After ranking the complete Scarlatti sonatas and Schubert songs, you might think I’d have learned my lesson, both in time spent and in baffled—or worse—reactions received. Still, I admit when I decided to take on ranking the complete Bach Cantatas, I was a little naive about the time commitment required. With fairly regular listening, this took me 15 months. The Ton Koopman survey with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, which I used for this ranking, weighs in at 1,518 tracks, or 73 hours and 30 minutes of music. I welcome criticism of my takes, though you should really listen to everything as well before you do so. You can find the playlist here. (The only pieces I skipped here were Bach’s masses and the odd work by son Wilhelm Friedemann, clearly included to fill out CDs at the end of the cycle.)

In his book Letters to a Young Pianist, violinist Gidon Kremer writes, “You never feel lonely with Bach.” The reality is a little more complicated. There are cantatas here that can increase your loneliness, as if you’re in a religious service where you don’t know the songs, the texts, the language, when to rise and when to sit. There are others that offer powerful solace and capture the appeal of Bach’s Christianity, even for a secular Jew like me. (There are also the secular cantatas, which, well: You’ll see.) Maybe more than any composer, Bach’s music is associated with the sublime, spiritual, abstract, and transcendental. And yet, this oeuvre is deeply human. He rushes, sucks up to the powerful, generates boilerplate fugues—then writes some of the most beautiful music ever to move air molecules. It’s every Bach Cantata, ranked.

The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

The Weak Sauce

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 38: Simple to the point of boredom—it sometimes feels like Bach is killing compositional time here. The vocal trio “Wenn meine Trübsal als mit Ketten,” which you’d expect to be mind-blowing, is kind of fine. 

Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191: A bit like salon music, without a strong sense of dramaturgy. 

Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzen BWV 145: Everything feels so regular, so on the beat. 

O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht BWV 118: So stately it’s almost sedate. 

Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde BWV 83: Standard-issue, mass-produced freude (joy). Feels half-hearted. 

Nun danket alle Gott BWV 192: The eponymous first movement contains beautiful contrasts. The other two movements are happy in the same, uninteresting way. That’s what Tolstoy said, right?  

Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen BWV 123: The tenor aria, “Auch die harte Kreuzesreise,” combines vocal pathos with a subdued accompaniment, which works well. The rest is bland. 

Der Herr denket an uns BWV 196: Placid happiness. There’s a thin line in some cantatas between weakness of spirit and weakness of sauce. This cantata has some passion in the more soloistic vocal sections, but it’s still weak sauce.  

Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret BWV 31: Blandly triumphant music with a few flashes of brilliance: a powerful inward turn in the middle of the second movement, the chorus, and pretty interlocking lines in the soprano aria. Still not especially memorable. 

Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt BWV 112: Oboe to represent the shepherd? Creative. Still, the music is mild, pleasant, and rather satisfying. 

Nun komm, der Heide Heiland BWV 61: Striking use of agonized dotted rhythms in the choral overture. Has some interesting moments, but a little well-behaved. 

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam BWV 7: In the first movement: the wonderful sense of an old, dark forest whose foliage admits a little bit of light in the daytime. Followed by: a gruelish bass aria, an overly ornamented tenor aria, and a very nice alto aria. The whole cantata feels under-orchestrated. 

Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV 180: Elegance and poise which, without much contrast, start to inch into the well-behaved and boring. 

Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen BWV 65: The Three Wise Men are announced with the glorious sound of natural horns. The whole cantata has a mild subtlety that works as a musical interpretation of wisdom. Still, not gripping throughout. 

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe BWV 185: A more sophisticated brand of placidity and meekness, with a certain calm conviction. May not leave the longest lasting impression. 

The Long Sunday in Church

Christum wir sollen loben schon BWV 121: Unremarkable music in the sad-spiritual vein. Really, really long. 

Gott ist unsre Zuversicht BWV 197: A lot of competent but unremarkable music.

Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge BWV 120A: A lot of cantata. Too much cantata. 

Wer dankt opfert, der preiset mich BWV 17: Few highs and lows; a little dull. 

Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn BWV 1127: Like the redundant title, listening to this cantata feels like flying in a holding pattern. Keeps sounding like it’s over, then starting up again. 

Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht BWV 52: Repetitive. In the third movement, I’m sick of the word immerhin (“anyway”)… anyway, I like the penultimate movement and the use of brass in the final chorale. 

Freue dich, erlöste Schar BWV 30: Has some exciting, dance-like moments which summon the feeling of being a kid who can’t wait to get out of church and go play all the more. 

Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BWV 143: Has many short movements and a lot of contrast. Individually, though, the most striking movement is the fifth, with its trumpet echoes and trills. Overall, not quite worth it for that one dope minute and a half. 

Was frag ich nach der Welt BWV 94: Not a ton to grab the ear here until the transparent, pretty alto aria “Betörte Welt.” Then it reverts back to boring. 

Angenehmes Wiederau, freue dich in deinen Augen BWV30a: This one is very similar to BWV 30. It’s a nice melody and I get why he reused it. But the individual movements get repetitive. 

Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! BWV 86: Unnecessarily palindromic title. Has some really nice movements—an alto aria accompanied by what sounds like the fast movement from a violin partita, an exciting chorus with trumpets, an almost minimalist penultimate movement (“Seligster Erquickungstag”)—but is super long. 

Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? BWV 8: Never transcends pleasantness. 

Ich habe meine Zuversicht BWV 188: Opens with an exciting instrumental Sinfonia, with an organ that recalls the Toccata in D Minor. This music seems to have a sense of humor. Many of the movements that follow feel longer than necessary. 

Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte BWV 174: Another exciting first movement without voices, followed by a lot of more average stuff. 

Mach dich, mein Geist, bereit BWV 115: Has two beautiful alto arias, but not much of a dramaturgical throughline. Long.  

Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 177: The first movement thoroughly earns its seven minutes. Then: beautiful music, but so much of it. 

Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest BWV 194: Good, warm, engaging, stately music, but too much of it jammed into one cantata. 

The Please Me Secularly

Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelte gelinde BWV 206: How dare King August III of Poland waste Bach’s time making him write ornamental music for tenor about how great a king he is. 

Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214: Epic timpanis, less epic trumpets. Tedious, blatant sucking up. It’s interesting that the church cantatas, while also necessary for Bach’s survival, are so much more heartfelt—as if he felt only God was his legitimate king. 

Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten BWV 207a: An amazing weird tenor recitative, “Die stille Pleiße spielt.” Besides that, more sucking up. 

O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit BWV 210: Feels endless. At least the aria “Schweigt ihr Flöten” for soprano and (duh) solo flute is pretty. 

Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg BWV 149: Not a secular cantata, but has the vibe of a secular cantata.

Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnde Winde BWV 201: According to Wikipedia, this cantata has its origins in an aesthetic disagreement between Bach and a composer named Johann Adolf Scheibe. It’s rare for centuries-old satire to land, and this is rather boring—though the third movement, “Patron, das macht der Wind,” at least has what sounds like a fart joke. 

Preise dein Glücke gesegnetes Sachsen BWV 215: More sucking up, but the recitative “Ja, ja! Gott ist uns mit seiner Hülfe nah” has wonderful flute arpeggios and the aria that follows, “Durch die von Eifer entflammeten Waffen,” has an airy prettiness. I’m still relieved when it’s over. 

Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd BWV 208: Some cheesy music, some very beautiful music, and a lasting impression of dramaturgical confusion. 

Non sa che sia dolore BWV 209: Often pretty, but long and rarely engrossing. 

Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft BWV 205: Pleasant without being mind-blowing. Baroque music and ancient Greek subject matter isn’t a combination to keep you on the edge of your seat.  

Wo soll ich fliehen hin BWV 5: Has a nice choral opening and an enjoyably folksy tenor aria—an idiom not usually associated with Bach. A drag after that. 

Konzertsatz in D – Sinfonia from a lost cantata: One genuinely misleading fake ending that is really cool. 

Ich bin in mir vergnügt BWV 204: The Baroque equivalent of “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Unfortunately, someone else’s self-satisfaction is not the most exciting emotion, and the music mostly just alright. 

Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht BWV 211 (“Coffee Cantata”): Maybe the only laugh-out-loud moment in all the cantatas when the soprano, in her elegant aria “Ei! wie schmeckt der Kaffee süß,” sings, “I have to have my coffee.” A little long for its gimmicky nature. 

Hochzeitsquodlibet BWV 524: Cheesy in a sort of amazing way, like a medieval fair in Texas. Barely sounds like Bach. 

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten BWV 202: An opening of stunning simplicity, a prophecy of Philip Glass. The rest, though not bad, is standard. 

Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen BWV 213: Probably the best of the secular cantatas, with a nice pedal point at the beginning, some beautiful arched melodic lines, and the lullaby of the aria “Schlafe, mein Liebster,” for soprano. Also a striking echo effect in the fifth movement, “Treues Echo dieser Orten.” 

