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Johann Sebastian Bach and the Lutheran Chorale

Erinn Losness

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Writer's comment: Johann Sebastian Bach's use of the Lutheran chorale is a broad topic that has already been researched extensively by music scholars and historians. While it seemed a daunting task to add any original ideas to the readily available wealth of knowledge, I gradually discovered that most of the available sources focused on factual data. For example, several books mentioned instances when Bach incorporated chorales into larger vocal compositions, but often failed to question why Bach decided to place chorales in those specific musical contexts. They also neglected to examine how Bach's musical treatment of the chorale was unique and original. For this reason, I desired to write a paper that was not merely accurate, but also interpretive. Many thanks to Professor Jeffrey Thomas, who taught me that an understanding of the text is paramount in uncovering the significance of Bach's vocal works, and without whom this paper might have remained a dry and inconclusive mound of stale facts and undeveloped ideas.

—Erinn Losness


Instructor's comment: During the winter quarter of 2003, I taught an undergraduate seminar (Music 121: Topics in Music History), and chose to focus on “Baroque Oratorio: The Cantatas, Passions, and Mass in B Minor of J.S. Bach,” a rather broad topic to say the least. The “oratorio” took its predominant shape as a musical genre during the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, even though its distant antecedents occurred in the Middle Ages. In this course we studied the history and definitions of the form, and applied those definitions— somewhat willfully—to the vocal works of Bach. It was actually my first experience with an undergraduate seminar, and indeed my students must have felt that they found themselves in a graduate level course. Nevertheless, they responded to the challenges admirably, and inarguably the student who demonstrated the greatest mastery of the subject matter was Erinn Losness. Her final paper is a fine example of scholarly analysis, and I clearly recall that her classroom presentation of it was inspiring.

—Jeffrey Thomas, Music Department


T HE LUTHERAN CHORALE , which was initially created by Martin Luther and his Wittenburg supporters during the Protestant Reformation, has served the dual function of stimulating musical creativity and encouraging corporate congregational worship of God for several centuries. One composer who was strongly influenced by these simple Lutheran melodies and texts was the 18 th century German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. During his lifetime, Bach not only wrote and harmonized simple chorale melodies for use in the church, but he also incorporated the chorales into larger and more complex vocal and instrumental genres. Some of these larger genres include chorale motets, cantatas, passions, and organ chorales. In what way was Bach able to achieve his goal of creating excellent church music and to exercise his own unique compositional skills while using these simple chorales in larger compositions? The following essay will attempt to offer answers to this question by investigating the original importance and role of the chorale in Bach's preferred religious denomination, the Lutheran Church . It will also examine how Bach improved upon the musical designs of his predecessors in order to write chorale music that was both profound and glorifying to God. Bach's predilection for incorporating the Lutheran chorales into his compositions probably has more to do with the spiritual significance and worshipful purpose of the chorales than with the simple musical content of the melodies. This significance was established by Luther, who above all wanted to encourage people to cultivate personal relationships with God. Luther felt that the music in a church service should help people draw closer to God by enabling the people to worship God in song each Sunday. One of Luther's most important reforms during the 16 th century in order to achieve this goal was to incorporate congregational singing into the church service. Writing on the topic of congregational singing, editors Carl Halter and Carl Schalk state that “what was only tolerated in the medieval church—and then only on infrequent occasions—became a central feature of worship in the church of the Lutheran Reformation” (Halter 17). Luther likewise believed that the musical aspect of worship should be second in importance only to the sermon and thus everyone, even laymen should be allowed to participate. After theology, Luther thus gave “music the highest place and highest honor” (Blume 10).

