Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Bach cantatas good for first-time Bach singers

Last week, I posed the following question:

"What, in your view, are the two or three most accessible Bach Christmas cantatas for an SATB choir which hasn't done much Bach or polyphony?
As little divisi as possible would be appreciated. Simplicity of solos is also a help, but the main thing is the choral selections. If you can include a relative duration, as well (but not necessary).

"In addition, do you know of good rehearsal CDs to facilitate individual part-learning at home for the Christmas cantatas?

"What is your favorite website for a conductor who hasn't conducted much Bach? I'm mainly a pianist but am growing as a conductor and am wanting to spread my wings, here.

I have scouted out sites to learn instrumentation, so this, I can easily find out."

Following are the replies I received, as well as, at bottom, a couple of thoughts.

Thanks to Cynthia Powell, Michael Wade, David Bohn, G. King, Pam Burns, Eric Stark, Kathryn Evans, Mark Downey, Jean Sturm, Pam Maimones, and Stephen Stomps, for all the help which has been received. These suggestions are all of great assistance! Since receiving the tip, I've been practically living on the website, and have enjoyed listening to all of the Christmas cantatas while reading the piano/vocal score at the same time, all online and for free! What a great resource!

By the way, when I wrote that I'm mainly a pianist, I've also pursued three years of private vocal lessons, have served as a professional accompanist for voice lessons and for many choral societies and groups, and have had early music instruction and sang and played the shawm in an early music ensemble at college. So, I've picked up quite a lot from these pursuits which makes me feel comfortable leading a choir through one of the simpler Bach cantatas! This is a marvelous "next step" for me. I appreciate all your help.

Cherwyn Ambuter



Maybe not one of your questions, but in my humble opinion, the BEST Bach conductor is John Eliot Gardiner. You'll find the cantatas on itunes with him and his groups. It's the cleanest, but most exciting choral singing I've ever heard.


Cantata 142 is now attributed to Kuhnau. It is brief, 12 minutes or so, and very accessible for a small, basically untrained church choir. Simple solos, easy choir movements. I have done it twice using just strings and keyboard. The closing Alleluia is probably the most useful movement and can stand alone (Bring it back for Easter.)


Not really by Bach, but by Kuhnau, his predecessor at the Thomaskirche, is the "For Us a Child is Born" aka Cantata 142. I've done that one twice with amateur church choirs with little problem -- three short choral movements, one a homophonic chorale with string accompaniment.

As far as truly- Bach cantatas, might I suggest 147, which I believe was intended for the 4th sunday of Advent. Most choirs already know two of the three choral movements, as they are what is generally known as "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring.


Absolutely the best website for Bach Cantatas is

Lots of information, free scores, discussion lists, etc. The most complete
resource on the web.


Cantata 63 (Christian, etch this day) is good, with minimal choral writing. Just first and last movement for the chorus as I recall. It contains Bach's first accompanied recitative. Unusual scoring, with trumpets and three oboes!

Cantata 191 (Gloria in excelsis) is the same music found in the Gloria of the B minor mass. A good challenge, but probably very enjoyable for your group.

Good luck!


We did "A Child is Born" a few years ago that was quite do-able for my choir of 35-40 members. It is about 25 minutes and has three solos if I recall. We used a small string ensemble and two or three winds I believe.


Look at 142 - Es ist ein kind geboren/


The Kuhnau is a really fun piece, although I'd add that you want two really crackerjack violinists for it, particularly the last movement, which is non-stop 16th notes for them. A couple of other churches I've worked for have done the last movement by itself, with me playing a reduction on organ. One of the conductors would actually nod at me to start it, letting me take my part as fast as comfortable, and then cue the choir at the appropriate time (in quarters and halves)! The choir loved it, as they could put that movement together in one rehearsal, and it always sounded impressive, with the organ flying along.

Cantata 147 is a much more substantial piece, with ten movements (three choral) and SATB soloists, and a much larger orchestra including two oboes with doubles and a trumpet. Bach's orchestration on Jesu Joy is _lovely_; the keyboard reductions really don't do the counterpoint justice, and the solo trumpet doubling the Soprano melody is a perfect touch.

I've recently purchased a CD of Arnold Brunckhorst's Christmas Story-- he was a contemporary of Kuhnau's, and apparantly a professional acquaintance of
Bach's. It's really a nice piece, but I haven't found a publisher on it. Interestingly, his other surviving choral work is an Easter Cantata.


Try Cantata 142, which many claim was not written by Bach. The number of choruses is three and none are that difficult to learn. It's a nice starter cantata.
All the best.



