Cantata is a term derived from the Italian cantare (= to sing). It is a vocal music composition with orchestral accompaniment, typically divided into several movements. Usually a choir is involved.
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The meaning of the term changed over time, from the simple single voice madrigal of the early 17th century, to the multi-
The term originated in the early 17th century simultaneously with opera and oratorio. Prior to that all "cultured" music was vocal. With the rise of instrumental music the term appeared, while the instrumental art became sufficiently developed to be embodied in sonatas. From the beginning of the 17th century until late in the 18th, the cantata for one or two solo voices with accompaniment of basso continuo (and perhaps a few solo instruments) was a principal form of Italian vocal chamber music.
A cantata consisted first of a declamatory narrative or scene in recitative, held together by a primitive aria repeated at intervals. Fine examples may be found in the church music of Giacomo Carissimi and the English vocal solos of Henry Purcell (such as Mad Tom and Mad Bess) show the utmost that can be made of this archaic form. With the rise of the da capo aria, the cantata became a group of two or three arias joined by recitative. George Frideric Handel's numerous Italian duets and trios are examples on a rather large scale. His Latin motet Silete Venti, for soprano solo, shows the use of this form in church music.
Differences from other musical forms
The Italian solo cantata tended, when on a large scale, to become indistinguishable from a scene in an opera, in the same way the church cantata, solo or choral, is indistinguishable from a small oratorio or portion of an oratorio. This is equally evident whether we examine the unparalleled church cantatas of Bach, of which nearly 200 are extant , or the Chandos Anthems of Handel. In Johann Sebastian Bach's case many of the larger cantatas are actually called oratorios; and the Christmas Oratorio is a collection of six church cantatas actually intended for performance on six different days, though together forming as complete an artistic whole as any classical oratorio.
Cantatas were in great demand for the services of the Lutheran church. Sacred cantatas for the liturgy or other occasions were not only composed by Bach but also by Dieterich Buxtehude, Christoph Graupner, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Georg Philipp Telemann, to name a few. Many secular cantatas were composed for events in the nobility. They were so similar in form to the sacred ones that many of them were parodied (in parts or completely) to sacred cantatas, for example in Bach's Christmas Oratorio.