For the past few years, the choir at our church, along with many other talented musicians in our midst, have been performing Christmas cantatas as a part of worship the Sunday before Christmas. We look forward to these annual musical presentations and we celebrate the gifts of those whose hard work make them possible. But as special as they make us feel at this special time of year, have you ever wondered…
What the heck is a cantata?
(obviously, music, but why the funny Italian name? Sounds like something Super Mario would say…)
What is the point? I mean, it is nice and all, but why do we do this every year?
Okay… let me see if I can recall from the dusty depths of my college education and shed some light on the situation…
Singing, Instruments, Story
Believe it or not, back in the day (I’m talking like the seventeenth century, that’s the 1600s for those of you like me who get confused…) your music wasn’t real music unless it was vocal music. Instruments were sort of the black sheep of the musical family. Well, eventually someone had the bright idea of using instruments to accompany singing (think really old-fashioned guitars, violins, cellos and even keyboards) and this turned into the best thing since acapella music and they started calling them cantatas, which means…drum roll… sung. I know, really creative, right? So we’ve got singing, and instruments.
These first cantatas were not necessarily sacred (meaning talking about Jesus and scripture), but they were dramatic (they told stories). Eventually there were some break-away styles (think alternative rock) called operas and oratorios (remember Handel’s Messiah?). So now we have choirs doing the singing (with some solos) along with instruments that together tell a story that may or may not be religious.
Then Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century comes on the scene (you knew I had to make a Lutheran connection, right?) and starts writing cantatas for the church… we’re talking 300 of them, and he wrote them for the weekly lectionary, performing them every Sunday. That’s a music director’s dream job…or worst nightmare, depending who you are talking to. We Lutherans remember one of his most enduring cantatas in the hymn we sing every Reformation Sunday, A Mighty Fortress is our God.
Well, let’s fast forward a few hundred years.
The Point Is…
Singing, Instruments, Story. Wait, you’ve heard this before, you say? Well, churches still have choirs, and we have instruments (although they’ve changed a bit… imagine what J.S. Bach could do with an electric guitar…) and we love to tell stories. I can just imagine the worship planning meeting…
Pastor: So, Christmas is coming…again. Keeping in mind that we don’t have a lot of money, what are we going to do this year?
Really Helpful Person: Well, we’ve got this choir…and brother Simon here plays a mean harmonica…
Pastor: We need a really creative way to tell the Christmas story, something that will engage people, not cost a lot of money, a preferably give me a break from preaching (wink, wink).
Music Director: I’ve got it! (snaps fingers) A cantata!
Pastor and Really Helpful Person: What the heck is a cantata?
Okay, that was really silly, I know. But seriously, we’ve got the choir, we’ve got the musicians, what better way to tell the most important story ever told?
And that I think is the point. Let’s tell the story of our Savior, the long-foretold Messiah making his grand (but humble) entrance into our dark world as one of us, diapers and all. It’s an astonishing, unbelievable, miraculous story, and through the power of music we want you to hear the story, to let the awesome truth of it seep into your soul; we want to be instruments of God’s work in your heart and life.
So here we go again. This Sunday, December 22, come to worship and prepare your hearts to relive this amazing story through the songs the choir sings and the music the instruments play. And when from somewhere behind you these words float to your ears, “what the heck is a cantata?”, now you know!