The Hungarian text is based on a Romaniancolinda (a type of Christmas carol) about a father who teaches his nine sons the art of hunting. One day they cross a haunted bridge deep in the forest and are turned into nine stags. Their father arrives and aims his bow at them but when he learns that they are in fact his sons he begs them to return home. The stags reply that this is no longer possible since their antlers would not fit through the door; their new life is in the forest. The critic Paul Griffiths believes Bartók was attracted to the story because it shows "the accordance of dignity and rightness to a natural as opposed to a civilised state: the implicit elevation of the peasant above the townsman..." (Griffiths p.140).
Bartók's musical style in Cantata Profana was influenced by Bach's Passions, though as the title of the work suggests it is more pagan than Christian. The great technical difficulties the piece presents mean it has had few performances.
Cantata Profana (with The Wooden Prince) John Aler (tenor), John Tomlinson (baritone), Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon, 1992)