VD: The Cantata

A cantata in the 17th century meant essentially a piece for one or two voices, occasionally three, composed of several discrete sections exploiting diverse styles, usually accompanied by no instruments other than the basso continuo group. In the most common type, portions of an extended poem are sung in recitative, while other portions are set in a flowing line that can best be described as aria-style. Sometimes there is a sequence of several such aria movements without recitative intervening. Often one of the arias returns as a refrain at the end or along the way. Another type uses instrumental ritornelli to separate strophes of poetry set to variations of the same, or to different, music. Or there may be a combination of these approaches.

The texts are not unlike those of the earlier madrigal, but there is a tendency toward dramatization through monolog or dialog, or through narrative out of which these emerge. The subject matter is almost always amorous, though there are other themes, occasionally a sacred one.

Between 1620 and 1640 a great many works that fit this general definition were printed. Subsequently publication became less and less customary. A cantata was usually composed for a particular patron or singer and often for a special occasion. Thus it became attached to that person, who might favor a few friends with manuscript copies. The cantatas of the 'twenties and 'thirties show progressively longer and more clearly separated sections. There is a growing differentiation between recitative and aria. After 1640 the number of pieces strung together increased and the longer aria sections subjected to various formal schemes through calculated repetitions of musical material. The poetry is mainly by anonymous authors, who show an awareness of the composers' needs. They usually provided madrigal-type verse of mixed 7- and 11-syllable lines to be set as recitative, while strophic poems, canzonets, and the like, with uniform syllable count and closed rhyme schemes, were intended for lyrical settings. Composers, however, did not always respect the poet's layout.

Of the numerous composers who contributed to the emergence of the cantata from the shorter lyric pieces, Luigi Rossi stands out for the artistic quality and variety of his production as well as its quantity. As against two stage works, II Palazzo incantato (1642) and Orfeo (1647), he is credited with 375 extant cantatas. Two of the most lavish patrons of his age assured him a cultivated public and the most talented singers and instrumentalists: for 20 years he was with Marc' Antonio Borghese, who kept the largest staff in Rome, and after 1641 with Cardinal Antonio Barberini, whose palace contained the largest theater of the city.

After Rossi, whose cantatas were written mostly before 1650, the leading composer of vocal chamber music in Rome was Giacomo Carissimi. He is credited with 145 extant cantatas. Making an opening aria return between recitative or arioso sections is a frequent scheme with Carissimi. In this way the keynote aria lends its identity to the whole composition. Carissimi's arias are often extensive and patterned in ABB, ABA, or AABB forms. Beautiful flowing melody takes precedence over the demands of the text. A middle ground between aria and recitative emerges as an important component of his writing. This is the recitativo arioso. Arioso sections may take over an entire recitative section or merely portions.

The utmost refinement of cantata writing is reached in the work of Antonio Cesti. An ordained priest and Franciscan friar for most of his life, he nevertheless carried on an active career that took him to, among other places, Venice, Florence, Rome, Innsbruck, and Vienna. In these Cities, and particularly as director of chamber and choral music for Archduke Ferdinand Carl of Innsbruck and as Vice-Music-Director at the Imperial Court in Vienna he had the opportunity of staging least eleven operas. Fifty-five extant cantatas are attributed to him, among which nine are for two voices. The alternation of recitative and aria styles becomes quite standard in these works.

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