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Bach's four-part chorale setting of "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" Bach Matthauspassion O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.jpg
Bach's four-part chorale setting of "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden"

Chorale is the name of several related musical forms originating in the music genre of the Lutheran chorale:


The chorale originated when Martin Luther translated sacred songs into the vernacular language (German), contrary to the established practice of church music near the end of the first quarter of the 16th century. The first hymnals according to Luther's new method were published in 1524. Luther and his followers not only wrote metrical hymn lyrics, but also composed metrical musical settings for these texts. This music was partially based on established melodies of church hymns and known secular songs. In the 17th century the repertoire was enriched with more choral and organ settings of the chorale tunes. By the end of the century a four-part setting for SATB voices had become the standard for the choral settings, while the congregational singing of chorales was tending towards monody with an instrumental accompaniment. The prolific creation of new Lutheran chorale tunes ended around that time.

The cantata genre, originally consisting only of recitatives and arias, was introduced into Lutheran church services in the early 18th century. The format was soon expanded with choral movements in the form of four-part chorales. Composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel often placed these chorales as the concluding movement of their church compositions. The chorale finale was emulated in more secular genres such as Romantic 19th-century symphonies. Other composers of that era, such as Franck, expanded the repertoire of the organ chorale, also emulating what late Baroque composers such as Bach had produced more than a century before. Entirely new chorale compositions became rare after the Romantic era, but by that time the four-part harmonization technique, as exemplified in four-part chorales, had become part of the canon of Western music.


In German, the word Choral may as well refer to Protestant congregational singing as to other forms of vocal (church) music, including Gregorian chant. [1] The English word which derived from this German term, that is chorale, however almost exclusively refers to the musical forms that originated in the German Reformation. [2]

16th century

17th century

The bulk of Lutheran hymn texts and chorale melodies was created before the end of the 17th century. [2]

Johann Pachelbel's Erster Theil etlicher Choräle , a set of organ chorales, was published in the last decade of the 17th century. Johann Sebastian Bach's earliest extant compositions, works for organ which he possibly wrote before his fifteenth birthday, include the chorales BWV 700, 724, 1091, 1094, 1097, 1112, 1113 and 1119. [3]

18th century

In the early 18th century Erdmann Neumeister introduced the cantata format, originally consisting exclusively of recitatives and arias, in Lutheran liturgical music. Within a few years, the format was combined with other pre-existing liturgical formats such as the chorale concerto, resulting in church cantatas that consisted of free poetry, for instance used in recitatives and arias, dicta and/or hymn-based movements: the Sonntags- und Fest-Andachten cantata libretto cycle, published in Meiningen in 1704, contained such extended cantata texts. The chorale cantata, called per omnes versus (through all verses) when its libretto was an entire unmodified Lutheran hymn, was also a format modernised from earlier types. Dieterich Buxtehude composed six per omnes versus chorale settings. [4] BWV 4, an early Bach-cantata composed in 1707, is in this same format. Later, for his 1720s second cantata cycle, Bach developed a chorale cantata format where the inner movements paraphrased (rather than quoted) text of the inner verses of the hymn on which the cantata was based.

Each of the Meiningen cantata librettos contained a single chorale-based movement, on which it ended. Composers of the first half of the 18th century, such as Bach, Stölzel and Georg Philipp Telemann, often closed a cantata with a four-part chorale setting, whether or not the libretto of the cantata already contained verses of a Lutheran hymn. Bach set several of the Meiningen librettos in 1726, and Stölzel expanded the librettos of Benjamin Schmolck's Saitenspiel cycle with a closing chorale for each half cantata, when he set that cycle in the early 1720s. Two of such closing chorales by Telemann inadvertently ended up in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV): the fifth movements of the cantatas BWV 218 and 219, in the catalogue of Telemann's vocal works adopted as Nos. 1:634/5 and 1:1328/5 respectively. These closing chorales almost always conformed to these formal characteristics:

Around 400 of such settings by Bach are known, with the colla parte instrumentation surviving for more than half of them. They do not only appear as closing movements of church cantatas: they can appear in other places in cantatas, even, exceptionally, opening a cantata (BWV 80b). Bach's Jesu, meine Freude motet contains several such chorales. Larger-scale compositions, such as Passions and oratorios, often contain multiple four-part chorale settings which in part define the composition's structure: for instance in Bach's St John and St Matthew Passions they often close units (scenes) before a next part of the narrative follows, and in the Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt Passion pasticcio the narrative is carried by interspersed four-part chorale settings of nearly all stanzas of the "Christus, der uns selig macht" hymn.

