The Augsburg Chorale Book: Five Hundred Years of Singing (and Counting!)

The party’s over. 2017 has come and gone, and with it, the sesquicentennial of Martin Luther and the Reformation. The concerts, lectures, and ecumenical worship celebrations have concluded. The exhibits have come down, and the newly made banners and paraments have been put away. A Mighty Fortress is Our God is taking a well-earned rest.

Except, of course, the anniversary is really just beginning. 2017 marked 500 years since Luther’s 1517 posting of the 95 Theses. And while that event may have been the Reformation’s catalyst, there are many other landmarks whose 500th birthday is still ahead of us—including the most important ones for worship and music.

Take, for example, Luther’s orders for worship, the Formulae Missae of 1523 and the Deutsche Messe of 1526. These two documents introduced many important reforms, one of which was the formalization of vernacular hymn singing within the liturgy. Those hymns were chorales, the first of which were written and published by Luther and his colleagues in 1523 and 1524.[1] Over time, the chorales grew and evolved into one of the most robust genres in Western hymnody. Lutheran chorales inspired tens of thousands of choral arrangements, organ settings, and instrumental works, from the 1520s through the present day.

The Augsburg Chorale Book is a new contribution to this vibrant tradition. The Chorale Book contains twenty-nine choral settings of chorales by Lutheran composers from the sixteenth century to the present. Hymn-like cantionale settings by J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn stand alongside polyphonic motets by Johann Walter, Hugo Distler, and Johannes Brahms. New settings by composers like Nancy Raabe, Bradley Ellingboe, John Ferguson, and Anne Krentz Organ provide twenty-first century interpretations of these historic texts and tunes. In fact, fourteen of the twenty-nine works in the Augsburg Chorale Book were newly composed for this collection. (To see the Chorale Book’s Table of Contents and some sample pages, click here.)

Voicings include unison, two-part, three-part mixed (SAB), and SATB, so there are possibilities for choirs of all types and sizes. A variety of instrumentation choices make the Chorale Book even more diverse. Several settings may be performed unaccompanied (or with keyboard doubling), while others include carefully crafted organ accompaniments. Ten of the works in the collection include optional or obligato string, woodwind, or brass instruments.

Each setting features performance notes that provide a brief biography of the composer, background information on the setting, and suggestions for use. That last category is important: Chorales were intended for communal singing, and the earliest choral arrangements were performed in alternation with the congregation. Many of the settings in the Chorale Book can be used similarly, and the performance notes suggest how to do so (in cases where it isn’t immediately obvious).

So: Although 2017 is over, the 500th anniversary of the chorale and Lutheran contributions to congregational song are still (at least) five years away. The Augsburg Chorale Book and other Augsburg Fortress resources like the Chantry Choirbook and Bach for all Seasons, give us the opportunity to continue to sing our songs in these “in-between times.” Which, of course, is really what the chorales (and all hymns) are for: They are not supposed to be saved for festivals and commemorations, but are to be sung in the regular, weekly worship gatherings of the faithful in all times and places. That is how they form us in faith and shape us in song.

[1] Eight different chorale texts and four tunes were published in the first Lutheran hymnal, the Etlich Christliche Lieder, in 1524. They had previously been published as broadsheets in 1523 and 1524. For a brief history of the origin of the Lutheran chorale, see Highben, Zebulon M., “Reviving Sacred Song: 500 Years of the Lutheran Chorale in its Congregational and Choral Contexts,” Choral Journal 58, no. 1 (August 2017): 36-46.

avatar
Zebulon Highben

Zebulon M. Highben is a conductor-educator, composer, and church musician. Currently Director of Choral Activities at Muskingum University (New Concord, OH), he previously taught at Luther Seminary and the University of Wisconsin River Falls, and served Lutheran and Presbyterian parishes in Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota. Since 2005 he has been the Paul Bouman Chapel Choir Director at the annual Lutheran Summer Music Academy & Festival. His compositions are frequently performed by church, school, and community ensembles, and are published by Augsburg Fortress, Boosey & Hawkes, GIA Publications, and MorningStar Music. Highben studied at Ohio State University (B.M.E.), Luther Seminary and St. Olaf College (M.S.M.), Michigan State University (D.M.A.), and is a rostered Associate in Ministry in the ELCA.

