Any collection of organ choral preludes must owe a debt to both the liturgical function of the form with its polyphonic origins, and to its undisputed master, Johann Sebastian Bach.
So, even congregating a group of deliberately modest (in length and technical demands) pieces based on hymn melodies carries with it a particular obligation to respect Bach’s many contributions to the genre just as one departs from the strictest models of 18th century practice. This characteristic largely has been the case with the composers after Bach who continued to add to the library of organ works founded on hymn melodies. They include the likes of Brahms, Reger, Karg-Elert, Helmut Walcha, Herrman Schroeder, and Flor Peeters, for sure an eclectic and ecumenical group of both Protestant and Catholic artists.
The nine compositions in this book consciously exploit several compositional patterns very well known to the founders of the form. But they also do not hesitate to reflect harmonic accents rooted in the present as well as the past, counterpoint that conforms with the strictest species as well as freer fancy, and an approach to registration at once rigorously old as it is, at times, Romantically orchestral. The glue that binds them is mostly their familiarity across Christian worship communities, and their inclusion in A Catholic Book of Hymns.
Rather than dwell on the symbolism of the chorales and, with that, their purpose as works set apart from the pragmatic needs of the Sunday morning organist, one ought to mention that the relative brevity of these pieces contributes to their liturgical servicability. But the custom in nearly all (the Bicenium on ‘Es flog ein kleins Waldvögelein’ being the exception as it exploits the tantalizing possibility of double counterpoint requiring a second iteration of the cantus firmus) presents the melody in its entirety but a single time. This sanctions a homecoming to one of the original incentives behind the choral prelude: the chance of introducing the singing of the hymn itself. Note that the performance tempos of these pieces as indicated by the markings as surely as by musicianly instinct establish the pace at which congregations could sing the hymn. One is encouraged to try this slant!
Registration suggestions, while idioms familiar to anyone who has studied and played the choral settings of the masters, are hardly sacrosanct tenets. A creative mind (and ear!) should reign. The markings presuppose a modest organ of typical resources arrayed across two manuals and pedal. Please take these as generic indications for voices defined by their structural role: solo, or accompaniment, or partnering in polyphony, or contributing to a tutti. There are as many ways of registering these chorale-based works as there are organs and assured musicians who play them!
~ Haig Maridosian