The Too Many Notes

Amore traditore BWV 203: Such a limited, repetitive text. Bach so rarely falls into the kind of empty virtuosity common in with minor Baroque composers, but he does so here. 

Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht BWV 134A: Why does the German verb jauchzen—to rejoice—so often signal boring happy music, from this to Wagner’s “Siegfried”? Despite one nice aria, this is long and overly ornamental: a slog and a dud. 

Geist und Seele wird verwirret BWV 35: Heckuva lot of organ figuration, Brownie. This one somehow has both too much and too little going on at once. By the end of this one, my Geist (soul) and my Seele (soul—I’m listening to Bach, not translating philosophy, OK?) are definitely verwirret (confused).

Gott soll allein mein Herze haben BWV 169: More intrusive organ figuration throughout most of the cantata, but a beautiful, restrained second aria—“Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe” for alto—rescues it from the abyss. 

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 62: An exciting opening, with real momentum in its counterpoint, gives way to a truckload of tedious ornamentation. The bass nags me to “Sei geschäftig” (“Be hardworking”). Thanks, but I’ll pass. The cantata has a pretty double recitative, “Wir ehren diese Herrlichkeit,” but it’s not enough to elevate this one. 

Selig ist der Mann BWV 57: Beautiful introduction of the word selig, or “blessed,” from nothing. (Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” anyone?) But I get lost in the repetitive, pointlessly ornamented phrase, “Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen” (“Yes, yes, I can beat the enemy”), and can’t find my way back to concentrated listening. 

Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß BWV 134: The first aria has a nice interplay of moods, hindered by a slightly annoying ending. A bit too long and a bit too much going on. 

Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV 51: Jauchzen music, but better. A good mix of introspection and virtuosity. Could shave off a minute and a half from the “Hallelujah”—I wouldn’t miss it. 

Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille BWV 120: Compact, discrete music accompanies the opening wonderfully. The following movement, “Jauchzet, ihr erfreuten Stimmen,” is too triumphant, too note-y, too long. Effective, well-calibrated sequences in the second aria. 

The Judgy 

Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende BWV 90: I saw someone in the park the other day wearing a T-shirt that said “Hell was boring,” which seemed tailor-made for this cantata.  

Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106: Includes an unsettlingly cheerful repetition of the phrase “Denn du wirst sterben” (“Because you will die”) in the arioso of the second movement, accompanied by a recorder. Not captivating, but also not too long. 

Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedrigt werden BWV 47: Judgy text, forgettable music. For some reason, has a beautiful appendix movement. 

Ein ungefärbt Gemüte BWV 24: Talk of hypocrisy blended with opening that’s a little, well, Telemann. Not bad, but not especially memorable. 

Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 55: The calm, pleasant music belies the finger-wagging title, which urges me to resist sin. It’s not extremely striking, but also not too youth-pastor-ish. 

Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister BWV 181: Another judgy title with music that is surprisingly fun to listen to. The opening bass aria has some real rhythmic bite. 

Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz BWV 136: This kind of title, which translates to “Search me, God, and know my heart,” always makes me think of that Onion article by Santa Claus: “Ho, Ho, Ho! I Saw You Masturbating!” Still, this cantata includes unusual and striking upward scales in the first movement, and the tenor and bass duet has real momentum. It’s also short and never drags. 

Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden BWV 88: The words “Fürchte dich nicht,” or “don’t be afraid,” lose a little bit of their consoling power when put through the Baroque ornamentation ringer. Also, there’s just something silly about ornamental repetitions of the word “ja.” But there’s some wonderful music in the first movement.  

Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält BWV 178: OK, the talk of “them” thirsting after the blood of Christians is a little creepy. But genuinely exciting, musically.  

Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei BWV 179: If I must be lectured about the sincerity of my religious beliefs, it should always be accompanied by this exciting, creepy music. It turns being judged into a pleasurable sensation. Includes an unbelievably great aria, “Liebster Gott, erbarme dich,” for soprano and two oboes, with suspensions you could bathe in. 

Block That Instrument! 

Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn BWV 96: Imagine you could hear a dog whistle. Then imagine that dog whistle could play Baroque arpeggios. 

Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172: Opens with music that evokes the rays of heaven from a religious painting, contrasted with a more earthy atmosphere in the tenor aria, “O Seelenparadies.” The soprano-alto duet is pretty, but contains possibly the most annoying recorder ever constructed. 

Ihr werdet weinen und heulen BWV 103: Yes, we’ll cry and moan, but once again, the dog-whistle-pitched recorder will probably play a role in that. A good cantata, just block that recorder! 

Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal BWV 146: Too much of a good thing (organ showcase). 

Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen BWV 49: The first movement has some noodly organ writing that reminds me of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Organ Concerto. After that it gets quite pretty. 

Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein BWV 128: Featuring exciting trumpet gymnastics. 

Ein fester Burg ist unser Gott BWV 80: Whatever is making that bonkers sound in Ton Koopman’s version of this first movement—I’ll have another one of those. 

The Uneven

Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen BWV 43: Wonderful winding motion in the fifth and ninth arias—two highlights in something of a dud. 

Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen BWV 66: The first movement is eight minutes long, and is basically a mediocre A section, a fabulous B section, then a mediocre A section again. In “Ich furchte zwar nicht des Grabes Finsternisse,” there’s a pretty alternating motive between the alto and the tenor. But it’s still often slow going. 

Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 33: A good cantata with a long, plunky, almost minimalist (and not in a good way) alto aria in the middle. 

Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz BWV 138: Beautiful call-and-response between an alto and the choir. Fidgety bass aria. 

Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir BWV 29: Decent Sinfonia, amazing chorale movement, boring Hallelujah (no match for Handel’s “Messiah”), pretty aria… 

Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147: Weirdly, the recitatives stand out more than the arias, especially the oboes of “Der höchsten Allmacht Wunderhand.” 

Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben BWV 109: Has both some extremely juicy counterpoint and a fair amount of filler. 

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV 60: The second movement, the recitative “O schwerer Gang zum letzten Kampf und Streite!—Mein Beistand ist schon da,” has a brief but arresting lament line—this cantata’s only flash of brilliance. 

Jesu, nun sei gepreiset BWV 41: Fantastic texture at the opening; a tenor aria with pretty material, but that never seems to go anywhere. 

Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut BWV 113: By turns very beautiful and way over the top in its ornamentation. 

Christen, ätzet diesen Tag BWV 63: This cantata only shines in its duets, especially the third movement, “Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget,” which is a drop-dead gorgeous aria for soprano and bass. 

Schwingt freudig euch empor BWV 36: “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” is a gorgeous duet for soprano and alto, and in the following tenor aria, the voice and the oboe seem to become one. Slackens somewhat in Part II. 

Dem Gerechten muß das Licht BWV 195: Mixed, with a very cool first movement of exciting contrasts and gripping complexity. 

Ich freue mich in dir BWV 133: Lots of basic “Yay, Jesus” sentiments, with a wonderful, long soprano aria in the middle of the cantata that is full of pathos. 

Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen BWV 175: Begins with a 20-second introductory recitative that is both formally interesting and manages to prepare the following aria perfectly. The aria itself has wonderful elegiac flute writing. A little weaker from there—half fantastic.  

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen BWV 182: After the first two movements, the fizziness of this cantata gets a little flat, like champagne that’s been in the fridge too long. The second-to-last movement (a chorus) is striking. 

Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe BWV 108: Two wonderful arias whose magic outshines the mediocre stuff in between. 

Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV 150: Absolutely stunning in the minor key movements, more interchangeable in the major key movements. Loses momentum at times, but has a great ending. 

Ach, ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe BWV 162: Starts off weak, but recovers strongly with tactile accompaniment in the soprano aria, “Jesu, Brunnquell aller Gnaden,” and a very sensual duet for alto and tenor, “In meinem Gott bin ich erfreut.” 

Herr Gott, dich loben wir BWV 16: Thrilling—but never pompous—choral introduction. Big vibe shift to a beautiful-but-long tenor aria. The last aria, “Geliebter Jesu, du allein,” has an intimate quality, but is again very long.

Unser Mund sei voll Lachens BWV 110: Exciting counterpoint in the opening chorus and wonderful blend between the tenor and the recorder in the second movement. Another beautiful—though less unusual—blend between alto and oboe in “Ach Herr! Was ist ein Menschenkind.” The final aria for tenor is unspectacular.  

Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut BWV 199: Opens with an epically aching recitative that fits with the melodramatic title (“My Heart Swims in Blood”). The following aria gives a fitting sense of release after that intensity. A lot of wonderful sounds here, but long, and the final movement is incongruously cheerful. 

Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen BWV 81: An heartrending aria built out of a simple three-note motive, like Beethoven. The next aria is triumphant but never banal. The rest doesn’t quite live up to these outstanding movements. 

The Too Short

Was willst du dich betrüben BWV 107: Feels slapdash, even incomplete. 

Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes BWV 40: Short and slight, but the aria “Höllische Schlange” makes the dragon from hell sound kind of adorable.  

Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind BWV 153: The first three movements pass in the blink of an eye; feels disconcertingly like miniatures. The arias especially don’t feel long enough to really get into. Then again, it’s not the most memorable music. 

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan BWV 98: Music full of calm motion, not the best final aria. Almost too short. 

Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft BWV 50: A vivacious fugue that leaves me excited to hear where a full cantata with this material could have gone. 

Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten BWV 59: Opens with a vision of heaven that feels attainable. The soprano recitative that follows is so beautiful it should have been an aria. Leaves me wanting more. 

Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt BWV 68: Full of elegance music. Short—almost too short—but excellent. 

Bekennen will ich seinen Namen BWV 200: Just an aria, but an extraordinarily beautiful one.

The Average 

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig BWV 26: The second movement is definitely nichtig (meaningless), but I’m not sure about flüchtig (fleeting). Forgettable, which seems like it might be the point. 

Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 116: Average music throughout. 

Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens BWV 148: Starts off almost like a secular cantata—shudder—but gets better, though never better than pleasant, from there. 

Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats BWV 42: Boring first movement. The alto aria, “Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind,” is good, but would have been better at five rather than nine minutes. Nice counterpoint in “Verzage nicht, o Häuflein klein.” 

Der Friede sei mit dir BWV 158: Pretty, but doesn’t stand out. 

Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim? BWV 89: A little heavy on the ornamentation of single words, but has a nice closing chorale. 

Gottlob! Nun geht das Jahr zu Ende BWV 28: Busy counterpoint without much forward momentum. A very nice duet aria, “Gott hat uns im heurigen Jahre gesegnet.” 

Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe BWV 22: The first movement has mildly inelegant vocal writing—very unusual for Bach. He recovers his vocal mojo, but there’s nothing spectacular here. 

Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn BWV 157: Remains on the spectrum of forgettability. 

Jesu, der du meine Seele BWV 78: Mostly competent and forgettable, with a great final chorale. 

Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch was gut ist BWV 45: Nothing earth-shattering here. 

Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BWV 91: Largely forgettable with good momentum in the opening and a pretty soprano-alto duet.

Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben BWV 102: Opens with torrential counterpoint. After that, good but not unbelievable. 

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV 20: Not as epic as the title might suggest. Has about four too many movements, but is also never bad. 

Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen BWV 87: Has a long central aria that’s quite beautiful but pretty much stays in its lane. Not bad; not captivating. 

Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten BWV 93: A promising, unusual introduction, followed by average music. Bach’s vocal duos are often beautiful, but not so much here. A little disappointing.

Ihr Tore zu Zion BWV 193: A few movements of unambiguous, boring triumph, with two arias that are each nice in a similar way. The second does have some fantastic oboe writing, though. 

Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut BWV 173: Good in a mostly conventional way. The middle section of the aria “So hat Gott die Welt geliebt,” intertwining soprano and recorders, makes you sit up straight in your chair. 

Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild BWV 79: The way the choir enters in the first movement is miraculously organic and surprising at the same time. Luckily not an overly martial cantata, despite the title, but besides that moment it’s average.  

O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad BWV 165: Opens with folksy strings I wish were even more prominent. A hectoring recitative followed by a pretty aria. After that, it’s enjoyable, but not especially memorable. 

In allen meinen Taten BWV 97: Lots of transparent music here, but that’s true of so many of the cantatas.

Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ BWV 67: An ambivalent first movement, with beautiful descending vocal lines but busywork in the orchestra. The first aria, “Mein Jesus ist erstanden,” could be by Telemann. But the second aria has wonderful contrasts and a great pedal point in the voice near the end.

Wer da gläubet und getauft wird BWV 37: A warm bath of a choral opening. The aria after doesn’t quite earn its five minutes and 21 seconds, though the solo violin is a nice touch. Fine, but nowhere close to transcendence.

Es erhub sich ein Streit BWV 19: No lube of a slow introduction—we’re rawdogged right into ornamental counterpoint. At first, it was a little intense, but then it got pretty exciting. The tenor aria in this one is beautiful, but I’d probably enjoy it more if it was any other voice type. 

Du sollst Gott, deinen Herren, lieben BWV 77: The aria “Ich liebe dich vom ganzen Herzen” (dich being God) is surprisingly sensual. Then a weird aria for trumpet and alto. Not the best, but also not as interchangeable as many other cantatas in this category. 

Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe BWV 144: I love the accompaniment for the alto in “Murre nicht, lieber Christ,” with its murmuring strings. Overall, it feels somewhat short and slight.  

Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit BWV 111: In the first movement, motivic unity reminiscent of Beethoven. Good recitatives throughout, but the alto-tenor duet is a letdown. 

Gleichwie der Schnee und Regen vom Himmel fällt BWV 18: The fast, rhythmic opening is exciting, with a great unison motive. We alternate between Jesus’s agony on the cross and the peace he brings, but the cantata doesn’t have the strongest dramaturgical thread. 

The Pleasant Sunday in Church

Nur Jedem das Seine BWV 163: It’s hard not to think of Buchenwald with this title, but the music is very pleasurable. 

Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht BWV 124: Mildly ungainly oboe in the first movement and a thin duet for soprano and alto, but the tenor aria, “Und wenn der harte Todesschlag,” is gorgeous. 

O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe BWV 34: The busy, triumphant opening has definite excitement value, and the main aria, “Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen” for alto, is truly consoling—the highlight of the cantata. 

Es ist das Heil uns kommen her BWV 9: Has a tenor aria that sounds like it belongs sung in a Venetian gondola, not a church. An aria-forward cantata. 

Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott BWV 139: Pretty and fine: overall, pretty fine. I especially like the bucolic tenor aria.  

Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn BWV 132: A really nice one (not meant in a damning-with-faint-praise way).

Wo gehest du hin? BWV 166: “Ich bitte dich, Herr Jesu Christ,” the third movement, is stunning—something about the simplicity of the vocal part mixed with the more agitated strings. The rest has a bit of a low-expectation happiness to it. 

Erhalt uns Herr bei deinem Wort BWV 126: Flipping the usual dynamic, the recitatives and choruses are better than the arias in this cantata. 

Es wartet alles auf dich BWV 187: Notable more for the interest of its instrumental interjections than for its vocal writing; the accompaniment feels more alive than in many other cantatas. 

Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem BWV 159: Pretty and melodic, though not the most gripping piece. Has a stunning finale chorale. 

Meine Seel erhebt den Herren BWV 10: The soprano aria “Wie wunderbar” is platitudinous, but this one grows on me as it progresses. 

Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm BWV 171: In the first aria, “Herr, so weit die Wolken gehn,” the tenor feels like a third wheel to the two violins. When it’s just one violin with soprano in the second aria, it works better; the aria also has some gorgeous melodic figures. In the penultimate movement, “Und da du, Herr, gesagt,” there is a badass, startling wind entrance that’s the coolest single moment in the cantata. 

Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit BWV 14: Ominous counterpoint in the opening; I didn’t know that was a thing. Exciting, treacherous horn music in the second movement, “Unsre Stärke heißt zu schwach,” followed later by a speedy yet elegant final aria. 

Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten BWV 74: The opening is triumphant, but balanced (not in the pompous, secular cantata style). Beautiful, winding soprano aria. 

Alles nur nach Gottes Willen BWV 72: The first two movements are breathless and exciting—the kind of pieces you can’t help but conduct along to. More familiar afterward. 

Das neugeborene Kindelein BWV 122: A lilting first movement, a transparent aria with cello, continuo and bass, and a beautiful terzetto add up to an above average cantata.  

Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort BWV 168: Ominous, beautiful, compact and restrained (though some weird use of accounting language to discuss sin).  

Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding BWV 176: Exciting opening and a palpable sense of dialogue between alto and oboes in the aria “Ermuntert euch, furchtsam und schüchterne Sinne.” Extremely short. 

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern BWV 1: A soprano aria, “Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen,” whose ornamentation is mindbogglingly elegant. A little long, but very good. 

Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut BWV 117: You gotta love a choir trilling together. 

Brich dem hungrigen dein Brot BWV 39: Has an interesting, disjunct quality, with an especially striking pastoral introduction; a wonderful dialogue between violin and oboe in the third movement, the aria “Seinem Schöpfer noch auf Erden”; and a stunning soprano aria, accompanied with recorder. These movements elevate the work above the average.  

Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes BWV 76: The opening has clear motivic unity, based on a simple sequence of descending thirds; it’s celebratory but always refined. The eighth movement, a sinfonia for oboe, gamba, and basso continuo, is a highlight. 

Corus Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen BWV 11: The first aria “Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” is very similar to the “Agnus Dei” from the B Minor Mass. That’s a good thing. And it’s longer than in the Mass, which is an even better thing. The second aria, “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke,” situates the soprano voice among a density of woodwinds, evoking a joyfully crowded heaven.  

Sie werden euch in den Bann tun BWV 44: Dives right into intricate, exciting minor-key music. Full of drama, satisfying. 

