A chorale was the melody to which a hymn was sung by a Christian congregation. Strictly speaking, 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 to which they are sung are generally 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.

Martin Luther posited that worship should be conducted in German rather than Latin. He thus saw an immediate need for a large repertory of new chorales. He composed some chorales himself, such as A Mighty Fortress. For other chorales he used Gregorian chant melodies used in Catholic worship and fitted them with a new German text. A famous example is Christ lag in Todes Banden, which is based on the tune of the Catholic Easter Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes.

As early as 1524, Johann Walter published a book of these chorales arranged for four or five voice parts.

Today, many of the Lutheran chorales are familiar as hymns still 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.

Read more about Chorale:  References and Further Reading

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