Descants in Bach Chorales

How Bright Appears the Morning Star; O Sacred Head, Now Wounded; Psalm 134; Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow

J. S. Bach’s 200-plus cantatas hold many choral treasures. Some of the best known, such as “Jesus, Joy of Our (Man’s) Desiring” from Cantata 147, are well within the grasp of an average volunteer choir. Many of the opening choruses, on the other hand, are a challengeeven for professional singers. In Leipzig Bach was responsible for the music in several (at least four) churches, and therefore needed four choirs. Three of these were able to sing difficult music, but one could “only just barely sing a chorale” (New Bach Reader, 146). Most amateur church choirs today would probably fit into this category. But even in these straightforward SATB chorales, what a wealth of material and beauty!

Usually the “plain” chorales are found at the end of cantatas, summing up what has gone before. Quite possibly the congregation sang along, in unison. What is perhaps not appreciated enough is that a number of them are adorned with one or more additional instrumental voices. There are at least twenty of these: in Cantatas 12 (two), 19, 21, 31 (two), 64, 69, 70, 91, 95, 97, 112, 130, 136, 159, 161, 172, 185, and 190 (as well as in the Christmas Oratorio, and two “Wedding chorales”).

These instrumental descants show great variety. Sometimes the additional voices are inner ones, such as the alto and tenor parts for horns in Cantata 59. The resulting six-voice texture perhaps illustrates the prayer for being “filled” with grace and love. Several ask for brass (3 trumpets) and timpani to give them a festive and joyful exuberance, as in Cantatas 19, 69, 130, 190, and the Christmas Oratorio. Most often the additional voice, however, is a single melody above the soprano, in “normal” descant fashion. In this way, the music, already of great beauty, is transformed. Faith takes flight; the cup overflows. These “deluxe chorales” are love songs to God, usually with a healthy dose of longing for death and heaven.

There is much beauty here for the average church choir and congregation to explore. These hymn settings provide a wonderful opportunity for use in worship services today, chorally and/or instrumentally. Three chorales found in most hymnals today are included in this article, with the chorale settings and the descants from Cantatas 130, 161, and 172. In most cases the music was transcribed down to provide a more accessible range for congregational singing. Texts were included from the Psalter Hymnal (1987). The chorales can be sung in various combinations of voices, from unison to SATB, with the instrumental part(s) added for one or more verses.

How Bright Appears the Morning Star

One of my favorites is the familiar chorale found in Cantata 172, with the original German first line usually given as the tune name: Wie Schön Leuchtet. I cannot think of a better hymn, musically and theologically, with which to celebrate Advent, Christmas, and/or Epiphany. It’s in the Epiphany section of most hymnals, but the star also announces Jesus’ birth as an Advent message. In Bach’s setting, a fifth voice, an instrumental solo (Bach asks for violin, but other soprano instruments may be substituted), soars above the chorale like a star in the sky (see ex. 1c). The text refers to Freudenschein, rays of joy, with which God beholds his creation. The descant is mostly stepwise, in eighth notes, smooth and flowing, with numerous suspensions to give it a dance-like lilt, especially toward the cadences. It is as if peace, joy, and grace abound. Most hymnals include this chorale in the very comfortable and warm key of D. I suggest the whole congregation singing the first two stanzas in that key. Perhaps the descant instrument could play along on the melody line of one of those stanzas as well. Then comes an organ modulation up to Bach’s original key of F, and the last stanza using Bach’s setting would be sung by the choir with the instrumental descant.

  1. Stanzas 1-2: choir (SATB), congregation, organ (from hymnal)
  2. Modulating interlude from D to F
  3. Stanza 3: choir only, using Cantata 172 setting with instrumental descant

Note: For more information on the how and why of improvising interludes, modulating or not, see chapters 25 and 26 of my book Making Music—Improvisation for Organists, Oxford University Press, 1998.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

The next chorale is a Lenten one, taken from Bach’s Cantata 161, “Herzlich tut mich verlangen,” and found in most hymnals by the title “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Here too the closing movement of the cantata is a chorale with an instrumental descant.