      In order to encourage group participation during worship services, Luther had to devise a musical genre that would be simple enough for lay people and yet still be able to communicate profound theological truths. Luther's solution lay in the development of German congregational hymns that are known as chorales. The word “chorale” can apply to the melodic line alone or the combination of both the melody and text. Although each chorale contains its own unique characteristics, most chorales are identifiable by some similar musical and textual features. One of the most important of these features is the use of the vernacular language. In order to encourage the understanding and participation of the lay people, Luther replaced the traditional Latin liturgical language with German. This difference is significant for a number of reasons. It first and foremost allowed everyone in the congregation to participate, and it enabled less educated worshipers to understand the meaning of the texts. Chorales, therefore, were the means for the realization of Luther's desire that people not “merely be present at worship—[but that] their faith should erupt in song” (Halter 16). The use of vernacular texts is also significant, because it changed the musical style of the chorale music. The guttural German language that is studded with many consonants demanded a different musical style than the “vowel rich” Latin language. Liturgical music with Latin texts often featured long melismatic passages and freer rhythms because the vowels invited long prolongations of sound. German chorales on the other hand often had to be set in a more syllabic style with fewer melismas. During a church service, the chorales were originally unaccompanied and were sung in a monodic style. Lutheran chorale melodies also commonly consisted of vocal lines that were restricted to a tenth or less and featured few melodic leaps in order to facilitate singing for untrained voices.

      Bach's own creative use of these simple chorales that were designed for amateurs may in part have been inspired by the philosophy that played an important role in the development of vast numbers of chorales. The emergence of Lutheran churches during the sixteenth century led to a sudden need for many new chorales. In order to meet this need, chorale composers often combined preexisting musical materials with original ideas to create musical works that communicated subtle and hidden religious messages. Lutheran chorales developed rapidly in the sixteenth century due to the use of borrowed sacred and secular elements. Unless they were newly composed, early chorales often consisted of new vernacular texts that were added to modified melodies of Gregorian plainchants, Latin office hymns, German religious folk songs, and secular Latin or German songs. The word “chorale,” in fact, shows the strong connection between the Lutheran chorale and the Gregorian tradition. Professor Robin A. Leaver states in The Oxford Composer Companions guide to J. S. Bach that “the term ‘chorale' indicates the plainchant origin of many of the melodies, being derived from ‘choraliter' (applied to monodic unison chant) as opposed to ‘figuraliter' (applied to polyphonic music)” (Leaver 92). An example of the link between Gregorian chant and the German chorale is Luther's chorale, All Ehr' und Lob soll Gottes sein (“All Glory Be to God Alone”), which was based on the melody of a Gregorian liturgical chant ( Gloria tempore paschali for the Graduale Romanum). Lutherans also often adopted religious German folk songs, which were already written in the vernacular language, in slightly modified forms. One such piece is Christ ist erstandes (“Christ Is Everlasting”). Chorale tunes were also derived from some secular sources. Lutherans, for example, infused the beautiful love song entitled Innsbruck ich muss dich lassen , (“ Innsbruck , I Now Must Leave Thee”) which was originally about a lover who had to leave the town where his loved one resided, with a new spiritual message. Building upon the commonly known text of the secular song, the chorale composer created a new meaning by replacing the original words with a text dealing with the topic of the Christian's need to exchange the world and its fleshly lusts for spiritual desires and hope of a heavenly Jerusalem . The implied juxtaposition of these two texts suggests that the world can be as attractive to a Christian as a loved one is to a lover. Just as the lover eventually departs, however, the Christian will eventually leave earth through physical death and thus should flee earthly temptations. In return, he can anticipate the rewards of heaven. As a result, the new Lutheran chorale was entitled O Welt, ich muss dich lassen , or “O World, I now must leave thee.” Building upon the familiar ideas associated with borrowed material, many Lutheran chorales often carried double meanings and held profound truths for Lutherans that are not understood today. It was perhaps this foundational chorale tradition of intricate textual relationships that inspired Bach to create some of his spiritually profound musical compositions through the juxtaposition of chorale melodies with other poetic texts.

      The texts of chorales, therefore, provided Bach with examples of subtle ways to manipulate words in order to communicate subtle religious truths. The melodies probably also historically served a similar inspirational role, because they too served the purpose of enhancing textual messages. Despite numerous musical sources from which to draw melodies, some 16 th century Lutheran chorale composers wrote original melodies. Leaver states that “many of the newly composed melodies were in bar form (A—A—B), commonly found in vernacular narrative ballads,” and Hofweisen (court songs) (92). It is significant, however, that texts and melodies for new chorales were usually written by the same person. This is because the tunes were supposed to enhance the meaning of the text. Thus, from the beginning the Lutheran chorale consisted of music and theology that were interwoven into one indistinguishable unit. Luther expresses this thought by stating that “the notes give life to the text” (Schalk 72).


