Chorale setting

A chorale setting is any of a very wide variety of musical compositions, almost entirely of Protestant origin, which use a chorale as their basis. They are vocal, instrumental, or both. Although the bulk of them are German in origin, and predominantly Baroque in time period, chorale settings also exist from other countries and times.

The Protestant Reformation resulted in an enormous change in musical practice in northern Europe. Plainchant, associated with the Catholic church, was largely replaced with choral music sung in the vernacular language—usually German—and the corresponding musical forms from Catholic countries, such as the motet, were also replaced with forms which used as their basis the chorale melodies instead of the plainsong from which much of the motet repertory was derived.

Not only the musical forms, but the individual tunes of the Catholic Church were replaced by reformers, although there was often a close relation between the original and the replacement. Composers, including Martin Luther himself, both composed new tunes for the German chorale texts, and adapted specific plainchant melodies. These chorale tunes were set musically in an extraordinary number of ways, from the time of the Protestant Reformation to the present day.

Chorale settings are of the following principal types:

Boundaries between different items on this list can be very vague, especially in the early Baroque era. Some of these forms are exclusively instrumental (such as the chorale prelude, chorale fugue, chorale fantasia, chorale partita or variations, chorale ricercare/canzona) while the others are a cappella vocal (some chorale motets) or for voices and instruments (chorale cantata, chorale concerto, chorale mass, chorale monody, some chorale motets). Many of the instrumental forms are almost exclusively for organ, the single most important liturgical instrument in Protestant church music from the Reformation until recent times.

Some of these forms continue to be used by composers up to the present day, particularly the chorale prelude, and the chorale mass.


  • Article on "chorale settings" and related subjects, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1947. ISBN 0-393-09745-5

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