A complete and independent composition which precedes a fugue, and is always regarded as joined with the fugue in a larger two-part entity as reflected in the common title "Prelude and Fugue".

The historical and circumstantial origins of the traditional pairing of a fugue with a prelude is interesting. Since a fugue is a demanding experience for player and listener alike, something is needed to establish an appropriate context beforehand. A prelude serves to accomplish several things: tuning of auxiliary instruments, enabling the keyboard player to warm up and learn the feel of a potentially unfamiliar instrument, calling attention to the audience that music has begun, etc. But this does not imply that a prelude is less artistically valid than its companion fugue. It simply requires that the prelude be something other than a fugue. It is often "lighter" in mood and texture (persistent figuration, two-part inventions), perhaps more immediately exciting or appealing. Often, a prelude features more dazzling keyboard technique, a showcase for the performer and an attention getter for the listener. As it is not a fugue, its tendencies for freer movement are less throttled by the constraints of formal counterpoint. On the other hand, preludes frequently use alternate sectional forms (e.g. binary) with divisions and repeats that are more clear than the generally continuous skein characteristic of the fugue. Again, these are useful but coarse generalizations. The contrapuntal art still reigns supreme in the preludes: many contain canons, inventions and even nested fugues of their own. Bach's preludes in particular are regarded as high art, independent of an equally important to his fugues.

Regardless of its origins of necessity (and unquestionable utility), the pairing of prelude and fugue has created a genre of masterpieces that feature two movements, two contrasting experiences, an opportunity for juxtaposition and inter-relationship, a two-part form that brings all the higher-order pleasures of a larger composite entity. The question of interrelationship between a Bach prelude and fugue from a musical standpoint or the issue of historical intention is no trivial matter. Some preludes seem closely related to their fugues in content, in mood. Others seem to share only their tonality or key. It is known that the composition date of prelude and fugue may differ, that pairing was sometimes a matter of compilation and publishing rather than composition. In Shostakovitch's Op. 87, however, most of the prelude and fugue pairs are intimately interconnected, many with forward or backward quotes. Either way, preludes and fugues are associated is indisputable fact and that is all the reason to indulge in the pleasures of reflection, speculation, and constant re-evaluation. That either prelude or fugue stands independently as viable or artistic in similarly indisputable: they most certainly do. Like the fugues, the preludes are regarded as a rich and miraculous body of literature, a catalog spanning the circle of fifths as well as a range of moods, emotions and intellectual constructions. The preludes provide eminent musical experiences. Independently of the fugues, the preludes have inspired composers to undertake comprehensive study and to dare analogous feats of composition.

A prelude, as in a composition or movement intended to precede a fugue, is sometimes given a different name depending on its nature. Other names are toccata, and fantasy.

This definition of prelude is largely specific to the genre of "Prelude and Fugue". In other genres and periods of classical music, the term prelude has other meanings.

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