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The Origin of the Melodies of the Chorales

By Albert Scheitzer (1908)

Luther acted with regard to the melodies on the same principles as he had done with regard to the text; he took whatever old melody suited his purpose and "improved" it, - only the improvement was often more drastic in the case of the tune than in that of the words, for it was his first care to see that the melodies were singable and easily grasped.

In 1524, - the crucial year for German church-music Conrad Rupff and Johann Walther,[1] two eminent musicians, were for three weeks Luther's guests, acting as his "house-precentory" (Kantorei im Hause). Köstlin, in his essay on Luther als der Vater des evangelischen Kirchengesanges, depicts the trio at their work.[2] "While Walther and Rupff sat at the table, bending over the music sheets with pen in hand, Father Luther walked up and down the room, trying on the fife the tunes that poured from his memory and his imagination to ally themselves with the poems he had discovered, until he had made the verse-melody a rhythmically finished, well-rounded, strong and compact whole."

Thus the sacred songs of the Middle Ages preserved their own melodies, and the Latin hymns were translated in such a way that the new words fitted the old melodies, just as in the Enchiridion of 1524. Often, indeed, the poem was so constructed as to fit the "tone" of some sacred song that was already well known.[3]

Since we rarely know the history of a melody before it became attached to a hymn, the name of which it henceforth bears, it is difficult to decide which melodies were adopted and which composed by the musicians of the Reformation. In any case we must not under-estimate the number of the latter. Johann Walther in particular seems to have employed a rich inventive gift in the service of religion. To what extent Luther himself was a composer of melodies cannot be determined. Contemporary testimonies, on the strength of which a number of tunes are attributed to him, are much too vague to prove anything positively. The melody of "Ein feste Burg", that may with certainty be attributed to him, is woven out of Gregorian reminiscences. The recognition of this fact deprives the melody of none of its beauty and Luther of none of the credit for it; it really takes considerable talent to create an organic unity out of fragments.[4]

In his melody to the German Gloria ("Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr"), Nicolaus Decius openly makes use of the "Et in terra pax" from the "Gloria paschalis". There was nothing strange in this to the men who had been brought up in the singing-schools of the catholic Church; it would indeed be surprising if they had thought it so. We may recall the fact that the medieval hymn in its turn derives from the Gregorian use.

Nicolaus Hermann, cantor of Joachimsthal, in Bohemia, who was both poet and musician, wrote some very good chorale melodies. To him we owe "Lobt Gott ihr Christen allzugleich" and "Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag".[5] On the whole the number of musicians who wrote melodies for the church was not large, - not because at that time there were no musicians capable of the work, but rather because their services were not called for. For a new melody to become a true folk-melody, of the kind that would gain immediate acceptance everywhere, was a difficult process, requiring a long period of time. It was much more natural to impress existing melodies into the service of the Church, - sacred melodies at first, and then, when these did not suffice, secular ones. The Reformed Church made the most abundant use of this latter source.[6]

Among the church tunes there are as few indigenous melodies as there are among those of the people; all have had an external origin. The learned August Gevaert has expressed the opinion that the oldest Catholic church-music was transplanted into the church from the pagan streets.[7].

For the Reformation it was a question of much more than acquiring serviceable melodies. While it brought the folk-song into religion, it wished to elevate secular art in general. That the object was conversion rather than simple borrowing is shewn by the title of a collection that appeared at Frankfort in 1571: Gassenhauer, Reuter- und Bergliedlein, christlich, moraliter and sittlich verändert, damit die bse und ärgerliche Weise unnütze und schampare Liedlein aus Gassen, Feldern und in Häusern zu singen mit der Zeit abgehen möchte, wenn man geistige gute, nütze Texte und Worte darunter haben möchte. ("Street songs, cavalier songs, mountain songs, transformed into Christian and moral songs, for the abolishing in course of time of the bad and vexatious practice of singing idle and shameful songs in the streets, in fields, and at home, by substituting for them good, sacred, honest words.")

