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cantata (kəntäˈtə) [Ital.,=sung], composite musical form similar to a short unacted opera or brief oratorio, developed in Italy in the baroque period. The term was first used in 1620 to refer to strophic variations in the voice part over a recurrent melody in the bass accompaniment. Gradually the cantata came to contain contrasting sections of recitative and aria separated by instrumental passages, often in the current operatic style. In the second half of the 17th cent. the secular cantata was standardized by Stradella, Alessandro Scarlatti, and other members of the Neapolitan school into two arias with recitatives. This form was very popular through the 18th cent. as a vehicle for virtuoso singing. In France the cantata was adapted by Rameau to contain three arias with recitatives. In Germany the sacred cantata was more popular than the secular. It incorporated extensive choral and instrumental sections. A particular variety, the chorale cantata, utilized the verses of hymns and frequently the hymn tunes in various parts of the cantata. This type, as written by J. S. Bach, opens with a chorus, which is followed by recitatives and arias for each soloist, and then closes with a harmonized chorale. After Bach the cantata became, in general, a diminutive form of the oratorio.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a large work for voices and instruments, usually soloists, chorus, and orchestra. There are solemn, joyful, lyrical, sorrowful, and narrative cantatas in two basic types: secular and church (sacred). A cantata is usually made up of an orchestral introduction, arias, recitatives, and choruses. It is related to the oratorio but is written on a smaller scale, without dramatic plot development, and primarily in chamber style.

The cantata developed in Italy in the first half of the 17th century. Initially the Italian cantata was monodic; later it grew closer to opera. It flourished in the mid-17th century with the work of such composers as G. Carissimi, A. Stradella, and A. Scarlatti. The Italian cantatas were secular; the church cantata took shape in Germany, giving the chorus added importance in relation to the orchestra and soloists. J. S. Bach’s church and secular cantatas are among the greatest examples of the genre.

The first Russian cantatas were written in the 18th century. In the second half of the 19th century a number of significant cantatas were written by Russian composers of the classical school, including Tchaikovsky (Moscow), Rimsky-Korsakov (From Homer), S. I. Taneev, and S. Rachmaninoff. The Soviet cantata is distinguished by the heightened role of the chorus and the use of intonations from folk and popular songs. The most prominent themes are historical-heroic (Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev and the symphony-cantata In Kulikovo Field by Iu. A. Shaporin) and patriotic (Cantata About the Motherland by A. G. Arutiunian and the symphony-cantata My Ukraine by A. Ia. Shtogarenko).


Khokhlovkina, A. Sovetskaia oratoriia i kantata. Moscow, 1955.
Shirinian, R. Oratoriia i kantata. Moscow, 1960.
Schmitz, E. Geschichte der Kantate und des geistlichen Konzerts, vol. 1: Geschichte der weltlichen Solokantate, [3rd ed.]. Hildesheim, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a musical setting of a text, esp a religious text, consisting of arias, duets, and choruses interspersed with recitatives
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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