Vocal church music of this period also contained other types of chorale settings, the general format of which is indicated as chorale fantasia: one voice, not necessarily the voice with the highest pitch, carries the chorale tune, with the other voices rather contrapuntal than homorhythmic, often with other melodies than the chorale tune, and instrumental interludes between the singing. For instance, the four cantatas with which Bach opened his second cantata cycle each start with a choral movement in chorale fantasia format, where the chorale tune is respectively sung by the soprano (BWV 20, 11 June 1724), alto (BWV 2, 18 June 1724), tenor (BWV 7, 24 June 1724) and bass (BWV 135, 25 June 1724) voices. Chorale fantasia settings are not necessarily choral movements: for instance, the fifth movement of the cantata BWV 10 is a duet for alto and tenor voices in that format. Quarter of a century after Bach had composed that duet, he published it in an arrangement for organ, as fourth of the Schübler Chorales , showing that the chorale fantasia format adapts itself very well to purely instrumental genres such as the chorale prelude for organ. Around 200 of Bach's chorale preludes are extant, many of them in the chorale fantasia format (others are fugues, or homorhythmic settings).

In the first half of the 18th century, chorales also appear in Hausmusik (music performance in family circle), e.g. BWV 299 in Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach , and/or are used for didactical purposes, e.g. BWV 691 in the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach . Most of Bach's four-part chorales, around 370 of them, were published for the first time between 1765 and 1787: these were the only works by the composer published between The Art of Fugue (1751) and the 50th anniversary of the composer's death in 1800. [5] In the late 18th century symphonies could include a chorale movement: for instance the third movement of Joseph Martin Kraus's 1792 Symphonie funèbre is a chorale on (the Swedish version of) "Nun lasst uns den Leib begraben". [6]

19th century

Early in the 19th century Ludwig van Beethoven chose a chorale-like ending for his Sixth Symphony (1808). [7] Chorale analogies are even stronger in the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony (1824). [7] [8] Felix Mendelssohn, champion of the 19th-century Bach Revival, included a chorale ("Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott") in the finale of his Reformation Symphony (1830). [7] His first oratorio, Paulus , which premièred in 1836, featured chorales such as "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" and "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme". His Lobgesang Symphony-Cantata (1840) contained a movement based on the Lutheran chorale "Nun danket alle Gott". [7] Lutheran hymns also appear in the composer's chorale cantatas, some of his organ compositions, and the sketches of his unfinished Christus oratorio.

In the first half of the 19th century, chorale-like symphony finales were also composed by Louis Spohr ("Begrabt den Leib in seiner Gruft" concludes his 1832 Fourth Symphony, named Die Weihe der Töne ), Niels Gade (Second Symphony, 1843) and others. [7] Otto Nicolai wrote concert overtures on "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" (Christmas Overture, 1833) and on ""Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott"" (Ecclesiastical Festival Overture, 1844). [9] Giacomo Meyerbeer set "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" to a chorale melody of his own invention in his 1849 opera Le prophète . The chorale tune was the basis for Franz Liszt's organ composition Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" (1850).

Joachim Raff included Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" in his Overture Op.  127 (1854, revised 1865) and had his Fifth Symphony (Lenore, Op. 177, 1872) end on a chorale. [10] [7] The Finale of Camille Saint-Saëns's 1855 First Symphony  [ fr ] contains a homorhythmic chorale. [7] One of the themes in the Finale of his 1886 Third Symphony, that is the theme that was adopted in the 1978 "If I Had Words" song, is a chorale. [7] [11] Anton Bruckner's 1873 Third Symphony and his 1876 Fifth Symphony both end on a chorale played by brass instruments. [7] Bruckner also used the chorale as a compositional device in Two Aequali. [12] Further, he included chorales in masses and motets (e.g. Dir, Herr, dir will ich mich ergeben , In jener letzten der Nächte ), and in part 7 of his festive cantata Preiset den Herrn. [13] In his setting of Psalm 22 and in the Finale of his Fifth Symphony he used a chorale in contrast to and combination with a fugue. [14] One of the themes in the Finale of Johannes Brahms's First Symphony (1876) is a chorale. [7]

