Cantata | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Cantata. A multi-movement composition for solo voice or chorus, usually 10 to 30 minutes long, accompanied by orchestra, and traditionally intended for church or ceremonial use. By the 20th century the cantata was increasingly written for secular performance.


Cantata. A multi-movement composition for solo voice or chorus, usually 10 to 30 minutes long, accompanied by orchestra, and traditionally intended for church or ceremonial use. By the 20th century the cantata was increasingly written for secular performance. In Canada the term was stretched even further by André Prévost, whose instrumental Cantate pour cordes eliminated the vocal element. The cantata may employ biblical verses but more typically sets a text by one author, often a contemporary of the composer. The 19th- or 20th-century church cantata, unlike that of the 18th century (which reached its zenith in the works of J.S. Bach), seldom was based on a congregational hymn.

The earliest cantata-type composition to be mentioned in Canadian historical documents was an ode performed in Quebec City 31 Dec 1776 to mark the first anniversary of the repulsion of US invaders. Written especially for this anniversary, the work contained airs, an arietta, recitatives, a march, and a chorus. The English text was printed in the Quebec Gazette (2 Jan 1777). Its composer's name was not reported. Another work inspired by a historical occasion was John Bentley's Ode, performed in Quebec City 26 Dec 1791 at the constitutional meeting which marked the partition of the colony into Upper and Lower Canada.

Cantatas 1860-1920

In the period 1860-1920 the cantata was favoured, even above light opera and the mass, among the forms used for large-scale Canadian compositions. Choral singers were abundant, and the instrumental accompaniment could be played on an organ. Many British, French, and German cantatas also were performed and served as models for Canadian works. The popularity of the cantata form is attested by the fact that nearly all of the following were published:


Sabatier, Charles W. Cantata in Honour of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales on the Occasion of his Visit to Canada/ Cantate en l'honneur de son altesse royale le prince de Galles à l'occasion de son voyage au Canada (1860; Boucher & Manseau ca 1862-4 excerpts); Les Beaux-Arts (1864 excerpts)

Labelle, J.-B. but two sections composed by an unidentified other composer. Cantate: La Confédération (premiered 1868; score lost)


Lavallée, Calixa. Cantate en l'honneur du Marquis de Lorne et de la Princesse Louise (ca 1879; score lost)


Labelle, J.-B. La Croisade canadienne "cantate aux Zouaves pontificaux" (1886; score lost)


Harriss, C.A.E. Daniel before the King (1890; G. Schirmer 1890) '

D'Auria, Francesco. The Sea King's Bride (performed Toronto 1890); Gulnare or The Crusader's Ransom (Suckling 1891)

Fisher, Arthur E. The Wreck of the Hesperus (ca 1893)

Illsley, Percival J.Ruth (1894; Whaley Royce 1894)

Read, Angelo. A Song of the Nativity (G. Schirmer 1899)


Lucas, Clarence. The Birth of Christ (Chappell 1901)

Read, A. David's Lament (G. Schirmer 1902)

Harriss, C.A.E. Pan (Novello 1904)

Charlebois, J.A. Cantate à Saint Viateur (Recueil de cantiques ca 1906)

Broome, Edward. A Hymn of Trust (G. Schirmer 1910)


Reed, William. The Message of the Angels (Ditson 1910); The Resurrection and the Life (Ditson 1911); The Burden of the Cross (Ditson or Presser 1912)

Spence, William Ramsay. The Story of Bethlehem (Ditson 1911)

Ham, Albert. The Solitudes of the Passion (ca 1917; Novello 1917)

Others who composed cantatas during this period include Octave Chatillon, Guillaume Couture, Napoléon Crépault, Antoine Dessane, Ralph Horner, Alphonse Lavallée-Smith, and Charles Wheeler.

Cantatas 1920-45

After World War I the cantata lost its pre-eminent position, possibly because the emergence of professional orchestras and chamber groups enticed composers to write instrumental works. Only a few composers, mainly traditionalists, perpetuated the form in Canada between the wars: Gena Branscombe, with The Dancer of Fjaard and The Phantom Caravan (both 1926); Bjorgvin Gudmundsson, with Adveniat regnum tuum (1924-5); Omer Létourneau, with Dieu te garde mon Canada (1934); Henri Miro, with Vox populi (1928); and Healey Willan, with The Mystery of Bethlehem (ca 1923), All Hail the Queen "A Coronation Ode" (1936), and Brébeuf (1943).

