Portraits of 6 composers next to piano keys

Preludes for Piano: From 1722 to 1910

There is a full, rich world of repertoire for piano in the form of Preludes that spans vast distances through history and geography. One reason the prelude is such an enticing type of piece, both for composer and player, is because of its inherent brevity. Most preludes are only a few minutes long, which makes them much more accessible, both to play and to compose, than, for example, a sonata which might be 30 minutes long or more in length.

Of course, historically, the prelude was just one movement in a larger work, similar to the multiple movements of a sonata. The term “prelude” refers to an introduction. It might come at the beginning of a set of dances, like in J.S. Bach’s Suites, for example.

Later in history the prelude turned into a stand-alone piece, though they were often composed in sets. Composers particularly enjoyed composing one for each key, which was quite possibly influenced by J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Let’s take a stroll through the evolution of the prelude over the course of time!

Baroque Preludes for Piano

A portrait of J.S. Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

In the baroque period, the prelude was typically still just a short introduction to a multi-movement work. By far the most well-known composer of preludes from this time was Johann Sebastian Bach, and the most famous collection of preludes that he composed was his Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of two books of Preludes and Fugues. The preludes act as an introduction, then the fugues are the main event. Bach composed 24 Preludes and Fugues, one in each major and minor key, for each book, totaling 48 Preludes and Fugues!

Any of these would be great pieces to check out. My personal favorite is the somewhat melancholy E flat minor from Book 1, No. 8. Its haunting beauty transcends time, having stirred the hearts of listeners for hundreds of years.

Prelude No. 8 in E flat minor from Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 by J.S. Bach, played by Sviatoslav Richter

Classical Preludes for Piano

A portrait of Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A portrait of Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

Preludes from the classical period seem to have fallen slightly out of favor. There certainly were plenty of preludes being composed during that time, but they don’t seem to be the ones most pianists choose to perform today. Perhaps it’s because they weren’t written in systematic collections the way Bach, as well as later composers, did it.

Both Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arguably the most notable composers of that time, composed preludes for piano, but when they did they mostly seemed to be a type of throwback to the baroque period. However they are not often played today. Instead pianists tend to gravitate to the many other wonderful works by these composers. The sonata seems to have been one of the preferred types of piano pieces of this time, and both composers wrote many great ones.

Below is a set of two preludes by Beethoven that is not often heard or played. If you’re familiar enough with the difference between the baroque period and the classical, you can tell that these pieces are more similar to the former than the latter. More evidence that he was influenced by Bach in the composition of these is that over the course of the 7 minutes the pieces traverse all twelve major keys.

Two Preludes, Op. 39 by Ludwig van Beethoven, played by Jeno Jando

Romantic Preludes for Piano

A portrait of Chopin
Frédéric Chopin

The romantic period was when the piano really took the foreground in music, so it makes sense that preludes for piano also became more popular. Many people during this time had pianos in their homes and would play them for themselves and each other for entertainment. This required plenty of short pieces that the general public could learn and enjoy. The prelude was just the thing.

Frédéric Chopin is possibly the most famous composer for piano in history, much less in the romantic period. He composed a huge repertoire of music for the piano that is loved the world over, and his preludes are some of the most loved of all.

Similar to Bach, Chopin wrote a set of 24 preludes, one for each of the major and minor keys. There are several famous pieces from this collection, one of the most famous being the one commonly known as the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude. If you don’t recognize the name, I bet you will at least recognize the music from one movie soundtrack or another.

The ‘Raindrop’ Prelude is the longest one in the collection, usually lasting between 5 and 7 minutes. It gets its title from the constant repetition of A flat, drumming what some think sounds like the rhythm of raindrops.

‘Raindrop’ Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15, by Frédéric Chopin, played by Lang Lang

Post-Romantic Preludes for Piano

A portrait of Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
A portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

The post-romantic era is my personal favorite, and it is full of wonderful composers who wrote fantastic collections of preludes. The two composers who made the biggest contribution to piano preludes during this time were Sergei Rachmaninoff and Claude Debussy.

Both of these great composers had very unique compositional styles, which can be seen right away when comparing their preludes.

Like many other composers, Rachmaninoff wrote 24 preludes in all 24 major and minor keys, as well as a few others. However, he didn’t originally intend to create them in a set, apparently it just sort of happened.

By far Rachmaninoff’s most famous is his Prelude in C Sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2. This was a very early work of his and there’s a story that it was so popular during his concert tours that he grew tired of playing it. The story goes that in order to play a trick on the audience he would bang out the iconic first three notes, get the crowd excited, then quickly switch to something else!

Prelude in C# minor, Op. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, played by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Debussy also wrote 24 preludes, again one in for each major and minor key, and they are organized into two separate books of 12. Considered some of the most significant works for piano in history, these two books are full of wonderful pieces.

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly one of the most beautiful, is the one known as “La cathédrale engloutie” or “Sunken Cathedral”. This was the one of the first times in music history that something so atmospheric had been composed and it certainly had an influence on other composers down the road.

Prelude book I, L. 117, No. 10, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ by Claude Debussy, played by Pavel Kolesnikov

There are of course plenty of other preludes by many other great composers. One more you should definitely check out is the set of 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Finding Music

Preludes are a wonderful place to look for music to play on the piano. Even if you only played preludes your entire life, you would probably never be able to play them all! All of the pieces I’ve mentioned except for the Shostakovich are in the public domain, so you can find the scores to any of them on imslp.org.

Do you have any favorite preludes? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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