Bach's Lutheran Heritage

      Bach's first exposure to these chorales, which blend religious thought with melody, began during the formative years of his development. This is evident, because Bach was born in a part of Germany that was dominated by Lutheranism. He was also schooled in the Lutheran faith from childhood. Bach's early education at the time probably began in a local German school that focused on “religion, grammar, and arithmetic” (Wolff, Learned 26). From there he proceeded to Latin schools. Musicologist Christoph Wolff describes the education Bach received at these schools, stating that “Both the German and Latin schools were dominated by religious instruction, with the Bible, hymnal, and catechism as the most important texts” (Wolff, Learned 26). This education would have caused Bach to become very familiar with many chorale texts. Bach's excellent training as a church organist and boy soprano in the Latin school boy's choir would have caused the composer to be familiar not only with the chorale texts, but also with their melodies. It was therefore during these formative years that Bach learned about the Lutheran faith and began to understand the meaning and spiritual importance of chorales. This education was further reinforced by regular attendance at a local church where Bach's father was a musician. In church, Bach would have learned about the Bible and participated in the congregational singing of chorales. Due to this religious foundation, Bach eventually developed his own personal life goal of writing music for the church in order to glorify God.


Harmonized Chorales

      The realization of Bach's goal to create well-ordered church music for the glory of God required the frequent use of chorale texts, which were essential to Lutheran church services. It could be argued that Bach simply carried on with church traditions by placing these chorales in their standard and accepted forms while contributing few original ideas to chorale genres, such as simple four-part harmonizations. It is true that Bach harmonized about four hundred chorales in a seemingly conventional manner, but, in my opinion, these settings are highly original and indicative of the composer's originality and genius. Bach's ability to take chorale melodies and infuse them with new significance through tasteful harmonic choices is, in a sense, the perfection of what the chorale was originally envisioned to be, an indistinguishable fusion of words and music.

      The style of hymn writing that is otherwise known as “contrapunctum simplex” is characterized by simple harmonizations in four or five parts. In this style of writing, the chorale melody or cantus firmus, lasts throughout the entire piece in one voice in an uninterrupted form. The cantus firmus is traditionally found in the soprano voice. The lower voices generally do not imitate each other or share much melodic material from the cantus firmus. They simply support the melody and enhance the meaning of the text through harmonic changes. The need for harmonized chorales was great in the Lutheran church, because by the 16 th century it became typical for a choir to introduce and teach new chorale melodies to the congregation. The first harmonized chorales appeared around 1524 and were composed by a Lutheran named Johann Walter. Walter's versions preserved the original rhythmic durations of the cantus firmus lines, but placed the cantus firmus in the tenor voice in the manner of most Renaissance polyphonic music. Untrained Lutheran worshippers had trouble hearing the melody in the inner voice, however, so composer Lucas Oisander solved the problem by moving the cantus firmus to the upper voice. This change, in combination with Oisander's simple homophonic style of writing allowed congregations to easily learn the chorales. While many harmonized chorales during the 16 th century were still fairly modal, Hans Leo Hassler published chorale arrangements in 1609 that were much more tonal in their harmonic structure. Other composers such as Michael Praetorius and Johann Balthasar Koenig made important contributions to this genre. Koenig, in fact, encouraged the use of the organ, and it eventually became common for the organ, congregation, and choir to alternate on different stanzas of the same chorale.

