Protestant Chorale

Protestant Chorale


(German evangelisches Kirchenlied, literally, “evangelical church song”), a sacred hymn written to a German text and associated with the Protestant religion.

The Protestant chorale originated in Germany in the 16th century during the Reformation and the Peasant War, when T. Münzer and M. Luther replaced the Latin service with German hymns and psalms sung by the congregation. Luther and his collaborators created a collection of hymns to meet the need raised by the new services.

Most of the texts for the chorales were German translations of Catholic hymns and adaptations of old German sacred songs, but there were also some original texts. Luther wanted the chorales to be beautiful, impressive, and simple—easy for a congregation untutored in singing to understand and perform. Adaptations of tunes from Gregorian chant were often used, but German folk songs were the main source for the chorale melodies. Melodies of secular songs, as well as sacred songs, were adapted to German texts. In addition, songs by well-known musicians were used. Thus, H. Sachs’ “Silver Melody” was the basis for the famous chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), which F. Engels called the Marseillaise of the 16th century. The Protestant chorale was distinguished from the folk song by its even rhythm, which eliminated freedom of melodic movement, confining the melody within strict limits. Chorales were very gradually incorporated into the church service. At first, they were sung primarily by professional choirs. Organ accompaniment was provided for the choir beginning in the 17th century. Later, the organ also accompanied the congregation.

The Protestant chorale played an important role in the development of German music. Folk melodies entered professional music through the chorale. Chorale variations and the chorale prelude for organ became very popular. J. Pachelbel, D. Buxtehude, and J. S. Bach are among the composers associated with these genres. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Protestant chorale served as the melodic foundation for many cantatas, oratorios, passions, and other vocal genres.


Schweitzer, A. I. S. Bakh. Moscow, 1965. Chapters 2–4. (Translated from German.)
Westphal, J. Das evangelische Kirchenlied…, 3rd ed. Leipzig, 1911.
Gabriel, P. Das deutsche evangelische Kirchenlied…, 3rd ed. Berlin, 1956.