1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chorale

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CHORALE (from the Lat. choralis, sc. cantus; the final e is added to show the Ger. pronunciation chorāl), a term in music used by English writers to indicate the hymn-tunes composed or adopted for use in church by the German reformers. German writers, however, apply the terms “Choral” and “Chorale-gesang,” as Luther himself would apply them, to any solemn melody used in the church. It is thus the equivalent of canto fermo; and the German rhymed versions of the biblical and other ancient canticles, such as the Magnificat and the Te Deum, are set to curious corruptions of the corresponding Gregorian tunes, which adaptations the composers of classical German music called chorales with no more scruple than they applied the name to tunes of secular origin, German or foreign. The peculiarity of German chorale-music, however, is that its use, and consequently much of its invention, not only arose in connexion with the Reformation, by which the liturgy of the church became “understanded of the people,” but also that it belongs to a musical epoch in which symmetry of melody and rhythm was beginning to assume artistic importance. The growing sense of form shown by some of Luther’s own tunes (e.g. Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her) soon advanced, especially in the tunes of Crüger, beyond any that was shown by folk-music; and it provided an invaluable bulwark against the chaos that was threatening to swamp music on all sides at the beginning of the 17th century. By Bach’s time all the polyphonic instrumental and vocal art-forms of the 18th century were mature; and though he loved to derive the design as well as the details of a large movement from the shape of the chorale tune on which it was based, he became quite independent of any aid from symmetry in the tune as raw material. The chorus of his cantata Jesus nun sei gepreiset is one of the most perfectly designed and quite the longest of movements ever based upon a chorale-tune treated phrase by phrase. Yet the tune is one of the most intractable in the world, though its most unpromising portion is the basis of the most impressive feature in Bach’s design (the slow middle section in triple time).

The national character of the German chorale, and the recent great development of interest in folk-music, together with the unique importance of Bach’s work, have combined to tempt writers on music to over-estimate the distinctness of the art-forms based upon the German chorale. There is really nothing in these art-forms which is not continuous with the universal practice of writing counterpoint on a canto fermo. And it should never be forgotten that, however fascinating may be the study of the relation between artistic forms and the spirit of the age, no art can successfully express more of the spirit of the age than its own technical resources will admit. Choral music in all ages has tended to consist largely of counterpoint on a canto fermo (see Contrapuntal Forms). Where there are not many canto fermos in constant use in the church, composers will be driven to use them rather unsystematically as special effects, and to rely for the most part on other artistic devices, though any use of melodies in long notes against quicker counterpoint will be aesthetically indistinguishable from counterpoint on a canto fermo. Thus Handel in his Italian and English works wrote no entire chorale movements, yet what is the passage in the “Hallelujah” chorus from “the kingdom of this world” to the end but a treatment of the second part of the chorale Wachet auf? How shall we describe the treatment of the words “And their cry came up unto the Lord” in the first chorus of Israel in Egypt, except as the treatment of a phrase of chorale or canto fermo? Again, to return to the 16th century, what are the hymns of Palestrina but figured chorales? In what way, except in the lack of symmetry in the Gregorian phrasing, do they differ from the contemporary setting by Orlando di Lasso, also a Roman Catholic, of the German chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich? In modern times the use of German chorales, as in Mendelssohn’s oratorios and organ-sonatas, has had rather the aspect of a revival than of a development; though the technique and spirit of Brahms’s posthumous organ chorale-preludes is thoroughly modern and vital.

One of the most important, and practically the earliest collection of “Chorales” is that made by Luther and Johann Walther (1496–1570), the Enchiridion, published in 1524. Next in importance we may place the Genevan Psalter (1st ed., Strassburg, 1542, final edition 1562), which is now conclusively proved to be the work of Bourgeois. From this Sternhold and Hopkins borrowed extensively (1562). The psalter of C. Goudimel (Paris, 1565) is another among many prominent collections showing the steps towards congregational singing, i.e. the restriction to “note-against-note” counterpoint (sc. plain harmony), and, in twelve cases, the assigning of the melody to the treble instead of to the tenor. The first hymn-book in which this latter step was acted on throughout is Osiander’s Geistliche Lieder . . . also gesetzt, dass ein christliche Gemein durchaus mitsingen kann (1586). But many of the finest and most famous tunes are of much later origin than any such collections. Several (e.g. Ich freue mich in dir) cannot be traced before Bach, and were very probably composed by him. (D. F. T.)