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Preluding with the Masters

For centuries, improvising introductions to keyboard works, also known as preluding, helped inspire musicians and prepare audiences for what was to come. (The German verb präludieren and the French verb preluder can simply mean "to improvise.") Preluding had practical functions as well, allowing performers to warm up, test tuning, or adapt to unfamiliar instruments and surroundings. Gradually, improvised preludes were written down and served as exercises or mini lessons in improvisation and composition. Louis Couperin, in his treatise L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin (1716), published an appendix of preludes intended to establish the key, work the fingers, and test the keyboard before playing his Ordres. Johann Sebastian Bach set the gold standard of preluding with his landmark Well-Tempered Clavier (1722/42), inspiring many composers after him to pen preludes in all twenty- four keys as well. While the Classical period saw fewer composed preludes, the tradition of improvising before pieces continued. Mozart and Clementi improvised introductions to their compositions during their famous 1781 contest at the court of Emperor Joseph II.

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, preluding fell out of favor. Many of the brilliant improvisers including Beethoven, Kalkbrenner, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Hummel died before 1850; Liszt stopped concertizing in 1848. In addition, there was a growing emphasis on faithfully reproducing an emerging canon of piano literature. During the latter half of the twentieth century the notion of the urtext crystallized, and preluding became an unsavory vestige of Golden-Age pianism, a time in which piano playing and composing were not necessarily separate skills.

Despite the general decline of preluding, the practice lingered into the recording age. Very little has been preserved on record, with the exception of a handful of pianists including Josef Hofmann (1876- 1957), Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), and Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950). Their extemporaneous introductions range from voluminously rolled dominant seventh chords to more complex progressions and figurations. Some preambles are merely smoke and vapors or digital divertissements, while others reveal these artists carefully searching for their muse.

Many of Hofmann's introductions, for example, are simple, consisting of just one note, chord, or flourish. These can be heard respectively in his preludes to Beethoven's Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, "Moonlight" (see Example 1), the fourth movement of Carl Maria von Weber's Sonata in C Major, Op. 24 (see Example 2), and Chopin's Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1, "Minute" (see Example 3).

Editor's note: to hear audio excerpts of selected examples from this article, please visit the digital edition of Clavier Companion at Audio excerpts provided courtesy of Marston Records,

While it is often a function of preluding to establish the mood of the forthcoming piece, Hofmann's preludes do not necessarily foreshadow what is to come. His eerie creation before the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, "Waldstein" has no brio whatsoever (see Example 4), and the murky musings before the first movement of Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana, Op. 16, give no hint of the impending explosive intensity (see Example 5).

Hofmann's prelude to Chopin's Polonaise in E-flat Minor, Op. 26, No. 2, gently explores a popular vehicle for improvisation, a descending circle of fifths (see Example 6 on page 24).

In his last recital, Wilhelm Backhaus, too ill to finish the last movement of Beethoven's Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3, offered instead "Des Abends" and "Warum?" from Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. Backhaus's introduction is an elegant example of preluding's persuasive ability to set the mood, preparing the audience for the ensuing tenderness (see Example 7 on page 24).

Backhaus's warm-hearted prelude to Schubert's Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 142, No. 2, would sound right at home during a quiet moment of a Baptist service (see Example 8).

One of Backhaus's more charming improvisations comes before a performance of Franz Liszt's Soirées de Vienne, Valse Caprice No. 6, after Schubert (see Example 9).

Piano preluding on video is exceedingly rare, but luckily we have Vladimir Horowitz to thank for several delightful examples (thanks also go to the director for not editing them out). On May 31, 1987, in Vienna's Musikverein, he peacefully tested a few chords before opening the concert with Mozart's Rondo in D Major, K. 485.10 The previous year, during his legendary return to Moscow, the audience burst into laughter when Horowitz abruptly announced a cadence before his staple encore, Robert Schumann's "Träumerei" from Kinderszenen, Op. 15.11  Horowitz is not that far from the mark: regarding his Concert Etudes, Op. 10, Schumann stated that these works may be preceded by a short introduction.12  At the request of her daughter, Clara Schumann notated many of the preludes she used in concert. This collection, available from Bryn Mawr Publishing, contains a prelude to her husband's "Des Abends," as well as a lovely introduction to the slow movement of his Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5.13

Preluding may also serve to modulate between works.14  In a 1922 recording Ferruccio Busoni connects Chopin's Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7, to the Étude in G-flat Major, Op. 10, No. 5, by continuing the rhythmic sequence of the prelude and introducing a D♭7 chord, the dominant of the forthcoming G-flat major. The up-beat to the etude foreshadows the virtuosic right-hand passagework (see Example 10).

Dinu Lipatti, in his last recital, modulates between J. S. Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825, and Mozart's Sonata in A Minor, K. 310. Before plunging into the Mozart, he continues to muse in B-flat major before unveiling an E7 chord, the dominant of A minor (see Example 11).

Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) notates transitional preludes in several of his Characteristic Studies, Op. 95 (1837), noting, "These four measures may serve as an introduction to the next etude when it is played immediately after this one."17  (See Example 12.)

Where and when to prelude is an artistic gamble, as the following 1818 review from the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review reveals: 

"We have often enquired why a piano- forte player should be indulged or should indulge himself with the liberty of running over the instrument before his regular performance commences...Were a singer to go up and down the scale, or to flit through a dozen violates, it would be thought mighty ridiculous, and yet the same motive must be common to both, namely, a desire to bring the organs into exercise before the real onset. In point of fact, such preparation is most necessary to the singer, though the union of sense with the sound of the human voice forbids it. [But] custom is all powerful, and pianists must prelude."18 

Aside from infuriating critics, there are instances where preluding is undesirable, especially when it detracts from the music's desired dramatic effect. Murmuring arpeggios or cracking scales before Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, Op. 57, or Schubert's Sonata in G Major, D. 894, would send any pianophile into hysterics. Moreover, for those pieces that already begin with extemporaneous introductions, such as Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, preluding would be redundant. 

