- N. Lee Orr
The cantata is a vocal form consisting of solos, ensembles, and choruses accompanied by orchestra, piano, or other combinations of instruments. A cantata may have sacred or secular texts and can be narrative or dramatic. Defining the cantata in contrast to its relative the oratorio is difficult. The most reliable distinctions between the two genres are length and subject. Typically, oratorios tend to be religious, dramatic, and long, lasting for one or more hours, while cantatas are generally shorter and feature secular themes. Most cantatas are written for mixed chorus, some are for male chorus, and even fewer are for female chorus.
The earliest cantata-like works in the United States were composed during the 18th century in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia as cantata odes, or “libretto” odes, works based on English models, specifically those of Henry Purcell, containing solos, duets, and choruses. The cantata ode flourished in these cities during the last decades of the 18th century. The 19th-century cantata, however, did not so much continue the styles and forms of its 18th-century predecessor as much as adopt a term that held little meaning for 19th-century audiences....