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Bach-Hall Chorale Preludes

In this article, Dr. Hall introduces pianists to an exciting new body of piano music -- Hall's own arrangements of Bach's chorales! Fresh off the press and still unpublished (but not for long), these musical gems will soon be able to be enjoyed by all pianists and students!


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My primary purpose in composing arrangements of Bach’s chorales is to transform otherwise “dry” and “academic” four-part chorales into beautiful, romantic-style piano pieces while retaining the essential elements (i.e., melodies and harmonies) that Bach has provided. It is fully possible to “romanticize” Bach’s music and do it tastefully and unpretentiously. It is fully possible to be a “Bach purist” (as I believe I am) yet still compose “romantic Bach” arrangements for the modern piano. When forming ideas on a new chorale arrangement, I improvise on the chorale Bach has provided using a myriad of pianistic techniques I have learned from my many years as a pianist. In essence, I pretend I am Bach living today, with a grand piano in front of him, and with the experience of having heard and practiced great piano works of, namely, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. Finally, I select the technique and affect that best represents the music and text of the chorale and proceed to compose an idiomatic piano arrangement of Bach's chorale. — Dr. Cory Hall

I write this exciting article following an incredibly fruitful period in my creative life as a composer and arranger, which took place in February, 2016. Creative phases like this happen only once every few years. Before February, 2016, my first and last fruitful period as a composer occurred way back in 2011, which is the year almost all of my original compositions were composed, namely, my incredibly artistic and original Opus 1 and Opus 2 collections, which to this day still baffles me as to how I composed so many first-rate piano works in such a short period of time. Well actually, I know the answer as to how I could have done it, which is none other than the Holy Spirit. The same way the Apostle Peter describes the Holy Scriptures as being the result of the authors being inspired and led by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:17), I believe that it was not I, but rather the Holy Spirit of God, who inspired and guided me through the roughly three-week period in February, 2016 when at least 10 of my chorale preludes were composed. I (or in reality, the Holy Spirit) composed a new prelude about every two days, which included conceiving the initial ideas to writing them out in detail using Sibelius notation software. Let me reiterate this, folks — I composed ten complete highly artistic and first-rate chorale preludes in the course of only about three weeks, which I fit between my roughly 43 weekly piano students. This is highly unusual for me, since the last time something like this occurred was in 2011 and at that time I had no piano students at all and thus a lot of free time. 

I am a sporadic composer/arranger and do not follow a disciplined plan of composing like many professional composers do. Rather, I go long periods of time composing nothing, but then all of a sudden one day I become inspired to write an arrangement or experiment with some original ideas that may lead to an original work or two. But here is the kicker, folks — when I get into one of my creative phases that usually last only a few weeks (the phase in 2011 lasted around 8 months!) such my “Bach Chorale Prelude” phase in February, 2016, I produce absolutely first-rate material that is usually heads and shoulders above those of my peers. There are some highly prolific composer/arrangers who churn out a plethora of compositions and arrangements, yet many of their works are lackluster and predictable. I am the opposite. I do not compose very often, but when I do, my work far surpasses that of the more prolific composers.

I implore all serious classical pianists reading this that they should practice and play my Bach Chorale Preludes because they are, quite simply, some of the absolute best Bach piano arrangements ever composed. When mentioning Bach Chorale Preludes or Bach arrangements of any kind, one is inevitably compared to the great pianist and Bach arranger, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). However, I have no need to fear since my arrangements are far superior to Busoni’s Chorale Preludes for several reasons:

Why Bach-Hall Chorales Are Better Than Bach-Busoni Chorales

  1. My arrangements of Bach’s chorales come directly from Bach’s original and unadorned four-part chorales. Compare these to Busoni’s arrangements of Bach’s chorales, which are literally “Organ Chorale Preludes” in that they are piano adaptations of arrangements Bach composed for organ performance. Seen in this light, mine are simply “arrangements” while Busoni’s are “arrangements of arrangements”. Busoni did not consult the original source for his chorale preludes (that is, the unadorned four-part chorale), but rather, consulted organ arrangements that are often unidiomatic (i.e. awkward) for the the modern piano. There is good reason why 7 of 10 Bach-Busoni Chorale Preludes are almost never played by pianists — They are overly difficult and extremely awkward to play.
  2. Because my arrangements of Bach’s chorales come directly from Bach’s original and unadorned four-part chorales, I place primary importance on the melody (hymn tune) followed in importance by the bass line and chords. Contrast this with Busoni’s “arrangements of arrangements” and you will discover that the melody is often either distorted beyond recognition or sometimes hardly present at all.
  3. My arrangements of Bach’s chorales are more idiomatic for the piano and much less academic sounding than Busoni’s, and thus, my arrangements are superior to Busoni’s in depth, breadth, and practicality. Busoni published 10 Organ Chorale Preludes, of which only three are routinely played by pianists. There is good reason why pianists almost never play 7 out of 10 (70%!) of Busoni’s Chorales. They are awkward and difficult and not even that musically rewarding. Contrast these with my arrangements, so far all ten of which are masterfully written for the piano, mesmerizing to listen to, and an absolute joy to play despite their relative difficulty.
  4. My arrangements of Bach’s chorales remain true to Bach’s original four-part chorales but at the same time are highly artistic and creative sounding. To summarize, the chorale melodies are always discernible and true to Bach’s originals, yet at the same time, the romantic-style piano music sounds like a hefty dose of Brahms mixed in with some Chopin, Liszt, and topped off with smudges of Rachmaninoff. Because my arrangements retain the original chorale tunes (many from the 1500s) as well as Bach’s original harmonies and bass lines, this makes them ideal pieces not only for concert performance, but also, specifically traditional Lutheran church services. I know of hardly any Lutheran church musicians who would dare to play Bach-Busoni chorales for a church service, yet, a Lutheran music minister colleague of mine has already performed several of my arrangements in church with great aplomb. My Chorale Preludes are absolutely ideal for church and concert hall! Compare this with the Bach-Busoni chorales, of which only 3 of 10 preludes are usually only played in secular concert venues. 
  5. My arrangements of Bach’s chorales serve not only as preludes in their own right, but also, function ideally as etudes since each prelude typically highlights a particular rhythmic or melodic technique. Piano teachers will soon discover that the Bach-Hall Chorale Preludes offer some of the most rewarding piano music one can teach and practice, from the incredibly alluring and romantic Habanera-style “Ich ruf’ zu dir” (Busoni’s most famous chorale) to the Lisztian arpeggios in “Wer nur den lieben Gott” to the energetic and contrapuntal “Wir Christenleut” to the hauntingly beautiful 2:3 rhythms in “Jesu, der du meine Seele.”  
  6. My arrangements of Bach's chorales are generally much less difficult than Busoni's, and thus, are more accessible to a wider audience of pianists. Busoni's virtuosity at the piano is legendary; however, Busoni seems to have mounted difficulty upon difficulty just for the sake of being difficult in his 10 chorale preludes, which still to this day alienates his audience and scares away prospective performers of his music.         
  7. Included in my chorale preludes, before the “prelude proper,” is Bach’s four-part chorale in its original key and in its original notation. Neither Busoni’s nor any other contemporary Bach chorale arrangements include Bach’s original chorale, thus making it a mystery from where the arranger’s ideas originated. Having Bach’s unadorned chorale at one’s disposal, one can then compare Bach’s original with my arrangement, which helps foster understanding of the creative process involved with composing a romantic-style piano arrangement.

Unfortunately, my time and circumstances for recording videos has diminished; however, when I get some time and am able to record these works, I plan demonstrate how great they are. But until then, I implore all serious pianists who love Bach to purchase these preludes and practice them often. They are sure to change your musical life for the better! Now, I would like to give short descriptions of each prelude arranged in the order they were composed (which most likely will be the way I will organize them when all published in one volume).  