      Bach did not radically alter this genre in any way; nevertheless, it was Bach who perfected the harmonization of chorale melodies due to the composer's extensive harmonic knowledge and spiritual understanding. Paul Bunjes writes that “Bach's contributions to chorale harmonization lie … not so much in original technical features of composition, as in the infusion of an exalted spiritual fervor, derived from the text and effectively expressed in the music” (Schalk 76). An example of this is seen in Bach's harmonization of Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), where Bach uses closely spaced harmonic intervals to create the feeling a fortified wall that cannot be easily penetrated or broken down. He also illustrates the phrase Der alte böse Feind (“the ancient wicked foe”) musically through the use of an unpleasant dissonance. The temporary tonicization of a new key during this phrase also creates a sense of harmonic tension in order to illustrate the spiritual battles of the Christian with this wicked foe, Satan. The voice crossing in the tenor and alto lines during this phrase could also portray the idea of the Christian's inner struggles against Satan's enticements. During the phrase Gro? Macht und viel List (“vast might and deceit”), Bach portrays the idea of vastness through the use of compound intervals in the tenor and bass voices. The composer also aptly illustrates the idea of Satan's cruel weapons by shifting to a minor key and ending the phrase with a chord that contains sharps. This chord leaves the listener with an unresolved sound, however, because it creates a half cadence. The half cadence could be symbolic of the fact that although Satan may win a few battles on earth, Christ will ultimately conquer him. This is evident, because the chorale quickly returns to a major key and ends with an authentic cadence. In addition to Bach's masterful use of the tonal harmonic vocabulary to express the meaning of the text, his chorale harmonizations contain some common features such as fermatas to indicate the end of textual phrases.


Chorale Motets

      Bach's ability to infuse traditional forms with his own compositional genius is also seen in his polyphonic treatment of Lutheran hymn melodies. Polyphonic settings of chorales that are known as chorale motets developed simultaneously with four part harmonizations. These were originally modeled after examples from Netherlandish composers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and were characterized by rhythmic and melodic imitation, smooth cadences, polyphonic textures, the use of canonic techniques, fugal style entries of voices, and an equality of importance among the voices. Walter arranged some chorales in motet style as early as 1524, and his pieces featured uninterrupted cantus firmus lines in the tenor voice. The other supporting voices were polyphonic in style and texture. Hassler introduced Venetian polyphonic elements in his chorale motets of the early 1600s. In his works all of the voices exchanged the chorale melody in imitative dialogues. This style of writing equalized the voices and virtually eliminated the long extended cantus firmus line. Praetorius also included elements of fugal motets and madrigals in his chorale motets to achieve greater equality of the voices, detailed polyphonic intricacies between the parts, and a freer treatment of the melody. His most interesting contribution to the genre, however, was probably the introduction of accompanimental instruments. By Bach's time, a typical motet consisted of voices and continuo instruments. The texts for these pieces were also based on passages from the Bible and from chorales. Bach composed at least six chorale motets during his lifetime, and are each testimonies to the composer's creativity. Although Bach basically adhered to the traditional chorale motet form, he did add his own touch by infusing his motets with more counterpoint and by appropriately setting each the chorale texts. Four of Bach's chorale motets are scored for two unaccompanied choruses, one is written for five voices, ( Jesu meine Freude ) and the last employs only four voice parts, but is also scored for organ ( Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden ). The most original of these motets is possibly Jesu meine Freude . In this work, Bach sets the cantus firmus almost in the manner of theme and variations. The chorale melody appears a total of eleven times throughout the work, and each appearance is slightly different. Bach was perhaps the first composer to incorporate this variation style into a polyphonic vocal genre. Characteristic features of Bach's chorale motet style include short syllables, a paucity of long notes, frequent sequential repetitions of motives, and numerous pitches within each beat. Bach often also applies ornamental and instrumental treatments to each of the voices.


Bach's Use of the Chorale in Cantatas and Passions

      While Bach set many chorale melodies in a manner that clearly represented the textual message, I believe that Bach also included chorales in larger works in order to continue the Lutheran tradition of encouraging all people to worship God together. This is perhaps the most evident in Bach's cantatas and passions. In these larger and more elaborate works, Bach often employed chorale texts and tunes in many unique and wonderful ways. In so doing, he not only was able to unite the text and music to create double meanings and profound religious messages, but he was also able to encourage untrained lay people to silently participate in worship. Many lay people might have been unfamiliar with the free style of poetry as found prevalently in Bach's Weimar and Leipzig cantatas. They would, however, have known, understood, and appreciated movements based on familiar chorale texts and melodies. It was in the larger vocal genres that Bach fully employed the use of the chorale, exploiting its expressive possibilities as well as its textual significance. In these works, chorales can be found in extremely diverse and elaborate settings as well as in simple arrangements. Chorale melodies can be found in instrumental parts, in solo voices, and most frequently in choral movements.