Believing, as he said, that "the devil does not need all the good tunes for himself", Luther formed his Christmas hymn "Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her" out of the melody of the riddle-song "Ich komm aus fremden Landen her" - in which the singer propounds a riddle and takes her garland from the maiden who cannot solve it[8]. Afterwards, however, he had to let the devil have the melody back again, for even after its conversion it haunted every dancing-place and every tavern. In 1551 Walther ejected it from the hymn-book, replacing it by the tune to which Luther's Christmas hymn is sung to this day.[9]

Reversions of this kind, however, were the exception. The majority of the melodies that were dignified by admission into the church were able to maintain themselves in their new station, and may justly feel aggrieved that in all these centuries the tooth of time has not been able to make away with the scanty documentary evidence of their secular origin. It would have been difficult to detect the secular element in them, for age confers on all music a dignity that gives it a touch of religious elevation. A mystic bond embraces and unites antiquity and religion; one clever writer maintains, riot without reason, that we could mislead all the purists of church music by putting before them an old secular motet with an accompanying sacred text.

To give a few examples, - Heinrich Isaak's melody to "Inspruck, ich mußdich lassen," became the chorale "O Welt ich muß dich lassen"[10] and the foot-soldiers' song at the battle of Pavia, - the "Pavier-tone" - became the chorale "Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt" (Bach V, No. 13); the chorale melody "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen" (Bach VII, No. 56), is derived from the love-song "Einmal tat ich spazieren"; the chorale "Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt" (Bach VI, No. 28) borrows its melody from another love-song, "Es gibt auf Erd kein schwerer Leid"; the melody "Helft mir Gottes Güte preisen" (Bach V, No. 21) had been one of the Table-songs (1572) of Joachim Magdeburg.

In 1601 Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) published at Nuremburg a Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesänge, Palletti, Galliarden und Intraden mit vier, fünf und acht Stimmen, ("Pleasure garden of new German songs, balletti, galliards, and intrades, for four, five, and eight voices"). Twelve years later, one of these melodies, - the love-song "Mein G'mut ist mir verwirret von einer Jungfrau zart" - appeared as a chorale tune to the funerary hymn "Herzlich thut mich verlangen" (Bach V, No. 27), while at a later date, allied with Paul Gerhardt's poem "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden", it became the most important melody of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244).

Any foreign melody that had charm anbeauty was stopped at the frontier and pressed into the service of the evangelical service. This was the lot of the melody of "In dir ist Freude" (Bach V, No. 34), which came from Italy in 1591 with the Balletti of Giovanni Gastoldi. So again with the little French song "Il me suffit de tous mes maux", which appeared in 1529 among the Trente et quatre chansons musicales of the celebrated Parisian music-engraver Pierre Attaignant; it was utilised for the hymn "Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit".[11] One wonders if Bach had any suspicion of this fact when he harmonised the splendid melody for the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)![12]

Other French folk-tunes came at a later date into the German chorale by way of the Huguenot Psalter. As the Calvinist church found no sacred folk-songs already in existence, it was compelled to borrow even more largely than the German Church. O. Douen has shown, in his interesting work on Clément Marot et le Psautier Huguenot, [13] the process by which the melodies were compiled for the Psalter. Even Calvin had to laugh, - for the only time in his life - when he saw the most frivolous tunes walking along, chastely and devoutly, hand in hand with the lofty poems of David and Solomon.

The Huguenot Psalter appeared in its definitive form in 1562. As early as 1565 Ambrosius Lobwasser, Professor of Law in Königsberg, published a German version of the Psalms, adapting them to the hundred and twenty-five melodies of the French work. These tunes thus became known, and were at once incorporated in the German chorale books. The splendid melody of "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sind" (Bach VII, No. 58), comes from the Huguenot Psalter; it was probably a French folk-song originally.[14]

Only the shameless curiosity that characterises our boasted historical sense can rejoice at these discoveries. The musician does not trouble himself about them, and forgets them as soon as they are told to him; for they tell him no more than what he already knew by instinct - that all true and deeply-felt music, whether secular or sacred, has its home on the heights where art and religion dwell.

Happy the chorales of whose origin nothing is known ! This was the good fortune of the melodies to Nicolai's "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" and "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (Bach VII, No. 57). Both songs appear for the first time in 1598 in the appendix to a treatise on the glories of the future life.