Many, many, years ago I picked up a small book titled "Bach Cantatas Requiring Limited Resources." It is a handy little book which lists the cantatas the author feels fit the criteria. The primary listing is in order by cantata number and includes all the relevant information including brief description of movements, instrumental forces required, and publishers. I don't know if this book is still available any where, but the pertinent info:

Bach Cantatas Requiring Limited Resources
William J. Bullock
Copyright 1984
University Press of American, Inc.
4720 Boston Way
Lanham, MD 20706
ISBN 0-8191-3863-0



In Musica database (, many chorals of Bach have a sound clip by a good choir, and a sound file of the correct pronunciation in german.
It might be helpful also to choose your cantata


A lover of Bach, especially his choral-orchestral music..

1. Start with Bach Cantata 142, which may have been composed by Johann Kuhnau, but which is definitely in the Baroque style.

2. If you and/or your choir have sung the the Gloria section from the Mass in B Minor by Bach, look at Cantata 191, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

3. from the Bach Bethlehem Web site.. the following info has been posted by Carol Trautman-Carr

The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

The so-called Christmas Oratorio is unusual for this genre. It is not a single large work, like Bach's other oratorios, but instead is really six cantatas which were performed at six different times between Christmas Day and the feast of Epiphany (traditionally, January 6). Each separate cantata uses different performing groups, emphasizing the idea that this is not one large work.

Although parts of the libretto are poetic, much of it is taken from the German translation of the Bible. Bach used portions of the Nativity story from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew in retelling the story.

The work divides as follows:

1. On the First Day of the Festival of Christmas
2. On the Second Day of the Festival of Christmas
3. On the Third Day of the Festival of Christmas
4. On New Year's Day (The Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord)
5. On the Sunday After New Year's
6. On the Feast of the Epiphany (traditionally, January 6)

1. On the First Day of the Festival of Christmas

a.. announces the birth of Christ, and reflects on the Holy Child
b.. scored for chorus; soprano, alto, tenor, and bass solos
c.. orchestra includes 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, and continuo (bassoon, cellos, string bass, and organ)
d.. there are 9 movements in this cantata
2. On the Second Day of the Festival of Christmas

a.. the angel appears to the shepherds in the field
b.. scored for chorus; soprano, alto, tenor, and bass solos
c.. orchestra includes 2 flutes, 2 oboes d'amore, 2 oboes da caccia, strings, continuo (cellos, string bass, and organ)
d.. there are 14 movements in this cantata, beginning with an orchestral piece (called "sinfonia"). This is the only cantata among the six that starts with a piece for orchestra alone.
3. On the Third Day of the Festival of Christmas

a.. the shepherds go to find Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus; the shepherds return to their fields, glorifying God
b.. scored for chorus; soprano, alto, and bass solos
c.. orchestra includes 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, continuo (cellos, string bass, and organ)
d.. there are 12 movements in this cantata
4. On New Year's Day (The Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord)

a.. takes place eight days after Jesus was born; the celebration of His circumcision and naming
b.. scored for chorus; soprano, tenor, and bass solos
c.. orchestra includes 2 corni da caccia, 2 oboes, strings, continuo (cellos, string bass, and organ)
d.. the shortest cantata of the six, it includes only 7 movements
5. On the Sunday after New Year's

a.. 3 Wise Men arrive from the East and speak to King Herod, inquiring about the Child
b.. scored for chorus; soprano, alto, and tenor solos
c.. orchestra includes 2 oboes d'amore, strings, continuo (cellos, string bass, and organ)
d.. there are 11 movements in this cantata
6. On the Feast of the Epiphany (traditionally, January 6)

a.. Herod sends the Wise Men away, asking that they return to him with information so that he too might go and worship "the King"; the Wise Men follow the star to lowly Bethlehem, and rejoice in finding the Child; they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; God warns them in a dream not to return to Herod and they return home by another route
b.. scored for chorus; soprano and tenor solos
c.. orchestra includes 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, strings, continuo (cellos, string bass, and organ)
d.. there are 11 movements in this cantata.
The Christmas Oratorio was written in 1733 and 1734 and first performed in its entirety in the Christmas season of 1734-1735. At this time, Bach was in Leipzig.


It is far better to know the score than to know how to wave. There are many books on performance practice which you should know. In these days of of historically informed performances, there are many, many good examples.
Although now considered to be by Kuhnau, Cantata 142 (Uns ist ein Kind geboren) is a very nice starting point for a young choir being introduced to Bach-ian music.

Cantata 142 is score for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, continuo, but the last time I did it was without the flutes and oboes. Because two of the choral movements are "Jesu Joy", that one is probably the easier for a church choir, but 142 is pretty easy as well.