered as many as we have.
Following are some excerpts from an essay on Bach’s cantatas, by Jan Koster, which can be read in its completion here.
“Bach lived in Leipzig from 1723 till his death in 1750. The first five of the Leipzig years were really the only period in Bach's life dominated by cantata production. Bach … is supposed to have written 5 yearly runs (i.e., 5 x 59 cantatas) altogether … [F]or for the second cycle, 1724-1725, Bach wrote nearly one cantata per week. After a short interruption in 1725, Bach wrote a third cycle over the next two years ...Here are some more sites on Bach’s cantatas:
“Bach's cantata output in the 1720s is one of the most astonishing creative explosions in the history of Western music, even if one considers that Baroque composers were extremely productive in general. Georg Philipp Telemann, for instance … wrote 40 operas, 44 Passions, and 12 yearly cycles of cantatas. Bach's predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) had written 14 yearly cycles, and the absolute world champion cantata writing was Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725), who wrote almost 2000 cantatas. Although nobody has heard even a fraction of the more than 3500 cantatas of only these three composers, it is generally assumed that they were routine productions and much less original than Bach's cantatas. What is so astonishing about Bach, however, is that his cantatas were also the results of certain routines but that many are masterpieces nevertheless. During these early Leipzig years, Bach also gave the first performance of the St. John Passion (1724) and produced the Magnificat (1723) and the St. Matthew Passion (1729) …”
Texts of the Complete Vocal Works (English translations), by Z. Philip Ambrose
Bach Cantatas Website
Jan Koster’s Bach Cantata Project
You don’t see Bach cantatas performed very often these days, but there are several good CDs out there. This one features some of the more well known canatas. You may recognize some of the chorales in the available listening samples.