      It is extremely significant that Bach frequently placed the chorale tunes in choral settings, because the melodies were originally created to allow congregations to worship God as a collective body. In scoring the chorales for a full vocal range, Bach was perhaps encouraging all listeners to participate in worship in the quiet of their own hearts. This is especially suggested by several of the chorales in the passions. In these musical representations of Christ's suffering, Bach often used chorale settings to represent collective groups of people, and especially the Christian church. The first movement of the Saint Matthew's Passion , for example, contains a chorale melody that appears in the soprano voice on top of elaborate choral polyphony. The text of this chorale expresses the prayer and anguished cry of a crowd of people. In this instance the crowd is probably composed of Christians, because the text acknowledges Christ as the Savior. The text says:

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig

Am Stamm des kreuzes geschlachtet

Allzeit erfunden geduldig

Wiewohl du warest varachtet

Ah Sünd hast du getragen

Sonst mü?ten wir verzagen

Erbarm dich unser, o Jesu!

(O Lamb of God, most holy,

The bitter Cross undergoing,

O Saviour, meek and lowly,

Despite scorn and only knowing,

The sins of Man Thou'rt bearing,

Else were we left despairing.

On us have mercy, O Jesus!)

Bach, Passion ii

      By association of the four-part chorus, the significance of the text, and the chorale cantus firmus, it is highly probable that listeners would have associated with the music and possibly have been drawn to silently worship God.

      Bach also encouraged corporate worship not only through the symbolic representation of groups of people, but also through his method of scoring the melodies. In larger works, Bach frequently set choral chorale movements in two diverse styles. One of these styles was a simple four-voiced hymn-like harmonization and the other was a more elaborate polyphonic setting. The hymn-like settings occur frequently in Bach's passions as well as the Weimar and Leipzig cantatas. In the Weimar cantatas, chorales often appear in the last movement and serve the textual purpose of summarizing the entire libretto in order to reinforce the message of the sermon or Scripture of the day. Cantata BWV 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (“As the Rain and Snow from Heaven fall”), for example, has a text by Erdmann Neumeister that deals with the importance of God's word in the life of a Christian. The text is based on the Parable of the Sower from Luke, chapter eight. In the cantata, the final chorale movement summarizes the textual message by expressing the importance of God's Word in leading to salvation and delivering the Christian from sin. Such a simple musical summary would serve the purpose of reminding a congregation of the meaning of the text in a straightforward manner, without the distractions of ornate music. In these settings instruments usually enhance the simplicity of the music by doubling voice parts. It is also quite possible that Bach intended the congregation to join in and sing during the final chorale movements.

      Another way that Bach probably encouraged corporate worship of God in larger works was by placing familiar chorale melodies in a cantus firmus style above elaborate polyphony. The underlying voices could be vocal lines, instrumental parts, or combinations of both. Thus, even though the music itself was extremely ornate and complex, untrained listeners could easily have heard and appreciated the mes- sage of the chorale text. Each movement in this style varied widely in treatment in order to portray the meaning of the text. An example of this type of chorale setting is found in the seventh movement of Cantata BWV 182. This kind of treatment of the voices seems to portray the idea of a “soul walking on a bed of roses,” as the text describes. Perhaps the soul is represented by the cantus firmus line and the underlying “bed of roses” is illustrated by polyphony that when dissonant evokes images of the roses' thorns and when consonant creates thoughts of beautiful and fragrant roses.

