Bach Chorales


Bach Chorales is a collection of 16 short four-part choral pieces, all of which translate very well into the guitar ensemble format. These pieces were selected from a much larger collection of 371 Bach Chorales (the Riemenschneider Bach collection). The collection given in Bach Chorales includes two pieces in each of the eight best keys for the guitar (G Major, A Major, C Major, D Major, E Major, a minor, d minor, and e minor). Since the abundance of material from which to choose made transposition unnecessary, the first step of the selection process was the elimination of any Chorales not in one of these eight keys. Then a number of the remaining Chorales were eliminated because they were deemed unsuitable for use as study pieces (too long, too short, too rhythmically complicated, too chromatic). The 16 Chorales given here were chosen from among the five or six dozen remaining Chorales on the basis of which melodies I liked best.

The 371 Bach Chorales are one of the greatest treasures of Western musical heritage, and have been widely studied and admired for more than two centuries. Most of the melodies were not written by Bach himself, but rather were borrowed from well known hymns, folk songs, and popular music of his day. The Chorales have long been considered a model for composing music because of Bach's incomparable skill at harmonizing melodies in four-part arrangements. Although written for mixed choir (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), the Chorales were not meant to be performed "a capella" (without accompaniment). The choir parts were normally doubled with orchestral strings or harpsichord, and often the melody was doubled with flute or oboe as well. A great many of the Chorales were used by Bach as the basis for longer and more elaborate musical compositions.

The structure of the Chorales, and it is consistent throughout the entire Riemenschneider collection, consists of a series of short phrases, each phrase ending in a fermata. A fermata is a symbol which indicates that a note should be held for an indeterminate length of time. The pauses given by these fermatas are an essential part of the rhythmic flow of this music. In performance, the exact duration of the held notes, and the timing of the resumption of the music, are determined by the director or conductor. In the context of this study, however, a more definitive interpretation of fermatas is obviously required. In most cases, fermatas were interpreted by adding another beat to the duration of the held note, and then adding a beat of rest. Depending on the original notation, this resulted in measures containing either one or two beats more than usual. In a few cases, the duration of the held note was only increased by a half-beat, and the meter was not interrupted. While this perfunctory manner of interpreting fermatas could be applied to any of the 16 Chorales given here, the proper flow of the music would be disrupted in more than a few instances. In truth, the ideal manner of interpreting this music usually lies somewhere between the perfunctory observance of fermatas and the notation given here.

Interestingly enough, despite the apparent complexity of this music, most of these 16 Chorales are relatively easy to play. Each of the four parts tells its own simple musical story. When they are combined, the result is often quite astounding. The bass parts are a clinic in developing and playing solid and interesting bass lines. The alto and tenor parts provide an excellent opportunity for developing fretting skills by playing reasonably simple but very beautiful music, and for becoming familiar with which notes are contained in the various keys. As they have been notated here, the soprano parts require a great deal of movement up and down the neck. This is so because the first string, which produces the best tone for higher-pitched notes, has been used wherever possible. The need for so much movement can be greatly reduced, and entirely new fretting patterns can be created, by substituting equivalent notes on the second and third strings.

Chorale #263 in e minor, also called "Jesu, Meine Freude", was probably one of Bach's favorites. He used it as the basis for several of his longer works, including a motet by the same name (a motet is a lengthy choral composition). Chorale #217 in C Major contains a few seemingly out-of-place dissonant harmonies. In setting words to music, and all of the Chorales are musical settings for words, Bach was a firm believer in making the music fit the words. He was not at all averse to using strange or dissonant harmonies if the words suggested them. Chorale #290 in E Major is a fairly rhythmically active piece, containing numerous little runs, in all four parts, that give this music a very dynamic character. The effect of the final cadence to a tightly-grouped chord is heightened by the dissonance in the passage by which it is preceded. Bach's immense genius is well demonstrated, even if only on a small scale, by Chorale #181 in e minor. In this five phrase piece, the melody from the first phrase is repeated but differently harmonized in the second phrase, and the melody from the third phrase is repeated but differently harmonized in the fourth phrase. The harmonizations in the second and fourth phrases are so different that it is difficult to detect that the melodies are the same.

Chorale #239 in C Major is a rhythmically intricate piece containing a number of suspended notes (a suspended note is a note carried over through a bar line of through a beat). There are in addition a number of short runs the correct rhythmic execution of which requires a quartering of the beat. In Chorale #85 in E Major, as in a great many of the 371 Chorales, there are passages in which the lower parts sound interesting sub-melodies that enrich the music considerably. This is particularly well demonstrated by the alto line in the next to last phrase of this piece, which despite its brevity is a thing of extraordinary beauty. Chorale #81 in a minor is built around a passionate melody of epic proportions. Notice that Bach captured both of these qualities expertly in the harmonization for this piece. Chorale #86 in D Major is of a much less solemn nature, and moves along briskly, with the exception of a single passage in which the rhythms are slowed to very good effect. Notice that this piece ends with a descending Major scale in the soprano line. Notice too the fascinating harmonization with which Bach accompanied this routine succession of notes.

In the guitar ensemble arrangement for Chorale #233 in A Major, both the soprano and alto parts sound notes in the guitar's upper register throughout most of the piece, which gives this music a brilliant character in the guitar ensemble format. In Chorale #207 in d minor, the first two of the four phrases of which this piece is comprised are very rhythmically active and very syncopated in all four parts. In the third and fourth phrases, not nearly as rhythmically active, a contrasting musical style is developed, which reflects the two-part construction of the melody for this piece. Chorale #258 in G Major employs a rather different rhythmic scheme, in which a rhythmically simple melody is accompanied by three rhythmically active parts containing numerous syncopated rhythms.

Chorale #345 in a minor, based on a beautiful and passionately expressive melody, also contains several especially poignant harmonies, and is therefore one of the loveliest of all the Chorales.

Chorale #153 in D Major is a spirited and briskly-paced piece, much of which is characterized by similar rhythms in all four parts. This music is largely shaped by the contrasting effect of the passages in which the parts diverge rhythmically. The Bach Chorales are marvels of musical construction in which the parts seemingly fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. With some Chorales, however, this impression is particularly strong, and every note seems perfectly timed, perfectly pitched, and totally irreplaceable. Chorale #326 in A Major is such a Chorale.

Chorale #340 in d minor is marked by a great deal of rhythmic variety, including homophonic passages (passages in which the rhythm of all the parts is the same), highly syncopated passages, sustained notes, suspended notes, and rhythmic patterns requiring a quartering of the beat. The collection concludes with Chorale #362 in G Major, in which an interesting and purposeful melody is combined with a harmonization so beautiful in places that it simply defies description.