A chorale is a sacred choral song (cantus choralis) which may almost be said to belong exclusively to the reformed church of Germany, in which it originated. Luther introduced a popular element into worship by writing hymns in the vernacular and wedding them to rhythmic music, which should appeal to the people in a new and more lively sense than the old fashioned un-rhythmic church music.
The effect was a great (with all due respect to the different quality of the lever) as the “Marseillaise” in France or “Lillibullero” in England, or Auber’s “Masaniello” and the ‘Brabanconne” in Brussels; for it cannot be doubted that no insignificant share in the rapid spread of the new ideas owing to these inspiriting and vigorous hymns, which seemed to burst from the hearts of the enthusiastic and earnest men of whom Luther was the chief.
The movement passed rapidly over Germany, and produced in a short time a literature of sacred hymns and tunes which cannot be surpassed for dignity and simple devotional earnestness. Luther and his friend Walther brought out a collection at Erfurt in 1524, which was called the “Enchiridion,” or handbook. Though not absolutely the first, it was the most important early collection, and had a preface by Luther himself. A great number of collections appeared about the same time in various parts of Germany, and continued to appear till the latter part of the 17th century, when, from political as well as religious circumstances, the stream of production became sluggish, and then stopped altogether.
The sources of the chorales were various; great numbers were original, but many were adapted from the old church tunes, and some were from altogether secular sources. The most prolific composer of chorales was Johann Cruger, who was born some time after Luther’s death.
The chorale which Mendelssohn uses in “St. Paul,” at the death of Stephen, is by Georg Neumark, who also wrote the original words to it.
A very famous collection of tunes was published in Paris in 1565 by Claude Goudimel. Most of these soon found their way into the German collections, and became naturalized.
The custom of accompanying chorales on the organ, and of playing and writing what were called figured chorales, caused great strides to be made in the development of harmony and counterpoint, and also in the art of playing the organ; so that by the latter part of the 17th century Germany possessed the finest school of organists in Europe, one also not likely to be surpassed in modern times.
In tracing the history of the chorale it is extremely difficult to distinguish the composer of the melody or canto fermo from the harmonizer (called Tonsetzer by Winterfeld). A large proportion of extant chorales appear to be based on old church tunes, so that they present a continuity with the past which is quite consistent with Luther’s earlier practice. As to the ancient origin of these tunes, see Martin Luther.
The chorales used in this first period are treated as motets, as the examples in Winterfeld show: that is, the melody is given out as a canto fermo, generally in a tenor or at least a middle part, with the other parts in more or less florid counterpoint. The music is not yet measured or divided into equal rhythm (musica mensurabilis). The contrapuntal treatment, which became more elaborate under such musicians as Stephen Mahu and Joh. Kugelmann – both early in the 16th century – advanced greatly in the number of voice parts and general complexity towards the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the chief writers being Gumpelzhaimer, Joh. Eccard, Mich. Praetorius, Joh. Schopp, and Joh. Rosenmuller. This again, when the singing came to be restricted to the canto fermo in unison, originated the school of organ accompaniment to the chorales such as we see in Bach’s organ works, and as it is still occasionally to be heard in Germany.
It has been noticed that some chorales are based on secular songs of an earlier date. The old ecclesiastical forms of music inherited from Saint Gregory were proper to the Latin hymns of the Breviary; but for hymns written in a modern language and forming no part of a prescribed ritual, the freer style used in secular songs was, or was soon found to be, quite natural. Most, however, of the secular melodies thus used were not so employed till towards the end of the 16th century or beginning of the 17th century.
Simultaneously with the elaborate contrapuntal treatment, which demanded the resources of a church with a good choir, it is interesting to note the tendency towards a simpler treatment. This is found par excellence in Goudimel’s setting of Marot and Beza’s Psalms, 1565, in which there are four voices, with counterpoint note against note, and the melody generally in the tenor, but in twelve psalms in the discant. In the latter point this book is the harbinger of one of the chief revolutions in the history of hymn music. The revolution is fully effected in 1586 by Lucas Osiander in his “Geistliche Lieder und Psalmen mit 4 Stimmen auf Contrapunkts Weiss.” The title shows that the removal of the melody to the upper part was due to a desire for congregational signing [and implies that the custom of putting the melody in the top part was even then coming into use. In the Scottish Psalter of 1635 the tenor part is still labelled ‘the church part’]. This book was followed in 1594 by a similar treatment of the Psalter in Lobwasser’s version by Samuel Marschal. The chorale was after this sung either in four voice parts, with the canto fermo in the discant; or in unison, with florid counterpoint on the organ. The latter is considered the more classical form in Germany.
The composition, harmonization, and collection of chorales for the services of the Lutheran (and other Protestant) churches engaged the artistic talents of a whole school of musicians, of whom some of the most eminent are treated in special articles.« Back to Dictionary Index