I’ve been playing through the Breitkopf collection of 371 Bach chorales, which set these short four-part choral pieces to keyboard. It’s as if you could download the dailies from Citizen Kane and recreate the edit in Final Cut.
Bach’s chorales are a how-to coming directly from the master. They are drawn from hundreds of Bach’s works. They are harmonizations of simple melodies. Any given melody has many possible harmonizations (indeed some melodies are harmonized multiple times in the collection).
Bach used chorales in his teaching, providing his students the melody and bass parts with the assignment to fill in the alto and tenor.
Playing through all 371 chorales reveals patterns. Bach’s stock phrases become readily apparent. Unusual modulations really stand out. You see a lot of “tips and tricks”, so to speak.
Most importantly you learn balance, which is always so hard to define and pin down (and which, by the way, is
probably the real secret to all well-constructed music, no matter the style).
Here’s one of the more famous chorales, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” – this is in four parts, with the choral parts doubled by the orchestra: