Discovering Music - Prelude

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

A
a
-
Discovering Music - Prelude
Rating: 
0

Here, surely, is a musical term that’s simple enough to define. The word ‘Prelude’ comes directly from the Latin ‘praeludere’ – ‘to play before’. And that, for several centuries, was the Prelude’s function.

It was partly practical necessity. Lutenists, wanting to test their tuning and the acoustics of the room, would improvise a little warm-up piece before getting down to business. 

Fitted out with the title ‘Praeludium’ this soon became a solid part of the ritual of music making. Church organists would also improvise preludes: 1) to create a suitable devotional atmosphere before the service; and 2) to flush out any incipient technical problems.

The ‘chorale preludes’ of JS Bach and his contemporaries (preludes based on a hymn tune) were generally composed with function 1 in mind – and perhaps sometimes function 2 as well.

But the fact that – on paper at least – you could have a separate, self-sufficient piece called ‘prelude’ presaged a momentous change.

In the Baroque era, most pieces called ‘prelude’ were still designed to introduce something: an instrumental suite perhaps, or a grand contrapuntal display, as in Bach’s stupendous two-volume collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Even there, though, the ‘introductory’ character of some of the preludes is questionable: doesn’t the E flat major Fugue in Book I tend to sound like a relatively lightweight coda to the magnificent ‘Prelude’ that in most performances triumphantly upstages it?

Chopin may have had similar thoughts when he created the first great set of 24 Preludes – it’s tempting to call them ‘Preludes without Fugues’. But by then the word ‘prelude’ had become general Romantic currency.

The Romantics loved incompleteness: ruins, fragments, unfinished utterances that seemed to falter on the edge of the inexpressible. The notion of a ‘prelude to… what?’ fascinated them.

The score of Liszt’s symphonic poem Les préludes has a literary preface which opens with a question: ‘What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?’

And from that to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune – a work perpetually poised on the threshold of what the French call ‘le petit mort’ – may not be such a big step after all. All this from a lutenist’s warm-up exercise…

This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here