The Bach-Hall Chorales in the Order They Were Composed in February, 2016

  1. Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (from Cantata 177) —This is the title of one of Busoni’s two most often performed chorales and is one of the most well-known and beloved of all of Bach’s chorales. My arrangement is unique in that it features a a Spanish-style “Habanera” rhythm although in a very slow Adagio tempo. In the key of G minor, it features the chorale melody on top accompanied by a heavily pedaled broken chord accompaniment with the Habanera rhythm and a cadenza before the final phrase. I don’t know what led me to choose a Spanish-style rhythm for Bach (I know, it seems crazy), but it works fabulously and is perhaps the only chorale out of over 300 that it works with. 
  2. Hilf, Herr Jesu, laß gelingen (from the Christmas Oratorio IV) — This is one of my favorite of all chorale melodies, which the famous Bach scholar Charles Stanford Terry calls an “aria” melody rather than a true “chorale” melody. Nevertheless, this beautiful melody was calling out to me to be accompanied with romantic-style rich, arpeggiated chords along with active middle voices. My setting of this Bach chorale, in F major, is ultra-romantic with many ritardandos and cadences that result in the most rubato out of all my arrangements. This arrangement sounds like sentimentalized Brahms with a hefty dose of rubato.  
  3. Jesu, der du meine Seele (from the C.P.E. Bach Collection) — This is Bach’s only chorale out of nearly 400 in the key of B-flat minor, a highly expressive key with no equal. I set it in a slow and expressive tempo with slow triplets in the right hand accompanied with eighth notes (duplets) in the left hand (creating slow 2:3 polyrhythms). During the the half notes and fermata cadence points in the chorale, I use a short musical interlude that harkens to Spanish music. (Don’t ask me why I seem to be preoccupied with Spanish music mixed in with Bach. I, of Germanic and Nordic heritage, would seem to be the least likely to elude to Spanish styles.) This is technically the least difficult of my arrangements, although it is musically superlative!
  4. Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (from Cantata 7) — This arrangement is a lively Allegro with the chorale chords played staccato in the right hand accompanied by exciting and somewhat tricky running fast notes in the left hand (to depict the water of the Jordan River). Bach also arranged this famous Martin Luther chorale for organ with the left hand playing fast, scale-like passages to depict the running water of the Jordan River. This arrangement is exciting and fun to play and its E minor “modal” style (Luther usually composed in this modal style, which was a product of the Renaissance) creates a somewhat “medieval” sound. This is the only incomplete arrangement, since I have now decided to add a French Overture style introduction section (with slow dotted rhythms) so that it has the typical slow-fast overture form. I love this piece!
  5. Wir Christenleut’ (from the Christmas Oratorio III) — This is one of the most harmonically rich chorales out of nearly 400, which is set in the unusual key of F-sharp minor. Despite the otherwise “slow and sad” key of F-sharp minor, this chorale actually has a unique energy that demands a moderately fast tempo. This energy is created by the 16th notes Bach uses in the opening of the left hand. I use this five-note motive as the basis of the entire piece, thus transforming it into a contrapuntal study with a theme and two variations. This excellent piece works ideally as a finger independence etude as well as an octave etude (the left hand in the second variation features octaves). It is exciting and rewarding to practice and play!
  6. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (from Cantata 1) — One of my favorite of all chorale melodies, in the key of F major, this joyous piece is set with rolling triplets in a gigue style accompanied with eighth notes in the left hand. Despite the 2:3 rhythms that may be challenging for intermediate-level pianists, this is one of the two lesser difficult pieces out of all 10 and serves as an excellent etude for students who need work with triplets and 2:3 polyrhythms. This is the most “Baroque” sounding out of all 10 preludes and actually sounds a bit like Handel more so than Bach!
  7. Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (from Cantata 42) — Before choosing this chorale, I did not know it and had never heard it. But after improvising on Bach’s original chorale for a while (in the key of F-sharp minor) I immediately heard some incredible expressive possibilities. And wow, is this ever expressive! Set with many liberal ritardandos and fermatas, this slow rubato-laden chorale has more meaning packed into its three pages than many works of ten pages. This is an absolutely gorgeous piece with lots of pedal, extreme dynamic contrasts, and octaves throughout in the bass line in the left hand.
  8. Herr, nun laß in Friede (from the C.P.E. Bach Collection) — This is a very slow-moving and simple chorale, yet highly expressive, which is a funeral chorale (Lord, Now Let Thy Servant Go In Peace) based on the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc dimmitis). In the key of A minor, it is presented in its original form in more practical piano notation (as opposed to the stricter four-part notation) followed by a repetition with octave doublings in the bass. This beautiful prelude is an ideal piece for pianists to learn to maintain a slow but steady beat, learn clean pedaling, and play slow octaves in the left hand.
  9. Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (from Cantata 12) — Just when I thought all my ideas were all used up and I would no longer compose another chorale prelude (I think I went a few days with no new ideas), I stumbled upon this jubilant chorale in the key of B-flat major and immediately heard some great possibilities. And it turned out to be perhaps my finest Allegro-style chorale, full of energy and virtuosity! In fact, it is the most virtuosic out of all 10, which begins with the theme and proceeds to a powerful Brahmsian style Variation 1 followed by a left-hand-etude-like Variation 2 which concludes with a rousing optional repeat and coda. Wow! Pianists who are blessed with powerful technique and energy will absolutely LOVE this prelude!
  10. Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (from Cantata 84) — This gorgeous and nostalgic-sounding melody in the key of B minor combined with Bach’s masterful choice of chords provides for the longest and perhaps most expressive of all 10 chorales. Flanking the rich, chordal-style theme and its arpeggiated variation is a 7-bar interlude, the number 7 symbolizing perfection. It requires advanced pianism and the ability to achieve unprecedented expression. Whenever I finish playing this beautiful, romantic, and dreamy piece it sounds as if it were composed by Liszt. What better way to conclude a set of ten preludes than this? 

Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.) -- March, 2016