Cantatas 1945 - Present

The cantata regained popularity among younger composers during the second half of the 20th century and into the early 21st century. Some of the more experimental cantatas have been John Korsrud's The Elvis Cantatas (1994,1996), a postmodern work about Elvis Presley, adapted in 2005 by Gordon McLennan as Cantata for the King; and Christos Hatzis' Wormwood (2006), a cantata that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

Canadians who have written cantatas since World War II include:

Anhalt, István. Cento "Cantata urbana" (1967)

Applebaum, Louis. The Last Words of David (1980)

Archer, Violet. The Bell (1949); Cantata sacra (1966)

Barnes, Milton. Thespis (1956-73); In Our Time (1968); Psalms of David (1973); Shir Hashirim (1975); Eishet Chayil: A Woman of Valour (1986)

Beckwith, John. Jonah (1963); The Hector, a documentary cantata (1990)

Beecroft, Norma. From Dreams of Brass (1964)

Betts, Lorne. The Walk to Emmaus (1981)

Bissell, Keith. Christmas Cantata (1949); Let There Be Joy (1965); People Look East "An Advent Cantata" (1965); Anniversary Cantata (1978)

Brott, Alexander. The Prophet (1960)

Coulthard, Jean. Pastorale Cantata (1967); When Tempests Rise (1988)

Dolin, Samuel. Marchbankantata (1971); The Hero of Our World (1985)

Evans, Robert. Whale Song Dancing (1993); For the Children (1997)

Ferland, Marcien. La Basilique de Saint Boniface (1977)

Fleming, Robert. Heirs through Hope (1968); Prairie Sailor (1970)

Freedman, Harry. The Flame Within (1968); Kitchen Cantata (1995)

Gagné, Marc. Gloire à Dieu (1980)

Glick, Srul Irving. If We Would But Listen (1988)

Grégoire, Richard. Cantate (1968)

Hambraeus, Bengt. Symphonia sacra (1987)

Hatzis, Christos. Wormwood (2006)

Holman, Derek. Homage to Robert Herrick (1978); Laudes creationis (1987); Verbum caro factum est (2004)

Houdy, Pierick. Cantate à Saint-Michel (1966)

Kaufmann, Walter. Coronation Cantata (1953)

Kenins, Talivaldis. Cantata "To a Soldier" (1953); Sawan-oong "The Spirit of the Wind" (1973); Cantata Baltica (1974)

Klein, Lothar. Cantata II (1980)

Koprowski, Peter Paul. Millennium Cantata (2001)

Korsrud, John. The Elvis Cantatas (1994, 1996; adapted as Cantata for the King, 2005)

Mather, Bruce. The White Goddess (1960-2)

McIntyre, Paul. Judith (1957, revised 1958); The Little Red Hen, cantata buffa (1976)

Mercure, Pierre. Cantate pour une joie (1955); Psaume pour abri (1963)

Naylor, Bernard. The Living Fountain (1947-63); King Solomon's Prayer (1953); Sing O My Love (1963); Resurrection According to St Matthew (1965); The Armour of Light (1967)

Pedersen, Paul. Cantata and Narrative for Good Friday (1972), revised 1990 and renamed Passion Oratorio; De Profundis (1988)

Pépin, Clermont. Hymne au vent du Nord (1960)

Prévost, André. Terre des hommes (1967); Ahimsâ (1983); Cantate pour cordes (1987)

Robinovitch, Sid. Shir Hanagid (1983)

Schafer, R. Murray. Brébeuf (1961); The Judgement of Jael (1961)

Telfer, Nancy. The Wisdom of Solomon (1979), From Quiet Winter Skies (1981)

Tremain, Ronald. Tenere juventa (1965)

Turner, Robert. The Third Day (1962); Vile Shadows (1983)

van Dijk, Rudi. Christmas Cantata (1967)

Walter, Arnold. For the Fallen (1949)

Watson Henderson, Ruth. Clear Sky and Thunder (1983); The Last Straw, Christmas cantata (1990); From Darkness to Light (2001)

Willan, Healey. Coronation Suite (1952)

Wilson, Charles. On the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1963); Song for St Cecilia's Day (1976); The Revelation to John (1984)

Wuensch, Gerhard. Laus sapientiae (1977); Four Episodes from St John (1986)

Other Canadians who composed cantatas between 1920 and 2009 have included: Raffi Armenian, Maya Badian, Gerald Bales, Alfred Bernier, Felix-R. Bertrand, Maurice Boivin, Wolfgang Bottenberg, Lloyd Burritt, Charlotte Cadoret, Eugène Caron, Stephen Chatman, F.R.C. Clarke, Katarina Curcin, Gabriel Cusson, Reine Décarie, Léon Destroismaisons, Clifford Ford, Paul Frehner, Claude Frenette, Jon Fridfinnsson, J.-J. Gagnier, Graham Godfrey, Theo Goldberg, Frank Haworth, Derek Healey, Janis Kalnins, Minuetta Kessler, Ron Klusmeier, Alfred Kunz, Lucienne Lafleur, John Laing, Gregory Levin, Alexina Louie, Ramona Luengen, Leslie Mann, John McTaggart, Elma Miller, Michael Miller, Juliette Milette, Kornelius Neufeld, Oscar O'Brien, Charles O'Neill, Stanley Osborne, David Ouchterlony, Tibor Polgár, Imant Raminsh, Arthur Semple, Alison Slaats, Ben Steinberg, A.D. Thompson, Roman Toi, Elliot Weisgarber, and Leon Zuckert.