A prelude (Germ. Präludium or Vorspiel; Lat. praeludium; Fr. Prélude; It. Preludio) is a short piece of music, the form of which may vary from piece to piece. While, during the Baroque era, for example, it may have served as an introduction to succeeding movements of a work that were usually longer and more complex, it may also have been a stand alone piece of work during the Romantic era. It generally features a small number of rhythmic and melodic motifs that recur through the piece. Stylistically, the prelude is improvisatory in nature. The prelude can also refer to an overture, particularly to those seen in an opera or an oratorio.
The prelude can be thought of as a preface. It may stand on its own or introduce another work.
The very first preludes were lute compositions of the Renaissance era. They were free improvisations and served as brief introductions to larger pieces of music or particular larger and more complex movements; lutenists also used them to test the instrument or the acoustics of the room before performing. Keyboard preludes started appearing in the 17th century in France: unmeasured preludes, in which the duration of each note is left to the performer, were used as introductory movements in harpsichord suites. Louis Couperin (c.1626-1661) was the first composer to embrace the genre, and harpsichord preludes were used until the first half of the 18th century by numerous composers including Jean-Henri d'Anglebert (1629–1691), Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665–1729), François Couperin (1668–1733) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), whose very first printed piece (1706) was in this form. The last unmeasured preludes for harpsichord date from the 1710s.
The development of the prelude in 17th century Germany led to a sectional form similar to keyboard toccatas by Johann Jakob Froberger or Girolamo Frescobaldi. Preludes by northern German composers such as Dieterich Buxtehude (c.1637–1707) and Nikolaus Bruhns (c.1665-1697) combined sections of free improvised passages with parts in strict contrapuntal writing (usually brief fugues). Outside Germany, Abraham van den Kerckhoven (c.1618-c.1701), one of the most important Dutch composers of the period, used this model for some of his preludes. Southern and central German composers did not follow the sectional model and their preludes remained improvisational in character with little or no strict counterpoint.
During the second half of the 17th century, German composers started pairing preludes (or sometimes toccatas) with fugues in the same key; Johann Pachelbel (c.1653-1706) was one of the first to do so, although Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685–1750) "prelude and fugue" pieces are much more numerous and well-known today. Bach's organ preludes are quite diverse, drawing on both southern and northern German influences. Most of Bach's preludes were written in the theme and variation form, using the same theme motif with imitation, inversion, modulation, or retrograde the theme as well as other techniques involved in this baroque form.
Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer was one of the first German composers to bring the late 17th century French style to German harpsichord music, replacing the standard French ouverture with an unmeasured prelude. Fischer's Ariadne musica is a cycle of keyboard music which consists of pairs of preludes and fugues; the preludes are quite varied and do not conform to any particular model. Ariadne musica served as a precursor to Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, two books of 24 "prelude and fugue" pairs each. Bach's preludes were also varied, some akin to Baroque dances, others being two- and three-part contrapuntal works not unlike his inventions and sinfonias. Bach also composed preludes to introduce each of his English Suites.
Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier influenced almost all major composers of the next centuries, and many often wrote preludes in sets of 12 or 24, sometimes with the intention of utilizing all 24 major and minor keys as Bach had done. Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) wrote a set of 24 preludes, Op. 28, which liberated the prelude from its original introductory purpose and allowed it to serve as an independent concert piece. Often, Chopin wrote his preludes in a simple ternary form. Numerous composers after him wrote preludes with a similar purpose, such as Claude Debussy (1862–1918) and his two books of impressionistic piano preludes, which influenced many later composers.
Preludes were also used by some 20th century composers when writing Baroque-inspired "suites". Such works include Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914/17) and Schoenberg's Suite for piano, Op. 25 (1921/23), both of which begin with an introductory prelude.
Notable collections of preludes
- J.C.F. Fischer's Ariadne musica (1702), contained 20 preludes and fugues in 19 different keys.
- Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1744). Both volumes contain 24 preludes (and associated fugues) proceeding up the chromatic scale with alternating parallel major and minor keys (C major and C minor; C# major and C# minor;D major and D minor; etc).
- Ludwig van Beethoven wrote two sets of preludes, Op. 39; each one cycles through all of the major keys of the piano.
- Frédéric Chopin wrote 24 Preludes, Op. 28, which cycle through all of the major and minor keys. The odd numbered preludes are in major keys, starting with C major, and each is followed by a prelude in the relative minor key. The paired preludes proceed through the circle of fifths (C major and A minor; G major and E minor; D major and B minor; etc.).
- Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a set of 25 Preludes as his Opus 31, published in 1847. His key scheme differs from Chopin's in that the major keys ascend chromatically and are followed by their respective minor subdominants, though Alkan also starts on C Major. The last piece returns to C Major, hence the additional prelude (a device Alkan repeated in the Esquisses, Op. 63, and that César Cui employed in his own 25 Preludes, Op. 64). As a further distinction between his and Chopin's sets, Alkan provides programmatic titles for several of his preludes, including the most famous of the set, La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (The Song of the Madwoman by the Seashore).
- Felix Blumenfeld composed a set of 24 Preludes as his Opus 17 in 1892, following Chopin's key scheme, as well as a set of four as his Opus 12.
- Alexander Scriabin wrote 24 Preludes, Op. 11 in 1896, and numerous shorter sets of preludes. He followed the same pattern as the Chopin preludes.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff, wrote a prelude, Opus 3, No. 2, in 1892 followed by Ten Preludes, Opus 23 (1903) and Thirteen Preludes, Opus 32 (1910) for a total of twenty-four Preludes in all the major and minor keys; he also composed a Prelude in D Minor, without opus number, in 1917 (there is yet another among his early unpublished works). The two most famous of these are the Prelude in C# Minor and the Prelude in G Minor.
- Claude Debussy wrote two books of 12 Preludes, Book 1 (1910) and Book 2 (1913), for a total of 24 preludes. The title of the prelude is given at the end of the piece, while a Roman numeral serves as the heading.
- Olivier Messiaen's set of eight piano preludes (1929) developed from the Impressionism of Debussy's piano music.
- Paul Hindemith wrote Ludus Tonalis (1940), a prelude, 11 interludes, and a postlude, all separated by 12 fugues.
- Alberto Ginastera wrote a cycle of 12 American Preludes (Doce Preludios Americanos) (1946).
- Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues as his Opus 87 in 1951, as well as an earlier set of 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1933), for piano.
- Lera Auerbach wrote three full sets of 24 Preludes, which cycle through all of the major and minor keys, for piano solo, violin and piano, and cello and piano respectively.
- Nikolai Kapustin has written 24 Preludes in Jazz Style as his Opus 53, and later a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues as his Opus 82.
1. Howat, Roy. The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Chabrier. 2009. Print.
2. A.B. Wenk : Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music (Boston, 1983)