During a post-concert reception, an audience member scolded me for preluding before Schubert's Impromptu in E-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 2. I gently reminded him that improvised introductions occur regularly in piano literature; they just happen to be written down. I pointed to two other pieces on my program, Chopin's Nocturnes in A-flat Major, Op. 32, No. 2, and B Major, Op. 62, No. 1 (see Examples 13 and 14). These nocturnes begin with several innocently rolled chords, similar to what I had done before the Schubert. Simply because the Chopin introductions are etched in stone does not diminish the fact that they represent improvisation.

The first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3, begins with extemporized searching for the home key (see Example 15). It is not until measure eight that the introduction settles on the tonic. The link to preluding should not be overlooked: it is crucial to make introductions such as these sound explored, not pre-meditated.

During a 1943 broadcast, Hofmann preluded the prelude when he rolled a D7 chord before the opening of Beethoven's fourth concerto.19  While certainly controversial, this is not as blasphemous as one might think: Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven, instructs that this opening chord may be rolled, setting a more spontaneous atmosphere (see Example 16). 

Several treatises on preluding were published in the early nineteenth century including Czerny's A Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Pianoforte, Op. 200 (1829), which presents chord progressions, such as Example 17, and demonstrates how they may be elaborated into various improvisations, such as Example 18.

Other early nineteenth-century composers such as Johann Baptiste Cramer, Muzio Clementi, and Ignaz Moscheles wrote short pedagogical preludes intended as lessons in style and extemporaneous composition.

Notating spontaneity is terribly difficult, especially when bar lines can over-organize music and mathematical approximations can restrict rhythmic freedom. If a particular passage inspires an extemporaneous atmosphere, I may reimagine its notation. Returning to Chopin's G Minor Ballade, try visualizing the opening (see Example 19) without bar lines, and you'll notice a less compartmentalized, more recitative-like appearance (see Example 20).

In his book After the Golden Age, Kenneth Hamilton reminds pianists that for centuries improvised introductions were "a sign of musical good manners and a chance for the player to frame appropriately the pieces in his program. It was also an opportunity to give the audience a gentle reminder that the player too was a creative artist."23

Improvisation gives us insight into the compositional process and serves as the musical link between embryonic thought and the written word. Studying this ancient practice can help performers sound more spontaneous and allow developing pianists to distinguish between situations in which the score dictates what to play and moments in which the score merely encourages us to reveal our inner composer. I invite you to give preluding a try, even if you're no Mozart. Hummel offers keyboardists these encouraging words:

"Even if a person plays with inspiration, but always from a written score, he or she will be much less nourished, broadened and educated than through the frequent offering of all of his or her powers in a free fantasy practiced in the full awareness of certain guidelines and directions, even if this improvisation is only moderately successful."24 


1 Josef Hofmann, The Complete Josef Hofmann, Vol. 6: The Casimir Hall Recital, Marston, 1998, compact disc, transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

2 Josef Hofmann, The Complete Josef Hofmann, Vol. 5: Solo Recordings 1935-1948, Marston, 1997, compact disc, transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

3 Hofmann, The Complete Josef Hofmann, Vol. 6., transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Wilhelm Backhaus, Last Concert, Decca 4988005359575, 2004, compact disc, transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

8 Wilhelm Backhaus, Live Concerts: Carnegie Hall, 1954; Lugano, 1953, Urania 22.258, 2004, compact disc, transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

9 Ibid.

10 Vladimir Horowitz, Horowitz in Vienna, directed by Brian Large, 90 min., New York: Polygram Records, 1990, videocassette.

11 Vladimir Horowitz, Horowitz in Moscow, directed by Brian Large, 104 min., New York: Sony Music Entertainment, SHV 64545, 1995, videocassette.

12 Anthony Newcomb, "Schumann and the Marketplace: From Butterflies to Hausmusik," in Nineteenth-Century Piano Music, ed. R. Larry Todd (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 281.

13 Valerie Woodring-Goertzen, Clara Schumann: Exercises, Preludes, and Fugues (Bryn Mawr, PA: Hildegard, 2001).

14 Mozart composed modulatory preludes for his sister Nanerl to use in between pieces. Moscheles includes modulatory preludes in his Op. 95 studies.

15 Ferruccio Busoni, Busoni and His Legacy, Arbiter 134, 2002, compact disc, transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

16 Dinu Lipatti, The Besancon Festival Piano Recital, EMI Classics 0724356282025, 2004, compact disc, transcribed by Jonathan Mann.

17 Ignaz Moscheles, Etudes Characteristique, Op. 95, ed. A.R. Parsons (New York: G Schirmer, 1881), p. 48.

18 Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review I (1818), 394; in Valerie Woodring Goertzen, "By Way of Introduction: Preluding by 18th- and Early 19th-Century Pianists," The Journal of Musicology 14 (Summer 1996), p. 306.

19 Josef Hofmann, The Complete Josef Hofmann, Vol. 7: Concerto Performances 1940-1947, Marston, compact disc.

20 Carl Czerny, On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven's Works for Piano, ed. Paul Badura-Skoda (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1970), p. 99.

21 Carl Czerny, A Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Pianoforte, Op. 200, trans. and ed. Alice L. Mitchell (New York: Longman, [1983]), p. 7.

22 Ibid., p. 7.

23 Kenneth Hamilton, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 101.

24 Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ausführliche theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-Forte-Spiel (Vienna: Tobias Haslinger, [1828]), p. 468; in Goertzen, p. 305.

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