This week I’ve been working on Bach’s choral prelude on “Nun danket alle Gott” for the organ prelude at the 10:30 service. When I first started to play the organ at age thirteen, my teacher mentioned the term “choral prelude” to me nearly at the beginning, but I really didn’t understand it in the context of a service, or experience it in person, until I had graduated from school and came to live in Hawaii.
A choral prelude is an introduction, perhaps a very fancy one at that, to the singing of a hymn. A few years ago, Carl and I went to St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach was the Cantor for 27 years. As part of the Bachfest they presented a historical service, one modeled after the type J. S. Bach himself may have directed (except the sermon was not an hour long, as in Bach’s time!) What was so revealing, in my opinion, was the way the hymns were played. There was a long, fancy introduction played on the organ, and then the people sang the hymn in unison, totally “a cappella” — unaccompanied. Wow! that’s so different from the way the hymns are played and sung today in America.
The choral prelude I’m playing this Sunday (on the familiar tune, “Now thank we all our God,” is one such fancy introduction. You must know that Bach was frequently criticized for having introductions which were too long and obscured the melody. I in fact played this same choral prelude at the American Guild of Organists Regional Convention held in Hawaii in 1997 — and I got the same comments: The introduction to the hymn was too long! However since this Sunday it will take the place of the normal “organ prelude” perhaps people won’t complain too much.
Our opening hymn will be the same tune (Now thank we all our God), and although the hymnal version is in a lower key than Bach’s choral prelude, I’ll be transposing it to the key of G so they will go together. However, I will not leave the congregation “high and dry” by having them sing the whole hymn a cappella, but will play the tune in four parts as usual. What a relief, eh?