How to Practice Bach Chorales
Bach's four-part chorales are among the most beneficial of all styles the pianist can practice. On this page, Dr. Hall presents an essay on Bach chorales concluded by a list of some of Bach's lesser difficult chorales (arranged in order of BWV numbers) that are recommended to piano students.
WHAT IS A CHORALE AND WHY PRACTICE THEM?
J.S. Bach’s four-part (or four-voice) chorales are classical music’s ultimate masterpieces in harmony. Bach composed a total of over 350 chorales, which come from two sources, the C.P.E. Bach Collection and Bach’s approximately 200+ cantatas. A typical church cantata by Bach usually included a chorale as the final movement, which most today would refer to as a “church hymn,” although Bach’s chorales are usually a bit more harmonically complex than most popular hymns we are familiar with today. All the great composers after Bach — Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, etc. — were thoroughly grounded in the harmonic style perfected and codified by Bach in his chorales. Even though later composers did not always write strictly in four voices as Bach did in his chorales, they nevertheless relied on the voice-leading rules set forth by Bach.
Bach chorales are not piano music per se, but rather vocal music for a choir consisting of four voices: soprano, alto, tenor, bass (SATB). Because chorales are not actual “piano music,” this is most likely the reason they have traditionally been neglected or discounted by traditional piano methods and conservatories. This is very unfortunate, since Bach chorales serve as the ultimate “litmus test” of the pianist’s overall abilities and skill level. Show me a pianist who can play several Bach chorales fluently and musically on the piano with good fingering and artistic pedaling as well as the ability to sight-read competently less difficult chorales, and I will show you a pianist who has attained “master” status. A pianist who can play and sight-read Bach chorales in a musical and artistic fashion is far better prepared for the real-world of classical piano than the pianist who plays predominantly flashy and virtuosic 19th-century etudes.
It is my opinion that, after playing the piano for 45 years and teaching it for over 30 years, Bach chorales are THE BEST AND MOST BENEFICIAL style the piano student can possibly play. Bach chorales are far superior for the pianist’s complete development than all the Chopin and Liszt etudes combined. This I believe from the bottom of my heart, and considering that there are currently no quality piano editions of Bach's chorales available, this is why I am devoting the next few years to transcribing and editing Bach's chorales for piano.
WHich EDITIONS TO USE
There currently exist two excellent comprehensive sources for Bach’s 350+ four-part chorales: 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies (Riemenschneider, 1941, G. Schirmer, Inc.) and Chorales Harmonised by Johann Sebastian Bach (Button, Williams, 1985, Novello & Company Limited).
The most available and popular is the 371 Harmonized Chorales, which virtually every music theory student possesses nowadays. The advantage of this edition is that you get 371 chorales for a very low price. The disadvantage is, however, that the manuscript is far too small and virtually impossible to read unless you photocopy (or photograph) the pages and blow them up by at least 100%. The second book listed, by H. Elliot Button and edited by Peter Williams, includes virtually all the Bach chorales (or even a few more) than the Riemenschneider edition, however, is much better in that the manuscript is slightly larger and much easier to read, the chorales are better categorized according to hymn tunes, and it seems to be more up-to-date and “scholarly” than the 371 Harmonized Chorales edition. However, it is very difficult to find and if you want to purchase it you will most likely have to contact Novello & Company Limited personally. In addition to these two comprehensive editions, Peter J. Billam has transcribed 40 chorales into legible piano notation minus fingerings, which are available for free: 40 Bach Chorales.
Aside from size of manuscript, the main difference in text between the Riemenschneider and Button editions are ties. The 371 Harmonized Chorales usually includes ties when a note repeats whereas in the Chorales Harmonised by Johann Sebastian Bach the ties are usually omitted. To investigate this discrepancy further, one would have to consult C.P.E. Bach’s original edition (1784-87, in four volumes) of his father’s chorales which is found in the first complete edition of Bach’s works, The Bach-Gesellschaft Edition (Volume 39) published in 1850. I have not looked into the BG Edition yet, but plan to do so in due course as my Bach chorale research progresses. Personally, I prefer Button’s Chorales Harmonised by Johann Sebastian Bach over Riemenschneider’s 371 Harmonized Chorales and this is the edition I use in preparing the chorales published by BachScholar, which is why if you expect ties for a chorale because you possess 371 Harmonized Chorales but see them omitted in BachScholar’s edition, that at least you are aware of the reason why they are omitted. CLICK HERE to peruse or purchase chorales edited for piano that we have published so far.
STEPS ON PRACTICING BACH CHORALES
- Know the four voices in traditional four-part writing — soprano, alto, tenor, bass (SATB). Virtually all piano methods neglect the teaching of this technique, in which all the great masters even after Bach (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) were well-grounded. The most beneficial technique a piano student can learn is that of being able to read and play fluently with four voices.
Learn the two-voice version hands separately with emphasis given to attaining a smooth, legato touch with the fingering provided. No pedal is necessary in this step.
Learn the two-voice version hands together with the same care given to step #2. It is recommended that beginning to intermediate level students refrain from using pedal in this step; however, advanced pianists are permitted to use the pedal sparingly if done tastefully and artistically.
Learn the four-voice version hands separately with careful attention given to fingering. Please follow the fingering provided in BachScholar’s editions, since it specifies when each hand plays one, two, or three notes. Almost never does each hand play two notes, as in a “textbook” example of a chorale, but rather, almost all Bach chorales require at least for part of the chorale three notes in one hand (usually the right) and one note in the other hand (usually the left). Pay close attention to which notes should connect (usually changing notes) or not connect (usually repeated notes and changing notes in which the thumb is repeated).
Learn the four-voice version hands together with careful attention given to the fingering provided and with no pedal.
Add pedal to step #5 — that is, all the “gaps” or “holes” are filled in with careful changes of the damper pedal.
Always strive for a smooth "singing" (cantabile) tone and never just "play the notes." Remember that chorales are vocal music and that your piano tone should emulate as much as possible the human voice. Fermata cadence points almost always call for a little slowing down or ritardando, not too little and not too much, but just the right amount in the right proportion. Advanced pianists are welcome to use the damper pedal in chorales, although less advanced students should use the pedal sparingly or not at all. Bach chorales are the perfect style in which to learn the fine points of proper piano pedaling, which Rubinstein referred to as "the soul of the piano."
For a nice example of how all these steps are integrated to form a "finished product," here is an example of me playing a well-known chorale featured in Bach's great St. Matthew Passion: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden
41 LESSER DIFFICULT BACH CHORALES (FROM OVER 350 IN EXISTENCE)
- BWV 6 (No. 72 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 19
- BWV 20 (No. 26 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 26 (No. 48 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 38 (No. 10 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 43 (No. 102 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 62 (No. 170 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 64 (No. 160 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 65 (No. 12 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 67 (No. 42 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 70, movt. 11
- BWV 79 (No. 257 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 84 (No. 112 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 89 (No. 281 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 94
- BWV 96 (No. 303 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 101 (No. 292 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 119
- BWV 122 (No. 53 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 123 (No. 194 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 151
- BWV 153 (No. 217 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 165
- BWV 166 (No. 204 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 194 (No. 257 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 252 (No. 153 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 255 (No. 40 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 262 (No. 153 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 281 (No. 6 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 282 (No. 316 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 286 (No. 228 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 293 (No. 154 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 323 (No. 30 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 324 (No. 358 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 327 (No. 334 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 331 (No. 227 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 360 (No. 350 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 370 (No. 187 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 384 (No. 149 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 396 (No. 127 in "371 Chorales")
- BWV 414 (No. 148 in "371 Chorales")
Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.), January, 2016