The eighteenth-century secular cantata confronts us with a nest of paradoxes. Though conceived at the beginning of the century as a kind of poetry, the cantata had for decades before been Italy’s dominant type of vocal chamber music. Though chamber music, the cantata shared with opera its use of alternating recitatives and arias for solo voice with continuo accompaniment. Though from 1700 bound up with particular social practices of the Italian literati, once disseminated abroad after 1700 the cantata merged and competed with indigenous chamber song – in the process becoming an ‘umbrella term’ for a wide range of musical forms, some of which were extremely popular. Though once so fêted, cantata music is virtually unknown to listeners today. This study will follow the chamber cantata from its birthplace in Italy through its absorption in France, England and Germany, tracking its metamorphoses as determined by local conditions of production and pre-existing traditions of song, and identifying the contributions of the genre’s chief exponents.
The legacy of the Accademia degli Arcadi
From around 1630, the secular cantata superseded chamber song and the madrigal in Italy. Although the form of the cantata changed around 1700, patterns in patronage and production followed those of the previous century. Cantatas were composed for an accademia or other privileged social forum, whose invited members shared views on philosophy, aesthetics and artistic trends. The term ‘accademia’ could carry four separate meanings: a fellowship under one patron or more; a gathering of fee-paying (traditionally male) members promoting current ideas; a meeting featuring musical performances and discussion; and the building where such meetings might take place.