Herr, wie du Willt, so schicks mit mir BWV 73: Also dives right into it. “Herr so du willt,” the bass aria, is utterly gorgeous, morphing into a sort of folk song halfway through. 

Mein Seufzer, meine Tränen BWV 13: Many moving details in the music, though maybe just the tiniest bit too long. 

Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe BWV 167: Excellent opening movements and real attention to detail. Also fairly short. 

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan III BWV 100: It’s funny to hear the repetitions of the word geduld—“patience”—in the first duo aria, “Er wird mich nicht betrügen.” The second has the effect of illustrating an internal monologue. Even the less spectacular bass aria has surprising harmonic motion and genuine restraint.

Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott BWV 129: The triumph of the first movement is judiciously tempered by lyricism. Two beautiful arias: the first just for voice and harpsichord, the second with a lot of notes, but never in a banal or obnoxious way. 

Lobe den Herrn, den mächtigen König der Ehren BWV 137: Sophisticated, joyful counterpoint throughout the cantata; never academic, pompous or complex for complexity’s sake. 

Sie werden euch in den Bann tun BWV 183: A threatening, scary opening, followed by the tenor’s agonized response in his aria. The recitative that follows the aria is stunning—48 gripping seconds. Beautiful.

Erwünschtes Freudenlicht BWV 184: The recitative at the beginning, “Erwünschtes Freudenlicht,” is heavenly: one of the best recitatives by anyone, in any context, that I’ve ever heard. The rest of the cantata is good too, though that recitative is definitely the most memorable section.

Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht BWV 105: Large swathes of this cantata are at the level of a masterpiece. I could do without the tenor aria “Kann ich nur Jesum mir zum Freunde machen.” 

The Yearning and the Longing

Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden BWV 6: A slow opening with music of aching beauty that never becomes melodramatic, followed by a fugue enlivened by an excellent subject. In this one, busy chordal accompaniments add to the eloquence of the melodies.

Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei BWV 46: Unbelievably beautiful opening, full of weltschmerz (duh). That, and the alto aria “Doch Jesus will auch bei der Strafe” are the highlights.

Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott BWV 127: Recorders are actually very well suited to music of yearning—the soprano aria “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen” has them marking time with an oboe, which is a strange and beautiful idea. 

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 190: Strong recitatives and an atmosphere of earned joy. The tenor-bass duet “Jesu soll mein alles sein” underscores the quasi-homoerotic relationships between the disciples. 

Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust BWV 170: The most stunning, simple, beautiful sequences, full of longing: 

Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke BWV 84: Some of the best yearning oboe of the cantatas; that’s a competitive category. Short and to the point. 

Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen BWV 48: Pretty self pity. Includes a fabulous trumpet countermelody to the main line of the choir in the first movement, arising out of nothing. 

Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12: Wonderful aching music, with a striking echo effect in the second movement, a chorus, and a fantastic blend of tenor and bassoon in “Sei getreu, alle Pein.” Mild “stalker for Jesus” vibe.

Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4: A heartbreaking Sinfonia, followed by a rich, elegant, not-at-all-academic fugue. The Hallelujah coda that follows it is a little silly, but the soprano-alto duet, “Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt,” is sublimely erotic. A pervasive feeling of melancholy elevates this whole cantata to a rich emotional plane. Even the appendix is great.

The Powerfully Consoling

Komm, du süße Todesstunde BWV 161: Less “death is sweet” than “death is totally chill (if you’re a believer).” 

Ach, liebe Christen, seid getrost BWV 114: Not the most unique choral opening, but a cantata full of transparent, striking music—especially the second choral movement, “Kein Frucht, das Weizenkörnlein bringt,” which uses only female voices.

Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BWV 69: The opening choral fugue is more impressive than enjoyable. But the rest is warm, consoling, and emotionally accessible. 

Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder BWV 135: Absolutely fantastic, desolate choral introduction. The tenor aria “Tröste mir, Jesu, meine Gemüte” is more optimistic yet still consoling, and the phrase “In dem Tod ist alles stille” is so well set. The bass aria “Weicht, all ihr Übeltäter” is just slightly aggressive. 

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan BWV 99: Full of gorgeous arias, especially “Verzagte Seele,” in which the tenor is accompanied by a hysterical flute that conveys his worries. Just the right length.

Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget BWV 64: This cantata makes me feel like a sheep under the direction of a kind and thoughtful shepherd. 

Du Hirte Israel, höre BWV 104: Conveys the warm, enveloping knowledge that you are taken care of.