In 1881 Sergei Taneyev described chorale harmonisations, such as those ending Bach's cantatas, rather as a necessary evil: inartistic, but unavoidable, even in Russian church music. [15] From the 1880s Ferruccio Busoni was adopting chorales in his instrumental compositions, often adapted from or inspired by models by Johann Sebastian Bach: for example BV  186 (c.1881), an introduction and fugue on "Herzliebster Jesu was hast verbrochen", No. 3 of Bach's St Matthew Passion . In 1897 he transcribed Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" for piano. César Franck emulated the chorale in compositions for piano ( Prélude, Choral et Fugue , 1884) and for organ ( Trois chorals  [ fr ], 1990). Johannes Zahn published an index and classification of all known Evangelical hymn tunes in six volumes from 1889 to 1893. [16]

A chorale-like theme appears throughout the last movement of Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony (1896): [7]


20th to 21st century

Busoni's pictorial representation of the architecture of his Fantasia contrappuntistica composition: chorales appear symmetrically in Nos. 1 and 11 Fantasia Contrappuntistica Plan.jpg
Busoni's pictorial representation of the architecture of his Fantasia contrappuntistica composition: chorales appear symmetrically in Nos. 1 and 11
"Preface" (preface) and "Choral inappetissant" (unsavoury chorale), first page of Satie's autograph of Sports et divertissements (dated 15 May 1914) Satie sports preface.jpg
"Préface" (preface) and "Choral inappétissant" (unsavoury chorale), first page of Satie's autograph of Sports et divertissements (dated 15 May 1914)

In his Fifth Symphony, the first version of which was composed 1901–1902, Gustav Mahler included a chorale near the end of Part I (2nd movement). [17] The chorale melody reappears in a transformed version in the last movement of the symphony (Part III, 5th movement). [17] Shortly after Mahler had completed the symphony, his wife Alma reproached him to have included a dreary church-like chorale in the work. [18] Mahler replied that Bruckner had included chorales in his symphonies, to which she replied "Der darf, du nicht!" (He [Bruckner] can do that, you shouldn't). [18] In her memoir, she continues that she then tried to convince her husband that his strength lay elsewhere than in the adoption of churchy chorales in his music. [18]

Busoni continued to compose Bach-inspired chorales in the 20th century, for instance including chorale subsections in his Fantasia contrappuntistica (1910s). Sports et divertissements , written by Erik Satie in 1914, opens with "Choral inappétissant" (unsavoury chorale), in which the composer put, according to his preface, everything he knew about tedium, and which he dedicated to all who disliked him. [19] As with much of Satie's music, it was written down without metre.

Igor Stravinsky included chorales in some of his compositions: among others, a "Little Chorale" and a "Great Chorale" in his L'Histoire du soldat (1918) and a chorale concluding his Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947). [20] [21] [22] [23] "By the leeks of Babylon" is a chorale in The Seasonings, an oratorio which appeared on An Hysteric Return , a 1966 P. D. Q. Bach album. [24] Chorales appear in Olivier Messiaen's music, for instance in Un vitrail et des oiseaux  [ fr ] (1986–1988) and La ville d'en haut (1989), two late works for piano and orchestra  [ fr ]. [25] [26] [27]

Stand-alone orchestral chorales were adapted from works by Johann Sebastian Bach: for instance Leopold Stokowski orchestrated, among other similar pieces, the sacred song BWV 478 and the fourth movement of the cantata BWV 4 as chorales Komm, süsser Tod (recorded 1933) and Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn (recorded 1937) respectively. [28] Recordings of all of Bach's chorales—vocal as well as instrumental—appeared in the three complete works box sets that were issued around the 250th anniversary of the composer's death in 2000. [29] [30] [31]


Chorale melodies are often in Bar form, that is, consisting of a repeated first phrase, called Stollen, and a concluding second phrase. The harmonisation of such a chorale melody may repeat the same harmonisation for both passes of the Stollen, or may present a variant harmonisation on the second pass of the first phrase of the melody.