      While choral scoring of chorale tunes could possibly have invoked a sense of corporate worship, Bach's settings of chorale melodies in aria movements could have inspired people to worship God due to the meaningful combinations of both the sung and implied texts. In these aria settings, Bach often created double textual meanings through the association of two texts. A common occurrence in Bach's cantatas is the instrumental representation of a chorale tune that occurs while the soloist sings a related poetic or Biblical text. In these arias, the chorale melodies can be in simple cantus firmus styles or can be highly fragmented. They can also be ornately embellished and be performed by diverse types of instruments. What is most significant, however, is the way that Bach combines the stated and unstated texts to create deeper meanings. In the sixth movement of Cantata BWV 12, for example, the tenor sings an aria with a poetic text about being steadfast in the midst of trials. The librettist uses metaphors from nature to illustrate these truths. He likens trials to stormy tempests that seem terrible at the time, but that in the end help to create beautiful new flowers. In this instance, the flowers are symbolic of eternal rewards that will only come as a result of faithfulness. A similar sentiment is echoed in the instrumental chorale tune that occurs simultaneously, Jesu, meine freude . The text of the chorale claims that Christ is to be the Christian's delight in the same way a bride desires a bridegroom. In desiring Christ a Christian is sheltered from the attacks of Satan. Thus taken together the texts reveal that when Christians take pleasure in Christ, they will gain the strength and protection needed to stand firm against Satan and, as a result, will earn heavenly rewards. In the first movement of cantata BWV 161, the organ also plays a chorale melody while the alto sings a text based on the sweetness of meeting Christ after physical death. The text of the chorale tune incorporated into the organ part speaks of the physical destruction of the body before eternal glory. Thus the movement presents a double message about the two aspects of humans, their limited physical life and their eternal spiritual state.


Organ Chorales

      Bach's ability to compose original music using chorale melodies is seen not only in Bach's vocal works, but also in his instrumental works. Some of Bach's elaborate pieces for the organ served the dual purpose of displaying virtuosic skill while still being suitable for worship in a church setting. These organ pieces, known as organ chorales, represent some of Bach's greatest and most varied instrumental works. Organ chorales are pieces that employ either an entire chorale melody or part of a melody at anytime during the composition. Many of these chorales served the purpose of introducing a congregation to a new chorale melody, yet they were often highly virtuosic in character. The pieces portrayed textual or liturgical meaning while exploiting the capabilities of the organ. Bach's organ chorales can be classified into several forms. These include the chorale motet form, the choral fantasia form, and the chorale fughetta form. The chorale motet style is characterized by imitative lines whereas the fantasia form is more virtuosic in style with rapid runs and arpeggios. Perhaps it was most frequently in this form that Bach greatly expanded the use of the pedals. Fugal or fughetta styles employ imitation in the motet style, but with the absence of a conspicuous cantus firmus.

      Organ chorales also exist in variation and prelude forms. The chorale variation or Partita style only fascinated Bach at the beginning and end of his career, and pieces in this style may have been used as interludes in Arnstadt and Mülhausen between different stanzas of a chorale. Perhaps it was these elaborate and wonderful compositions that elicited criticism from church authorities and were responsible for the complaint that Bach was inserting “strange notes” (Butt, page 344) into the chorales. In the variations, Bach usually employed diverse moods, textures, and treatments of a chorale melody to create variety. Chorale preludes are found in both short and long versions. The short versions employ a wide variety of treatments of the chorale. These include putting the melody in the alto voice, creating a chorale fantasia, and ornamenting the chorale. Short preludes are found predominantly in a book called the Orgel-Büchlein . Longer preludes include cantus firmus melodies, invention, trio, and ritornello forms, canon and contrapuntal styles, and long ornamental chorale melodies.

      Throughout his life, Bach wrote many compositions that were based on Lutheran chorales. Although it could be argued that the use of these chorales limited Bach's creative resources and forced him to spend countless hours composing in old-fashioned or traditional styles, I personally believe that the chorales inspired Bach to compose some of his most profound compositions. Within the structure of traditional forms and genres, such as the motet, Bach was able to express his own genius. Rather than being constraining or confining, the structure of the forms freed Bach to focus on the most important aspects of Lutheran music, such as the relationships between textual and musical content and the significance of the music for an untrained listener. Bach thus was successful in his role as a church composer not because he did anything radically different than his predecessors, but because he perfected the musical forms that others initiated.


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—-, ed. The World of the Bach Cantatas. New York : W. W. Norton & Company,


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