Discover cantatas on this week's Learning to Listen

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
August 18, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — George Frederic Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, and many other composers wrote pieces called "cantatas". Johann Sebastian Bach wrote more than 200 of them.

On this week's Learning to Listen, you'll hear a cantata from the 21st century by American composer Robert Kyr.

Typically, a cantata is a vocal work, comprising soloists, a choir and a small orchestra. There are sacred cantatas, intricately woven together with a liturgical service. There are also secular cantatas.

One of Bach's most famous secular cantatas is about coffee, of all things.

Most cantatas have at least three or four separate movements, and these movements often alternate between aria, recitative and choir.

An aria is most like a song, with full accompaniment from the orchestra.

In contrast, the "recitative" sections mimic spoken language, and have very sparse accompaniment.

Arias and recitatives tend to be sung by soloists.

Composer Robert Kyr modeled his cantata after these characteristics: multiple movements that alternate between soloists singing arias and recitatives, and movements with the choir.

Because of this back-and-forth between aria, recitative and choir, cantatas can sound like opera. However, cantatas aren't staged, and singers don't wear costumes or interact. The drama comes from the music alone.

Similarly, an oratorio isn't staged and happens to sound operatic. Oratorios are dramas, and can often be on Biblical subjects; however, oratorios aren't tied to liturgy.

The program audio and playlist will be posted to this site after 1 p.m. today.

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