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A prelude (also Fr.: prélude, It.: preludio, Ger.: praeludium) is typically a short musical work, usually preceding a larger musical venture such as a fugue or a suite. Preludes can also exist as self-contained, stand-alone pieces, often for piano and published in sets. Preludes are usually rather short, not lasting more than four or five minutes with occasional exceptions.

Brief history

The prelude originated from the Renaissance era. Lutenists would often begin a performance with a brief introductory improvisation, sometimes to test the instrument and room they were playing in. The prelude became more widespread from the baroque ricercars and tocattas for harpsichord and organ - the tocatta was later transformed into the prelude of the prelude and fugue. Bach's chorale preludes for organ were usually centered on fugal ideas. His pairs of 24 preludes and fugues showed the color possibilities of the newly discovered equal temperament. It was in the romantic era that the prelude began to be conceived of as a stand alone work.


The prelude has traditionally been improvisitory in nature. In the 17th century it may have resembled the toccata, having a sectional form. Preludes from northern Germany mixed sections of improvisitory passages with parts in strict contrapuntal writing, often brief fugues. Outside of Germany several composers followed this model while many central and southern German composers still composed freely improvised works with little or no strict counterpart. The preludes from Bach's collection in the Well Tempered Clavier served as the primary inspiration for later composers of the romantic era, among them of course Frédéric Chopin who also wrote his preludes in a set of 24, one in each major and minor key. These romantic preludes generally featured a small number of rhythmic and melodic motifs that recurred throughout. Chopin's preludes were typically of a simple ternary form and later composers such as Debussy and Scriabin tended to follow suit.

Notable preludes or collections of preludes

  • Frédéric Chopin's opus 28 which contains 24 preludes that span all major and minor keys. The prelude nicknamed "Raindrop" in Db Major is still especially popular.
  • Rachmoninoff's opus 23 and opus 32 preludes, containing 10 and 13 preludes, respectively.
  • Claude Debussy's two books of twleve preludes.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich's 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.
  • Paul Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis (1940), a prelude, 11 interludes, and a postlude, all separated by 12 fugues.

Musical Forms
Polyphonic forms CanonCanzonaInventionFugueOrganumRicercarRoundSinfornia
Sectional forms Strophic formChain formBinary formTernary formRondo formArch formRitornello form
Cyclical forms BalletConcertoMassOratorioOperaRequiemSonataSong cycleSuiteSymphony
composed forms
BagatelleFantasiaEtudeImpromptuPreludeRhapsodySymphonic poem
Dance forms AllemandeBalladBoleroContradanceEstampieJigPolkaWaltz

French: CouranteGigueMinuetSarabande

Italian: BarcarolleSaltarelloTarantella

Polish: MazurkaPolonaise