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The chorale was originally a hymn of the German Lutheran Church. It features heavily in the works of J.S. Bach and other German composers. The melody is usually simple and singable as chorales are meant to be sung by the congregation rather than trained choirs.
Martin Luther, one of the founders of Protestantism, held that it was important that the congregation be able to take part in worship, and that music was the best way to achieve this. The first Lutheran chorales did not feature the regular rhythms that they later took on. They had often a mixture of duple and triple time and a great amount of the free rhythm of plainsong. During the 17th century it become normal to place the hymn tune in the treble, as today. By the time of J.S. Bach the chorale would be harmonised in four parts and it is this arrangement of voices that is the basis of hymn-writing to the present day.
Many forms are based on the chorale, the majority of which come from the German Baroque. These include:
In the works of J.S. Bach
The chorale features heavily in the works of J.S. Bach, among other composers of his time. In fact, the repertory of the German chorale may be said to have been completed in Bach's day. He composed only 30 original chorales, but made some 400 reharmonisations of existing chorale melodies, using them to great effect in his cantatas and settings of the Passions. Bach wrote many chorale preludes for organ which use the chorale melody as the basis for elaboration and decoration, which he would often improvise. In addition, all of his cantatas are based on a chorale, each movement being the setting of a different verse of the text. Bach's harmonisations of these chorale melodies have been studied by students of harmony for centuries as they are exemplary demonstrations of 4-part harmony, and the harmonisation of chorales forms the basis of a traditional education in tonal musical composition.