When the treasures of melody to be drawn upon were at last exhausted, there came the epoch of the composer. The copious spiritual poetry of the seventeenth century called them to the work. There was scarcely an evangelical musician of that time who did not compose melodies for the church. Almost all the masters whose names adorn the history of polyphonic choral music call for mention also in the history of the origin of the chorale melodies. And it was with the melodies as with the poems: while a great many of a composer's tunes were destined to perish, he managed to breathe the breath of eternal life into a few of them, or at any rate into one, which will shine in imperishable beauty in our hymn-books as long as the evangelical hymn exists. The most notable of these writers is Johann Crüger (1598-1662), of St. Nicholas's church in Berlin, who devoted his art to the poems of Paul Gerhardt and Johann Franck. The most beautiful of his melodies, such as "Jesu meine Freude", "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele", "Nun danket alle Gott", occupy a place of honour in Bach's work; the very first chorale in the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), - "Herzliebster Jesu" - is by Crüger.

The spirit, however, which dominated music about the beginning of the eighteenth century made it incapable of developing the true church-tune any further. German music got out of touch with German song, and fell further and further under the influence of the more "artistic" Italian melody. It could no longer achieve that navet which, ever since the Middle Ages, had endowed it with those splendid, unique tunes. Moreover the secular music that was then flourishing in the towns and at the courts lured it on to new problems, and it could no longer find its sole satisfaction in a self-denying co-operation with religious poetry.

When Bach came on the scene, the great epoch of chorale creation was at an end, like that of the sacred poem. Sacred melodies were indeed still written; but they were songs of the aria type, not true congregational hymns; an indefinable air of subjectivity pervaded them.

In this matter Bach too was subject to the laws of his epoch. When in 1736 Schemelli, cantor at the castle of Zeitz, published through Breitkopf a large hymn-book, containing nine hundred and fifty-four numbers, he approached the famous cantor of St. Thomas's church to beg his co-operation. Bach undertook, we are told in the preface to the book, not only to revise the figured basses, but to compose melodies for the hymns that lacked them. Since in this hymn-book, as in the others, the names of the composers are not given, we cannot be perfectly sure which or how many tunes are by Bach. Those, however, which we can ascribe to him with some certainty, since they cannot be traced to an earlier date, are rather sacred arias than chorales. This description applies, however, only to their character, not their beauty; for their peculiar loveliness comes from the fact that they are the work of an artist brought up on the German chorale, writing under the influence of the formally perfect Italian melodic form. Any one who has been thrilled by the strains of "Komm süßer Tod" or "Liebster Herr Jesu" knows how unspeakably grand these melodies are.[15] We must not attempt, however, to sing them as congregational songs, or to arrange them for four voices, for then they wither at once, like the water-lily that has been torn from its home. The heaviness and dullness that settle on them nowadays when they are treated as chorales, show clearly that they are not true chorales.

After Bach, the bonds between the chorale and the sacred song are completely broken. The melodies that Emmanuel Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, Johann Adam Hiller and Beethoven wrote, in artistic rivalry, to Gellert's poems only show what a distance separated them all from the chorale.

In the epoch of Rationalism, it is true, the melodies were not diluted to the same extent as the text; but there was still a hard struggle until the old melodies were again rehabilitated everywhere, and were no longer jostled in the chorale books by the characterless tunes of the later epoch. Now that this has been achieved, the dispute today is as to whether we shall retain the old chorales with the uniform note-values in which we have received them from the eighteenth century, or whether we should restore to them their original rhythmic variety. A definite decision, indeed, is hardly possible. Each "pro" that can be adduced from historical, artistic, or practical considerations is at once opposed by a "contra" of equal force in its way. Bach is concerned in this controversy to the extent that those who advocate the uniform polished form of chorales can plead that, although the opposite tradition had a powerful following all round him, he felt no artistic compulsion to revert to the old rhythmic form of the chorale, and so there is no cogent objection, from the purely musical point of view, against the chorale as we have received it from his hands. Against the enthusiasts for the rhythmic melodies the old master can plead as St. Paul once did against the Corinthians who knew all things much better, that he too thinks he is possessed by the spirit.

Here are the three typical forms of "Ein feste Burg":[16]

1) Original form of Luther's chorale.

2) Luther's chorale in a hymn-book of 1570 (See Wolfrum, p. 216)

3) Luther's chorale in the form used by Bach.



