The most important genre of vocal chamber music in the Baroque period; the principal musical constituent of the Lutheran service. Since the late 18th century the term has been applied to a wide variety of works, sacred and secular, mostly for chorus and orchestra, from Beethoven's cantatas on the death and succession of emperors to the patriotic Soviet cantatas of Shostakovich.
In Italy the word 'cantata', first used for strophic variations in the "Cantade et arie" of Alessandro Grandi, soon came to be applied to pieces alternating recitative, arioso and aria-like sections. From circa 1650 this was the usual pattern, but the main cantata writers of the early 17th century, Luigi Rossi and Marazzoli, preferred the "arietta corte", a single aria with changes of meter. Both these composers worked in Rome, the chief centre for the cantata in the 17th century, where Carissimi, one of the form's first great masters, was also active. In the early cantatas of his pupil, Alessandro Scarlatti, and those of Stradella and Steffani, the distinction between recitative and aria is clear and the number of sections usually smaller. By the end of the century historical, classical and humorous subjects were almost entirely swamped by Arcadian verses describing amatory feelings in a pastoral setting. The cantata spirituale set a sacred text in the vernacular.
In Scarlatti's cantatas after circa 1700, the structure is standardized as two or three da capo arias separated by recitative. Most are for soprano and continuo. This type was cultivated by other Italians, including Bassani, G. Bononcini, Vivaldi and B. Marcello, and by Handel during his Italian visit (1705/6-10). Many of Handel's cantatas, however, are distinguished from the Italians' in tonal structure and dramatic power. The later development of the Italian cantata was largely in the hands of such Neapolitan opera composers as Leo, Vinci and Pergolesi, in whose works full string accompaniment becomes the norm.
In Germany, the Kantate was primarily a sacred genre, though the term itself was not generally used during the Baroque period. A step towards the cantata as a multi-sectional form was taken in psalm compositions by Tunder, Buxtehude and others, whose chorale settings are akin to true cantatas since they use a closed form for each stanza. But it was the mixing of texts, especially biblical and poetic texts in what has been called the 'concerto-aria' cantata, that decisively established the German form.
Some of Bach's cantatas are retrospective in their use of a plain chorale text, but most show the effects of Neumeister's reforms of circa 1700, with recitative and da capo aria dominant constituents. Cantatas were composed in high numbers - Telemann and Graupner both wrote well over 1000 - and usually grouped into annual cycles. Bach's are atypical in their quality and their diversity. In the hands of lesser composers the genre became increasingly standardized, and in the later 18th century the petrifying of structures and the allegorical texts made it seem outmoded and fossilized.
Secular cantatas in German and Italian were composed by Keiser, Telemann, Bach and others, but this type was never cultivated to the extent it was in Italy.
In France and England the secular cantata was essentially an 18th-century genre, emulating the Italian type. J.B. Morin is credited with introducing the French cantate in his first book (1706). It set the pattern for French cantatas of the next two decades, with three arias, each introduced by recitative; mythological and amatory texts were favoured. Of later cantatas Clérambault's are among the finest. Rameau also wrote cantatas before 1733, after which the genre declined in favour of the new, shorter Rococo "cantatille".
The English cantata arose largely from a desire on the part of 18th-century poets and composers to demonstrate the suitability of their language to Italianate recitative and aria styles. J.C. Pepusch claimed his Six English Cantatas (1710) as the first of their kind; his two sets are among the best. After 1740, the Italianate structure was relaxed and the English penchant for light, agreeable melody asserted itself. The change, seen in Stanley's cantatas, is complete in Arne's set of 1755 which, with their accompaniments of full strings and woodwind, mark the end of the cantata as a chamber form in England.