Bach asks for a flute to play the flowing melody, mostly in 16th notes, above the chorale. The tempo should not be fast for this best known of Lenten hymns, with its deeply felt sorrow and grief at the suffering of Jesus. The text for the stanza with Bach’s descant, however, deals with the transformation of earthly life into eternal life, when the righteous shall shine like the sun (“leuchten als die Sonne”). The theme is one of comfort rather than despair and sorrow, but it is a comfort based on the memory of the price paid for it—Jesus’ suffering and death. The radiant sound of the flute obbligato poignantly expresses the longing and hope for the reality of eternal life (see box).

Most hymnals include three stanzas: (1) O sacred head, now wounded . . . , (2) What thou, my Lord, hast suffered . . . (or What you, my Lord, have suffered), and (3) What language shall I borrow. . . . But there were many stanzas in the original text that dates back to the 12th century. Some hymnals have included a fourth, so you may want to consider having the congregation sing the three from their hymnal and then conclude with the extra fourth stanza provided here, with the choir and instrumental descant providing a meditative conclusion to this beloved chorale.

Since there is no modulation needed to a different key, there are several ways this could be sung. Here are some ideas:

  1. Stanza 1: congregation (unison), choir (SATB), organ. Decide whether the tempo should be the same as for the cantata setting to come, or whether the tempo will slow down for the cantata setting.
  2. Stanza 2: congregation and choir, a cappella
  3. Stanza 3: using the Cantata 161 setting, with choir (SATB), flute descant, organ. Take care to set an appropriate tempo for this movement if different from the first two stanzas.
  4. Or have stanza 3 sung the same way as stanza 1, and have the choir sing the additional stanza 4 provided with the Cantata setting.

Psalm 134: You Servants of the Lord Our God, with Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow

For the third chorale, we turn to the best known tune in all of Christian history. “Old Hundredth” is really a misnomer, as the tune is that of Genevan Psalm 134. (The English adopted this tune for Psalm 100, and the name “Old Hundredth” stuck.) It appears in the Psalter Hymnal for both Psalm 134 and the traditional and very well known doxology. A wonderful feature of the Psalter Hymnal is that of including an alternative harmonization, a faux bourdon setting (melody in the tenor) by John Dowland. For ideas for using Psalm 134 for an ordination service or a wedding, see Verlyn Schultz, “Hymn of the Month,” RW 11, pages 38-39 (also available online,

Bach provides a boisterous, exuberant festive setting of the OLD HUNDREDTH tune with three trumpets, oboe, and drums, in Cantata 130. The joyful swing is all the more convincing as Bach sets the chorale in triple meter (3/4). Using Bach’s jubilant arrangement for the doxology would allow a service to culminate in a victorious outburst of joy and thanksgiving, for example at ordinations, weddings, anniversaries, or any festive occasion.

Here is a suggested plan, using a combination of Psalm 134 “You servants of the Lord our God” and the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”:

  1. Psalm 134, stanza 1: choir (SATB), congregation on the melody, organ playing a hymnal version
  2. Psalm 134, stanza 2: choir (SATB) and congregation in unison, using the alternative harmonization with melody in the tenor.
  3. After an optional short modulation from G to C major, have the choir sing Bach’s cantata setting to the text of the doxology. Here is a modulation plan: G7 (F-natural as a passing note), C, F, G, C, one harmony per bar). The modulation is optional since the keys of G and C are closely related, and a sudden, surprising change to the much higher key of C for the last verse may be quite effective.


The original German stanza and Henry S. Drinker’s 1943 translation:
Der Leib zwar in der Erden
Tho’ worms our flesh devour

von Würmern wird verzehrt,
Deep buried in the earth,

doch auferweckt soll werden,
Our souls will soon awaken

Durch Christum schön verklärt,
Through Christ, assured rebirth!

wird leuchten als die Sonne
With God in radiant glory,

und leben ohne
Not From care forever free,

In himmlischer Freud und Wonne.
In heav’nly joy and rapture.

Was schadt mir dann der Tod?
What fear has Death for me?

Jan Overduin ( professor of music emeritus, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. In 2006 he retired as director of music at First United Church, Waterloo, where he supervised the installation of a 44-stop Gabriel Kney mechanical action organ. Also in 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Awards Foundation.


Reformed Worship 84 © June 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.