A. KÜSTLIN: Luther als der Vater des evangelischen Kirchengesangs. (Sammlung musikalischer Vorträge und Au sätze); Breitkopf und Härtel, Leipzig, 1881.
PH. WOLFRUM: Die Entstehung und erste Entwicklung des deutschen evangelischen Kirchenlieds in musikalischer Beziehung. Leipzig, 1890.
JOHANNES ZAHN: Die Melodien der deutschen evangelischen Kirchenlieder aus den Quellen geschöpft und mitgeteilt. Gütersloh, 1889-1893, 6 vols.
Friedrich Zelle: Das älteste lutherische Haus- Gesangbuch. Göttingen, 1903.
KÜMMERLE: Enzyklopädie der evangelischen Kirchenmusik. Gütersloh, 1886.



[1] Johann Walther was born in Thuringia in 1496; from about 1523 he belonged to the Torgau precentory of the Electoral Prince. When, in 1530, lack of funds compelled the prince to give it up, Walther, encouraged by Luther, organised a precentory maintained by the corporation. After the battle of Mühlberg (1547), which made him the sovereign of a new territory, Moritz of Saxony founded a Kapelle in Dresden, of which he appointed Walther the head. He presided over this until 1554. He then returned to Torgau, where he died in 1570.
[2] Köstlin, p. 306.
[3] The summary given on pp. 9 and 10 of the provenance of the texts of the old songs applies also to the melodies.
[4] On this question cf W. Bäumker's article in the Monatshefte für Musikgeschichte, 1880. For a counterblast to the excessive stress laid by Bäumker on the external derivation of the melody see H. A. Köstlin's essay Luther als der Vater des evangelischen Kirchengesangs (Sammlung musikalischer Vorträge,
Leipzig, 1881, pp. 313 ff.).
[5] Bach V, Nos. 40 and 15.
[6] For the secular originals see F. M. Böhme, Altdeutsches Liederbuch: Volkslieder der Deutschen nach Wort und Weise aus dem XII. bis zum XV II. Jahrhundert.
Leipzig, 1877.
[7] August Gevaert, Der Ursprung des römischen Kirchengesangs, - a paper read before the Belgian Academy of Arts, 27th Oct. 1889. German translation by H. Riemann,
Leipzig, 1891.
[8] See Fr. Zelle, Das äiteste lutherische Haus-Gesangbuch, Göttingen, 1903, pp. 48-50, where the melody is given in the form in which it was first used as a church melody (in Klug's Gesangbuch, 1531).
[9] Böhme was the first to conjecture that the ground of the ejectment of the first melody was its profane power of resistance See Zelle p. 49. The new melody - the one now current - (Bach V, No. 49 and pp. 92 ff.) is found in a
Leipzig hymn-book as early as 1539.
[10] See Bach's St. Matthew Passion (
BWV 244), chorales Nos. 16 and 44. Today this melody is usually denoted by the song "Nun ruhen alle Wälder". It first appears as a chorale tune in the Nuremberg hymn-book of 1569.
[11] It was, however, quite a tragic love-song, as will appear from the opening verse: Il me suffist de tous mes maulx, puis qu'ils m'ont livré la mort. J'ay endure peine et travaulx, tant de douleur et décomfort. Que faut-il que je fasse pour estre en votre grace? De douleur mon coeur est si mort s'il ne voit votre face.
[12] St. Matthew Passion (
BWV 244), No. 31.
[13] Etude historique, littéraire, musicale et bibliographique; 2 vols, 1878 and 1879.
[14] Philipp Wolfrum gives a comprehensive résumé of the origin of the songs in his Die Entstehung and erste Entwicklung des deutschen evangelischen Kirchenlieds in musikalischer Beziehung;
Leipzig, 1890.
[15] The best known edition of these melodies is that of Zahn, Vierundzwanzig geistliche Lieder für eine Singstimme (Gütersloh).
Friedrich Zelle discusses the history of this melody in his "Studien über 'Ein Feste Burg'" (Gärtner, Berlin, 1895-1897).


Source: 'J.S. Bach' by Albert Schweitzer (1908), English translation by Ernest Newman (Breitkopf & Härtel, 1911)
Contributed by Thomas Braatz & Aryeh Oron (September 2005)

Chorales BWV 250-438
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