Ich bin ein guter Hirt BWV 85: Full of mild, gentle, modest beauty, and even conveys a sense of the world-weariness that comes along with being the savior of mankind. 

Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis BWV 21: Pervasive, melancholy solace. 

Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht BWV 55: Windswept, pretty, and brief, like a walk on the beach in the winter. 

Christus, der ist mein Leben BWV 95: The first 45 seconds of this show unbeatable Bach is at using suspensions. Full of sweet pain. The long tenor aria, “Ach, schlage doch bald,” has a wonderfully unusual, mannered, even clipped style. 

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin BWV 125: Profound peace, even in suffering. At its most beautiful in the first two movements, with the rest as support structure.

Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen BWV 56: In the eponymous first aria, the bass is almost covered by the instruments, but still comes through, as if bent over by the weight of carrying the cross, but still managing to walk. Full of unusual beauty. 

Ich habe genug BWV 82: Opens with one of the most beautiful arias in all the cantatas. Full of touching restraint and simplicity. 

Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe BWV 156: So much solace and compassion here, from the plaintive opening to the faster parts, which retain those qualities and never become trivial. 

Die Elenden sollen essen BWV 75: Starts as if the music has been happening already for an eternity. Wonderful calls and responses between the shepherd and his flock. The tenor aria “Mein Jesus soll mein alles sein” is proof of Bach’s mastery at writing music that has at once rhythmic momentum and profound peace. This music is a better illustration of the concept of grace than hundreds of theological texts. 

Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende BWV 27: Music so good it would seem to legitimately help against despair. 

The “I Believe in God Now”

Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir BWV 130: A happy cantata elevated by hints of melancholy and a sort of hard-to-place rawness. 

Süßer Trost, mein Jesu kommt BWV 151: Ranges from calm and tender to agile and delicate, but gorgeous throughout. I find myself grateful for a simple A-B-A form, because it lets me hear some incredible music once again. 

Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht BWV 186: Full of subtle beauty, and retains stylistic unity throughout its varied movements. Some cantatas have spectacular individual arias; this one works so well as a whole. 

Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein BWV 2: The chromatic introduction is unsettling and wonderful; the alto aria is folksy and striking; the tenor aria “Durchs Feuer wird das Silber rein” has a perfect geometry. The length is perfect, too. 

Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen BWV 32: One of the most wonderful starts: a soprano enters with an entrancing melodic line—one excellent detail in a cantata with many subtle wonders. 

Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet BWV 164: Beautiful arias; the kind of cantata where you leave church resolved to become a better person.

Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir BWV 131: The words “Aus der Tiefe” (“from the deep”) are set in an arching phrase, which is a beautiful idea. How can anyone make a fugue sound so delicate and light? 

Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid BWV 3: Austere beauty balanced by the sensuality of “Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen,” the duet for soprano and alto. 

Gott ist mein König BWV 71: Contrasting and utterly appropriate music for the worlds of angels and humans. Shows that even as God rules over heaven, he still has ears for an individual’s suffering.

Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren BWV 154: Memorable music with stark contrasts; a plausible dramaturgy of a believer who is lost then found, crowned by a joyous, sensual duet. 

Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn BWV 119: Has an unusual amount of fabulous timbral combinations. The happy music feels earned, and I like that it doesn’t end with a bang, since the temptation was there in the form of an excellent ending for “Der Herr hat Guts an uns getan.”

Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott BWV 101: A tangible ache for God, hands grasping for heaven. Real beauty in humility.

Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid BWV 58: Full of intricate dialogues between soloists and choir, including a moment of literal preaching to the choir. Subtly and beautifully composed.

Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn BWV 152: Crazy, archaic, and funereal opening. The whole cantata is shot through with a strange expressivity and a dark hue. 

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 140: Music for, and as beautiful as, Lorenzetti Ambrogio’s 1344 “The Annunciation”: 

Laß Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl BWV 198: Too many great moments to summarize, so just one: The flute lines in the tenor aria “Der Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus” are more gorgeous as the jewels they describe. It’s the kind of music only Bach could have written. A masterpiece.

Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange BWV 155: Wonderful in all its facets, with a plausible, earned development from the agony of the first movements to the calm celebration of the soprano aria “Wirf, mein Herze, wirf dich noch.” Joy that is more powerful because it stays contained. 

Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn BWV 23: The first aria of this is probably the most incomparably beautiful aria in an oeuvre with an extreme number of beautiful arias. Gorgeous, complex counterpoint. A masterpiece that rends your heart before offering what just might be eternal consolation. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...