Borrowed from the German, where it connotes sacred singing, in English it refers more precisely to Lutheran congregational vernacular hymns and their four-voice harmonizations. Martin Luther enthusiastically promoted the chorale as a central element in Lutheran liturgy in the belief that worshippers should participate in the proclamation of the Word of God. He contributed both texts and melodies to the first Lutheran collections that appeared in Wittenberg in 1524: Etlich Christlich lider, known as the "Achtliederbuch"; {}Erfurter Enchiridion; and he wrote the foreword to Johann Walther’s Wittenberger Geystliches Gesangk Buchlein. The steady stream of new publications throughout the 16th century shows how fervently congregations welcomed this kind of liturgical music. Luther’s adaptation of the Latin liturgy, the Deutsche Messe of 1526, began to substitute chorales in German for traditional ordinary prayers. Eventually, a typical German mass might replace the Gloria by Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr; the Credo by Wir glauben {}all an einen Gott; the Sanctus by Jesaja dem Propheten das geschah; the Agnus Dei by Christe, du Lamm Gottes. (The last three are all Luther’s own.) The Greek of the Kyrie remained but could have a German trope such as Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit. A chorale sung between the Epistle and the Gospel, the Gradual-lied, eventually became the thematic chorale for the service. Others might be used in place of Latin propers as the occasion demanded.
   Some early chorales are simply ancient Latin hymns whose melodies were metricized and adapted to German translations of the original. Luther’s own Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland comes from Veni {}redemptor gentium. Other chorales derived from old German traditions of sacred folksong, including pilgrim songs, Crusader songs, {}Geisslerlieder (penitential songs), and 15th-century devotional songs, often with mixed German and Latin (macaronic text), typically associated with popular feasts such as Christmas. Others are contrafacta, with an entirely new text applied to a secular song. Still others have entirely original tunes and texts.
   Since chorales were widely used in schools as well as liturgy, both tunes and texts became very well known. By the late 16th century, the repertory was sufficiently large and inculturated so as to supply an inexhaustible resource of material for new compositional forms, just as the Latin chant repertory underlay the flowering of polyphony: chorale motet, choral mass, chorale cantata, and much of the great repertory of organ preludes stemmed from this popular sacred music. In such guises, the chorale melody might be sung or played out in long durations with surrounding free melody, as was the ancient cantus firmus, or it might serve as the subject of imitative counterpoint, with each chorale phrase initiating a new section. Chorale melodies long associated with particular feasts could amplify or specify the semantics of a composition, as when Johann Sebastian Bach implants O Lamm Gottes unschuldig as a cantus firmus in the midst of the opening chorus from the St. Matthew Passion.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.

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