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Cantus Firmus in Long Notes

One of the more important hymns of the Lutheran liturgy, the "Lord's Prayer" was set to music many times by Johann Sebastian Bach. This richly harmonized chorale, one of Bach's most beautiful, employs the traditional tune Vater unser im Himmelreich. Note that the following score represents what we would call a "chorale setting." While the harmonies of this chorale are quite complex, it is a homophonic setting that is much simpler than the polyphony of the chorale prelude that follows it. Sing the melody several times so that you will be able to recognize it in the subsequent chorale prelude.

Bach's Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) contains 46 chorale preludes. Number 37 is a setting of the Vater unser tune in simple long-note style. This, the least complicated of cantus firmus idioms, involves an augmentated version of the chorale melody in one voice--usually the soprano. I have referred to this technique as long cookie in the soprano. As you listen to the Orgelbüchlein arrangement you will notice that, unlike the chorale harmonization above, the remaining voices are too florid for use in congregational singing. Hence the Orgelbüchlein version would have been played before the worship service to set a mood or introduce the liturgical theme. Bach's congregation would have known the Vater unser melody as well as you know "Happy Birthday," and it would have been natural for them to have hummed along as he played the prelude.

Study the first phrase of the Orgelbüchlein setting. Note the cantus firmus in the top voice with free counterpoint in the remaining voices. As you listen, you will hear Bach taking small liberties with the melody. Sometimes gaps are filled in, at other times he adds an ornament or two. But overall, the tune is pretty much intact.

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