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The Bach Cantata Project

Of the Bach Cantata Project, Daniel Melamed says, "One of the exciting things is that this is a chance to hear a piece maybe you don’t know.”

church performance

Photo: Annie Corrigan (for WFIU)

Professors and students from the Jacobs School of Music along with Bloomington community members accept applause after performing Cantata No. 138 at the First Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

Event Information

The Bach Cantata Project

Cantata no. 180 - 20th Sunday after Trinity (21st Sunday after Pentecost)


St. Thomas Lutheran Church

Sunday, October 17 at 3:00pm

The Bloomington Early Music Festival

A new performance series in Bloomington epitomizes the idea of town and gown. The Bach Cantata Project features professors, students, and local Bloomington musicians all performing together in churches around Bloomington. The music is may not be so familiar, but introducing audiences to some lesser-known Bach works is just one of the goals of this project.

Bringing Back BLEMF

A couple years ago, due to financial difficulties and trouble with the board of directors, The Bloomington Early Music Festival fell on hard times. This fall, a new performance series is leading the charge to bring BLEMF back.

Professor Wendy Gillespie is the Director of the Bach Cantata Project. “This is part of our attempt to bring BLEMF back to life. We hope that there will be another BLEMF festival before long, but for the moment, this series of cantatas is BLEMF.”

Practicing For Performance

Gillespie in charge of the logistics of getting upwards of 20 musicians organized and scheduling performance dates with the venues. It’s a difficult job.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, she says, is moving the very heavy electronic organ that is on loan from the Early Music Institute. “Since we’re not playing at A440 and we’re not playing a equal temperament,” she explains, “the church organs are not really at our service in this case.”

Another challenge of this series is for the performers: there are only 2 rehearsals before every performance. Gillespie explains that this is to give students a taste of what the real world of music performance is like.

“You don’t get six weeks of rehearsals for every little piece you’re going to play. You prepare ahead of time, you turn up able to play your part, you get in there, and you do it.”

This is similar to what musicians were expected to do in J.S. Bach’s day as well. Bach wrote his cantatas for the weekly Sunday worship service. So, in addition to various feasts and holidays, “it meant something like 60-70 full musical performances a year,” says Daniel Melamed, Professor in the Musicology Department at the Jacobs School of Music.

“And the idea that music of this level was routine for the congregation of Bach’s time is awe-inspiring.”

Rehearsing To Perfection

Melamed explains that as much as we do know about the performance practice in Bach’s time, we just don’t know much about the rehearsal schedule. “The more you work with this music and the sources that transmit it, the more you wonder whether there really was much rehearsal time.”

Melamed goes on to say that these days we’ve come to expect musical perfection, particularly when listening to a cantata performance on a commercially released recording. “That kind of perfection probably wasn’t the standard of music-making back then any more than it is in everyday or every week religious music-making now,” he adds.

Unknown Bach

Even the most knowledgeable audience members might not recognize the cantatas performed on this series.

‘There’s a small repertory of Bach Cantatas that, for one reason or another, have become extremely famous,” says Melamed. “One of the exciting things about this series is a chance to hear a piece fresh, hear a piece maybe you don’t know.”

Gillespie says she hopes to continue bringing these lesser-known works to the Bloomington community for the foreseeable future. “There are how many Bach Cantatas? We’re doing 6 a year. I think it’ll take a good 30 years to get through all of them!”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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  • Michael McCraw

    This is all so wonderful! My kudos to Professor Gillespie and thousand thanks for the work she put into organizing this. Also thanks to Professor Melamed and to all those who are willing to donate their time for these performances–such a wonderful opportunity for the collaboration of our students/ professors and a great service to the city of Bloomington.

    The first cantata performance was excellent, and I look forward to the future ones.

    With all best wishes for continued success with this venture,

    Michael McCraw

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