A chorale is a melody to which a hymn is sung by a congregation in a German Protestant Church service. The typical four-part setting of a chorale, in which the sopranos (and the congregation) sing the melody along with three lower voices, is known as a chorale harmonization. In certain modern usage, this term may include classical settings of such hymns and works of a similar character.
Chorales tend to be simple and singable tunes. The words are often sung to a rhyming scheme and are in a strophic form (the same melody used for different verses). Within a verse, many chorales follow the AAB pattern of melody that is known as the German bar form.
Starting in 1523, Martin Luther began translating worship texts into German from the Latin (Marshall and Leaver 2001), so that the people could understand, continue to learn and participate. This created an immediate need for a large repertoire of new chorales. He composed some chorales himself, such as A Mighty Fortress. For other chorales he used Gregorian chant melodies used in Roman Catholic worship and fitted them with new German texts, sometimes adapting the same melody more than once. For example, he fitted the melody of the hymn Veni redemptor gentium to three different texts, Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Marshall and Leaver 2001). A famous example is Christ lag in Todes Banden, which is based on the tune of the Catholic Easter Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes.
Today, many of the Lutheran chorales are familiar as hymns used in Protestant churches, sung in four-voice harmony. Some of these harmonizations are taken from the final movements of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. The chorales themselves were only in a few instances composed by Bach; the large majority were already familiar to his congregation. Bach concentrated on the chorales especially in the Chorale cantatas of his second annual cycle, composed mostly in 1724/25.
Chorales also appear in chorale preludes, pieces generally for organ designed to be played immediately before the congregational singing of the hymn. A chorale prelude includes the melody of the chorale, and adds contrapuntal lines. One of the first composers to write chorale preludes was Samuel Scheidt. Bach's many chorale preludes are the best-known examples of the form. Later composers of the chorale prelude include Johannes Brahms and Max Reger.
Derived from his understanding of musical settings of the liturgy and Johann Sebastian Bach's chorale preludes, the symphonies, masses and motets of Anton Bruckner make frequent use of the chorale as a compositional device, often in contrast to and combination with the fugue.
Chorales have been the subject of many different musical treatments, most but not all from the German baroque. See chorale setting for a description and a list of all the different types of musical setting and transformation that this important liturgical form has undergone.
- Marshall, Robert L., and Robin A. Leaver. 2001. "Chorale". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- "Chorale", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
- The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-674-61525-5
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- Chorale[dead link] at the Classical Music Pages
- Chorale discussion by Bernard Greenberg in the J. S. Bach FAQ (archived copy)
- Complete sets of all four-part Bach chorale settings in MIDI or QuickTime format
- American Choral Music, 1870-1923, LoC
- ChoraleGUIDE - help with Bach chorale harmonisation