Part song


Collections, e.g. Bach's four-part chorale editions

Colla parte accompaniment, e.g. closing chorales of Bach-cantatas

Elaborate choral settings

Chorale fantasia, e.g. opening movement of St Matthew Passion (in English rather called Chorus than Chorale)

Monodic with instrumental accompaniment

Voice and continuo, e.g. Schemellis Gesangbuch (1736) – rather called Lied in German


In instrumental chorale settings, as well emulations of four-part homophony, as chorale fantasia type of approaches exist.

Originally Choralbearbeitung, i.e. setting of a pre-existing chorale melody


Chorale preludes, e.g. Erster Theil etlicher Choräle (Pachelbel), Clavier-Übung III (Bach)

Not based on pre-existing hymn tunes, e.g. César Franck's Trois chorals


In symphonies, e.g. Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Saint-Saëns, Mahler


Chorales for solo piano are included in, for instance, Franck's Prélude, Choral et Fugue (1884), Satie's Sports et divertissements (1914, published c.1923), and Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica (multiple versions, early 1910s). That last composition also exists in the composer's arrangement for two pianos (early 1920s).

Related Research Articles

Lutheran chorale

A Lutheran chorale is a musical setting of a Lutheran hymn, intended to be sung by a congregation in a German Protestant Church service. The typical four-part setting of a chorale, in which the sopranos sing the melody along with three lower voices, is known as a chorale harmonization.

<i>Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern</i>, BWV 1 Church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1, is a church cantata for Annunciation by Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1725, when the cantata was composed, the feast of the Annunciation coincided with Palm Sunday. Based on Philipp Nicolai's hymn "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" (1599), it is one of Bach's chorale cantatas. Bach composed it in his second year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, where the Marian feast was the only occasion during Lent when festive music was permitted. The theme of the hymn suits both the Annunciation and Palm Sunday occasions, in a spirit of longing expectation of an arrival. As usual for Bach's chorale cantata cycle, the hymn was paraphrased by a contemporary poet who retained the hymn's first and last stanzas unchanged, but transformed the themes of the inner stanzas into a sequence of alternating recitatives and arias.

<i>Christ lag in Todes Banden</i>, BWV 4 Cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach

Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, is a cantata for Easter by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, one of his earliest church cantatas. It is agreed to be an early work partly for stylistic reasons and partly because there is evidence that it was probably written for a performance in 1707. Bach went on to complete many other works in the same genre, contributing complete cantata cycles for all occasions of the liturgical year. John Eliot Gardiner described it as Bach's "first-known attempt at painting narrative in music".

<i>Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam</i>, BWV 7 Church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantata Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 7, in Leipzig for the Feast of St. John the Baptist and led its first performance on 24 June 1724.

<i>Meine Seel erhebt den Herren</i>, BWV 10 Church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach

In 1724 Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantata Meine Seel erhebt den Herren, BWV 10, as part of his second cantata cycle. Taken from Martin Luther's German translation of the Magnificat canticle, the title translates as "My soul magnifies the Lord". Also known as Bach's German Magnificat, the work follows his chorale cantata format.

<i>Jesu, meine Freude</i>, BWV 227 Motet by Johann Sebastian Bach

Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, is a motet in eleven movements for SSATB choir which was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is named after the Lutheran hymn "Jesu, meine Freude", of which the motet contains, in its odd-numbered movements, all six stanzas of Johann Franck's poetry and various versions of Johann Crüger's hymn tune. The text of the motet's even-numbered movements is taken from the Epistle to the Romans. This Biblical text, which influenced key Lutheran teaching, is contrasted by the hymn, written in the first person with a focus on emotion, and Bach set both in a symmetrical structure.

Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantata Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, in Leipzig in 1735 for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany and first performed it on 30 January 1735, a few weeks after his Christmas Oratorio. The cantata, in Bach's chorale cantata format, is based on Martin Luther's hymn "Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit". Its text paraphrases Psalm 124, focussing on the thought that the believers' life depends on God's help and is lost without it.

