Composing Chorale Settings

Copyright Justin Henry Rubin © 2005


The chorale, as with any other canus firmus, provides the composer with some a priori (or pre-existing) material from which new music can be composed. In fact, cantus firmus based writing was one of the first methods that Western composers used to develop sophisticated musical structures from the Medieval era on. The practice of setting chorales distinguishes itself through the specific forms that composers began applying to them in the seventeenth century. Often contrasting sets of settings are grouped together to form partitas (see the Listening List below). We will explore some of the prevalent forms of chorale arrangements through creating new settings of one of the oldest chorales, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This Lutheran chorale originated in the early sixteenth century as an altered, metrical version of the fourth century Ambrosian hymn Veni, Redemptor Gentium.


AOriginal Chorale Setting (Samuel Scheidt)

B. Chorale Fughetta

C. Chorale Bicinium

D. Ornamented Chorale


AUDIO and MIDI files can be listened to on this page or downloaded separately here.

A. Original Setting (Samuel Scheidt)

In this version by the veritable father of the North German school of organ, Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), we find a more vocally oriented and contrapuntally interesting method of supporting the cantus than exhibited by later composers, such as J.S.Bach, who too often derive voice parts from formulaic harmonic progressions in lieu of truly independent lines. As well, with the Scheidt we will observe a more appropriate modal treatment to this Renaissance cantus. Points of interest are here marked in the score.

mp3 download (organ version)
mp3 download (brass quartet arrangement)
score download (of brass quartet arrangement)

B. Chorale Fughetta

One of the forms adapted to chorale settings is the fugue, or, as here, a fughetta (meaning a short fugue). The chorale fughetta is ordinarily derived only from the opening musical phrase (that typically identifies the particular chorale). Here, we have slightly altered its rhythm and meter to create a distinct profile to our subject, emphasizing the notable perfect fourth leap. In the chapter on Composing a Fugue, a comprehensive step-by-step approach to the form is explained. The piece here will be used only to illustrate the particulars of how a chorale phrase can be transformed into a subject and expressed contrapuntally. Other aspects of fugal composition worthy of note will be indicated below.


1. The answer in this exposition is a tonal answer. This means that although it maintains the contours and rhythm of the subject, it will be slightly modified to support the harmonic structure needed. The perfect fourth leap of the subject in this situation becomes a perfect fifth.

2. At the conclusion of the answer there is an interlude (bar 5). This is a brief sequence used to bring the harmonic region back to the tonic, and in so doing preparing the final entrance of the subject in this exposition.

3. Although following the exposition, episodes separate the next two subject entrances, this is not always needed. In fact, the two final subject entrances of the piece are placed back to back - and even in the same voice - to create a dramatic moment in anticipation of the coda.

mp3 download (Audio mp3)

Go on to the next setting.


The following listening list is provided for the student to explore numerous outstanding examples of how this form has been adapted from the late Renaissance through the present.

List from the Common Practice:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten [BWV 668] also known as Vor deinen Thron tret ich - excellent example of a canonic interpretation of a chorale.

Georg Böhm: Prelude "Vater unser im Himmelreich" - one of the most outstanding examples of the ornamented chorale in the literature.

Johaness Brahms: Prelude "O Welt, ich muss dich lassen"

Dietrich Buxtehude: Partita "Auf meinen lieben Gott" - featuring settings in the form of dance movements.

Felix Mendelssohn: Organ Sonata VI - first movement is a set of variations on Vater unser im Himmelreich.

Max Reger: Fantasia "Alle Menschen müssen sterben" - highly wrought, chromatic example of a chorale setting.

Samuel Scheidt: Tabulatura nova - an anthology assembled by the composer featuring a veritable encyclopedia of chorale and chant settings.

Johannes Schrem: Sancta Maria / Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot' - one of the earliest trio settings from the Renaissance.

Ulrich Steigleder: Vater unser im Himmelreich - the most extensive partita of the Baroque era, comprised of forty settings.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck: O lux beata trinitas - a short partita using a chant source with modal harmony.



List from the Modern Era:

Hugo Distler: Kleine Orgelchoral-Bearbeitungen [Op. 8/III] - features neo-Renaissance techniques fused with quartal/modal harmony. Excellent examples of the 20th century ornamented chorale, bicinia, and fugue.

Johann Nepomuk David: "Ich stürbe gern aus Minne" - for soprano and organ

Flor Peeters: Prelude "Lasst uns erfreuen" [Op. 81/2]

Hans Friedrich Micheelsen: Prelude "Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort" - quartal harmony supporting the cantus.

Josef Ahrens: Das heilige Jahr - compendium of short compositions exploring a wide variety of textures and harmonic ideas.


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