In the 16th century, when all serious music was vocal, the term had no reason to exist, but with the rise of instrumental music in the 17th century cantatas began to exist under that name as soon as the instrumental art was definite enough to be embodied in sonatas. From the middle of the 17th till late in the 18th century a favourite form of Italian chamber music was the cantata for one or two solo voices, with accompaniment of harpsichord and perhaps a few other solo instruments. It consisted at 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 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 Friderich 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.
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.
The essential point, however, in Bach's church cantatas is that they formed part of a church service, and moreover of a service in which the organization of the music was far more coherent than is possible in the Anglican church. Many of Bach's greatest cantatas begin with an elaborate chorus followed by a couple of arias and recitatives, and end with a plain chorale. This has often been commented upon as an example of Bach's indifference to artistic climax in the work as a whole. But no one will maintain this who realizes the place which the church cantata occupied in the Lutheran church service. The text was carefully based upon the gospel or lessons for the day; unless the cantata was short the sermon probably took place after the first chorus or one of the arias, and the congregation joined in. the final chorale. Thus the unity of the service was the unity of the music; and, in the cases where all the movements of the cantata were founded on one and the same chorale-tune, this unity has never been equalled, except by those 16th-century masses and motets which are founded upon the Gregorian tones of the festival for which they are written.
In modern times the term cantata is applied almost exclusively to choral, as distinguished from solo vocal music. There has, perhaps, been only one kind of cantata since Bach which can he recognized as an art form and not as a mere title for works otherwise impossible to classify. It is just possible to recognize as a distinct artistic type that kind of early 19th-century cantata in which the chorus is the vehicle for music more lyric and songlike than the oratorio style, though at the same time not exclude ing the possibility of a brilliant climax in the shape of a light order of fugue. Ludwig van Beethoven's Glorreiche Augenblick is a brilliant pot-boiler in this style; Carl Maria von Weber's Jubel Cantata is a typical specimen, and Felix Mendelssohn's Walpurgisnacht is the classic. Mendelssohn's Symphony Cantata, the Lobgesang, is a hybrid work, partly in the oratorio style. It is preceded by three symphonic movements, a device avowedly suggested by Beethoven's ninth symphony; but the analogy is not accurate, as Beethoven's work is a symphony of which the fourth movement is a choral finale of essentially single design, whereas Mendelssohn's Symphony Cantata; is a cantata with three symphonic preludes. The full lyric possibilities of a string of choral songs were realized at last by Johannes Brahms in his Rinaldo, set to a text which Goethe wrote at the same time as he wrote that of the Walpurgisnacht. The point of Brahms's work (his only experiment in this genre) has been lost by critics who expected in so voluminous a composition the qualities of an elaborate choral music wIth which it has nothing whatever to do. Brahms has probably said the last word on this subject; and the remaining types of cantata (beginning with Beethoven's Meeres-stille, and including most of Brahms's and many notable English small choral works) are merely so many different ways of setting to choral music a poem which is just too long to be comprised in one movement.