Hymn Concertati

 

Amid the many questions we ask ourselves as church choir directors, one of the biggest is repertoire-related: What should we sing and why? While a single blog post can’t address that question thoroughly, I’d like to provide a few simple reasons why—as we continually choose between the myriad anthems, canticles, and cantatas that cross our desks—we shouldn’t neglect the category of the hymn concertato.

  1. Hymn concertati create musical variety. Concertato settings of hymns treat successive stanzas with various musical textures. Vocal forces alternate between congregation, choir(s), and soloists or small groups. Organ or other keyboard accompaniments are often supplemented by obbligato instruments or groups of instruments, sometimes alternating between stanzas just as the vocal forces do. Often in our churches, we field requests for increased variety in our musical selections; hymn concertati provide one simple way to achieve timbral and textural diversity.
  2. Hymn concertati have a rich Lutheran history. The term concertato (or concerto) stems from the Baroque era, when composers employed the concerto principle to generate musical interest by maximizing contrast between opposing musical forces in different sections of a single piece. Lutheran chorales, with their numerous stanzas, provided the perfect source material for Lutheran cantors to apply this principle. As Carl Schalk and others have pointed out, it was already common practice in the sixteenth century for “the congregation, choir, and sometimes the organ to alternate in the singing of a chorale.”[1] Praetorius, Hassler, and others wrote cantionale and motet settings of chorales; in the seventeenth century, composers like Schein and Buxtehude wrote complete concertati on chorale texts and tunes. Many of J.S. Bach’s cantatas (such as Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4) can even be viewed as extended, multi-movement chorale concertati.
  3. Hymn concertati are a direct expression of the choir’s roles in worship. We can think of the choir’s role in worship as having two primary parts: Leadership of congregational song (hymns, liturgical music) and the presentation of more complex musical works (anthems, cantatas) that interpret theological ideas and themes. A well-crafted hymn concertato can incorporate both of these roles, alternating “choir only” stanzas rich in musical interpretation with tutti stanzas in which everyone participates, guided and strengthened by the voice of the choir.
  4. Hymn concertati can be more flexible than anthems or other published works. There are many wonderful hymn concertati published, and it is always wise to respect the arranger’s wishes. Yet, like our early Lutheran forbears, sometimes we find ourselves without a particular instrument just when we need it—and it’s not always a sin to substitute! Have a concertato that calls for an oboe? Use a flute or violin instead. Don’t have a large enough choir to perform the eight-part choral stanza printed in the score? See if you can leave out some of the doubled pitches, or write your own second stanza and substitute it. We must always follow applicable copyright laws, but there is no law against creative “mash-ups” as long as appropriate, correct credit is given. You can also use resources like Choral Stanzas for Hymns Volume I and Volume II and Vocal Descants for the Church Year to create your own “instant concertato.”
  5. Hymn concertati create opportunities for intergenerational singing. “Intergenerational” is another popular buzzword in church circles today. Even though liturgical worship is (or ought to be) intergenerational by nature, hymn concertati provide a practical way to highlight the concept. Rather than programming separate anthems for your adult and children’s choirs, prepare a hymn concertati in which they combine forces. Perhaps the adults sing an inner choral stanza, and the children’s choir adds the descant on the final stanza.

These are just a few of the reasons why hymn concertati are worth our individual and collective time. No doubt you can think of more. The point is: the hymn concertato is not “the poor man’s anthem,” but a useful, musically interesting, and historically significant genre of church music. Go and explore it!


[1] Schalk, Carl F., Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition (1524-1672) (St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 2001). Page 22.

avatar
Zebulon Highben

Zebulon M. Highben is a conductor-educator, composer, and church musician. Currently Director of Choral Activities at Muskingum University (New Concord, OH), he previously taught at Luther Seminary and the University of Wisconsin River Falls, and served Lutheran and Presbyterian parishes in Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota. Since 2005 he has been the Paul Bouman Chapel Choir Director at the annual Lutheran Summer Music Academy & Festival. His compositions are frequently performed by church, school, and community ensembles, and are published by Augsburg Fortress, Boosey & Hawkes, GIA Publications, and MorningStar Music. Highben studied at Ohio State University (B.M.E.), Luther Seminary and St. Olaf College (M.S.M.), Michigan State University (D.M.A.), and is a rostered Associate in Ministry in the ELCA.