<i>Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott</i>, BWV 80

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, is a chorale cantata for Reformation Day by Johann Sebastian Bach. He reworked it from one of his Weimar cantatas, Alles, was von Gott geboren, BWV 80a. The first Leipzig version of the church cantata, BWV 80b, may have been composed as early as 1723, some five months after Bach had moved to Leipzig. Some years later he reworked the cantata one more time, writing an extended chorale fantasia as its opening movement. The text of the BWV 80a version was written by Salomon Franck and contained one stanza of Martin Luther's hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott"; for his chorale cantata versions, BWV 80b and 80, Bach added the complete text of this Lutheran hymn.

<i>Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir</i>, BWV 38 Church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 38, is a church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed the chorale cantata in Leipzig in 1724 for the 21st Sunday after Trinity and first performed it on 29 October 1724.

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern chorale by Philipp Nicolai

"Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" is a Lutheran hymn by Philipp Nicolai written in 1597 and first published in 1599. It inspired musical settings through centuries, notably Bach's chorale cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1, but also vocal and instrumental works by Baroque composers, Peter Cornelius, Felix Mendelssohn, Max Reger, Hugo Distler, Ernst Pepping, Mauricio Kagel and Naji Hakim.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland Song by Martin Luther

"Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" is a Lutheran chorale of 1524 with words written by Martin Luther, based on "Veni redemptor gentium" by Ambrose, and a melody, Zahn 1174, based on its plainchant. It was printed in the Erfurt Enchiridion of 1524.

Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten

"Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten" is a 1641 hymn by Georg Neumark, who also composed the melody for it. It has seven verses and deals with the Christian putting their trust in God. Its author referred to it as a "Trostlied" or song of consolation and it first appeared in his Fortgepflantzer musikalisch-poetischer Lustwald. It also appeared in Johann Crüger's 1672 Praxis pietatis melica and in the first part of Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen's 1704 Geistreiches Gesangbuch. It has inspired musical settings, and is part of current German hymnals, both Protestant and Catholic.

Christ lag in Todesbanden

"Christ lag in Todesbanden" is an Easter hymn by Martin Luther. Its melody is by Luther and Johann Walter. Both the text and the melody were based on earlier examples. It was published in 1524 in the Erfurt Enchiridion and in Walter's choral hymnal Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn. Various composers, including Pachelbel, Bach and Telemann, have used the hymn in their compositions.

<i>Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder</i>, BWV 135

Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantata Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, BWV 135 in Leipzig for the third Sunday after Trinity and first performed it on 25 June 1724. It is the fourth chorale cantata from his second annual cycle, and is based on the hymn by Cyriakus Schneegass.

There are 52 chorale cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach surviving in at least one complete version. Around 40 of these were composed during his second year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, which started after Trinity Sunday 4 June 1724, and form the backbone of his chorale cantata cycle. The eldest known cantata by Bach, an early version of Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, presumably written in 1707, was a chorale cantata. The last chorale cantata he wrote in his second year in Leipzig was Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1, first performed on Palm Sunday, 25 March 1725. In the ten years after that he wrote at least a dozen further chorale cantatas and other cantatas that were added to his chorale cantata cycle.

Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn Protestant hymn

"Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn" is a Lutheran hymn by Elisabeth Cruciger. Printed in 1524 in the Erfurt Enchiridion, together with 18 hymns by Martin Luther, it is one of the oldest Lutheran hymns. The text combines Lutheran teaching with medieval mysticism. It has been the basis of musical settings such as Bach's chorale cantata Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, BWV 96.

Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit 16th century German Lutheran hymn

"Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit" is a Lutheran hymn in German. The text from c. 1550 is attributed to Albert, Duke of Prussia. The melody, Zahn No. 7568, goes back to a tune by Claudin de Sermisy, written in 1529 for a secular French song. The hymn has belonged to core Lutheran hymnody without interruption and is part of the Protestant hymnal Evangelisches Gesangbuch as EG 364.

Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag

"Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag" is a German Easter hymn, with text and tune written by Nikolaus Herman and published in 1561. It has inspired musical settings by composers from the 17th to the 20th century. It appears in several hymnals, including the German Protestant hymnal Evangelisches Gesangbuch. Other hymns, especially Easter hymns, in both German and English, are sung to the same melody.

Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

"Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht" is a German Lutheran hymn, with lyrics by Christian Keimann written in 1658. The theme of the hymn is trust in Jesus, based on memorial sermons for John George I, Elector of Saxony recalling conversations of the elector with his minister on his deathbed.



Further reading