The unmeasured prelude (prélude non mesuré), one of the most fascinating areas of music interpretation since 1600, is found in several French harpsichord editions and manuscripts from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Unbarred in the conventional sense, it is sometimes notated with whole notes only, sometimes with mixed note values, and other times with interspersed sections of measured notation. The clavecin prelude is related to the improvisatory lute prelude, which developed before the mid-century as a means of testing the tuning and of introducing the following pieces. Ex. 1 shows the tablature for an unmeasured prelude by Denis Gaultier.1
Although the English continued to use measured notation, Thomas Mace (1676) provided a colorful description of the lute prelude:
The Praelude is commonly a Piece of Confused-wild-shapeless-kind of Intricate-Play, (as most use It) in which no perfect Form, Shape, or Uniformity can be perceived; but a Random-Business, Pottering, and Grooping, up and down, from one Stop, or Key, to another; And generally, so performed, to make Tryal, whether the Instrument be well in Tune, or not. . . .2
The fourteen preludes by Louis Couperin in the Bauyn Manuscript constitute the earliest known unmeasured preludes for harpsichord and the largest number by a single composer. Ten of these, as well as an additional two (and two more of questionable authorship), are contained in the Parville Manuscript.3 Couperin’s preludes, often large structures occupying as much as seven pages in the Bauyn Manuscript, are written completely in whole notes; slurs define harmonic notes to be sustained and passages of melodic or ornamental interest. Slurs connecting two notes probably have an articulation function; e.g., a pattern identical to the port de voix (see p.85) occurs many times. Other two-note slurs sometimes have the form of the descending cheute or the aspiration. Four of Couperin’s preludes contain measured sections, a device used in La Guerre’s and Rameau’s editions. Couperin’s preludes are carefully constructed, but the scribe has not always aligned the treble and bass notes properly. His writing is marked by many long melodic and scale passages, occasional chromaticism, frequently shifting key centers, and a number of sequential patterns; e.g., the Prelude in C major contains a sequence at the end of the first system (see Ex. 2). Couperin’s preludes are outstanding examples of this genre; they are freely improvisatory, harmonically interesting, and feature an inventive melodic line shifting between the treble and bass registers.
The seventeenth-century French composers use the slur imaginatively in their unmeasured preludes to indicate notes to be sustained. St.-Lambert writes that “the slur is employed particularly in preludes and sometimes also in pieces, but more rarely,” and advises holding the following disjunct notes because of the slurs (see Ex. 3).4
When slurred notes move in conjunct motion, however, one holds only the first and last notes covered by the slur (see Ex. 4). The location of the slur in disjunct movement indicates whether to hold the notes. If the ends of the slur are close to the noteheads (A), hold only the first and last notes; but if the slur is turned in the opposite direction, so that it includes all the notes (B), hold them all (see Ex. 5). The application of this principle may not have been widespread, so one would be wise to work only with primary sources, not modern editions.
Some confusion, rather than elucidation, about the function of the slur is provided by a letter from Lebègue to an Englishman who had asked for advice in performing his preludes. Lebègue wrote that one plays the notes in the exact sequence in which they appear, and that “the thin curved line beginning at the low note and continuing to that above means that it is necessary to hold all the notes this line encircles, without releasing any after striking, in order to preserve the harmony.”5 Gustafson, however, cites examples of notational inconsistency in Lebègue’s Prelude in F major, suggesting that the dissonant E is held at the beginning of the first system but not at the beginning of the second system because the tie marks before the chord in the second instance imply that only the F major chord is sustained (see Ex. 6). St.-Lambert’s instructions and examples above indicate that Lebègue’s remarks on the usage of the slur are incomplete—a not uncommon fault. Thus the dissonant E in Ex. 6 would not be sustained in either instance because one does not hold notes that move in conjunct motion.
Composers who included preludes in their editions generally thought it necessary to devise a clearer form of notation when their works were to reach a wider audience, so they experimented with differing styles. Notation for the prélude non mesuré was problematical in the seventeenth century, as can be seen from Lebègue’s Preface to his first book:
I have endeavored to notate the preludes with as much clarity as possible, as much for consistency of performance as for the playing style of the harpsichord, in which one separates the notes of chords and strikes them one after the other very quickly, rather than striking them together as on the organ. If one encounters something a little difficult and obscure, I hope the clever person will attempt to remedy it, in view of the great difficulty in rendering this method of preluding intelligible to everyone.6
“Rendering this method of preluding intelligible to everyone” was indeed a challenge that few composers sought—and at which even fewer succeeded.
Three of the four suites of D’Anglebert’s Pièces de clavecin open with unmeasured preludes in a unique notational style. The music is written in a mixture of whole and eighth notes with occasional ornamental sixteenth notes and is barred sporadically. D’Anglebert is the only composer from whom we have unmeasured preludes in both autograph and printed forms. Those in the manuscript (1660s-1670s), in semibreve notation, conform closely to the preludes in the Pièces de clavecin. However, some ornaments that are written out in the manuscript are indicated by symbol in the edition; the slurring is more precise in the edition; and occasional bar lines are added, usually to indicate the end of a phrase or section. Ex. 7 contains facsimiles of the Prelude in D minor from the manuscript and the Pièces de clavecin.7
In his edition, D’Anglebert customarily employs slurred whole notes for the harmonic structure and eighth notes for nonharmonic tones and melodic passages (with a few ornamental sixteenth notes). Slurred eighth notes are sometimes used to bolster the harmonic structure, and nonharmonic and melodic tones are occasionally no-tated in semibreves. Occasionally, the slur appears to have an articulation function, as in the two port de voix figures in the second bar of Ex. 7b. It seems that eighth notes have a more uniform rhythmic value, while whole notes can be played freely—sometimes like a rolled chord and other times deliberately and slowly. In Ex. 8, from the Prelude in G major, whole notes play a melodic role, while the single eighth notes have an anacrusic quality.
D’Anglebert’s notational practice assists the performer, for one can immediately identify the slurred structural notes, as opposed to those with a nonharmonic or melodic function. The vertical alignment is more accurate and more easily grasped than that in Louis Couperin’s preludes. D’Anglebert’s unique slurring is the clearest in this genre, since slurs seem to be employed exclusively to mark notes to be sustained. A slur has application to one note only, and ties are not used or needed since the slur indicates the duration of the note. In Ex. 9, the first D in the bass register, suspended over a long pedal point on the dominant, resolves to C#, and is followed by another suspension in the treble register.
In D’Anglebert’s preludes, a continuous, expressive melodic line constantly shifts between the treble and bass registers. Unlike Louis Couperin, D’Anglebert tends to avoid repeated motives and sequences, but he is partial to irregular groupings. The beginning of a slur often indicates a rhythmic stress (but not when used with notes in the middle of rolled chords), while single eighth notes occurring before a slur may be interpreted as upbeats. The melody sometimes grows out of the harmonic texture, rather than being superimposed on the harmony, and sustained notes of the melody then help to constitute the harmonic structure. Melodic notes in Ex. 10 are marked with an x, and a pattern beginning with an eighth note occurs twice.
In the manuscript preludes, D’Anglebert wrote out the more-involved ornaments and rarely used symbols other than those for the simple trill and the mordent. In the edition he mostly indicated ornaments with symbols (see Ex. 11). It is interesting that he often substituted the trill appuyé symbol for the simple trill, particularly in contexts for which Rousseau would prescribe a main-note trill.
The Prelude in G minor contains two instances of a common D’Anglebert cadence trademark, which in his dances is sometimes notated with an arpeggio symbol (see p.80). The notation in Ex. 12a suggests that the arpeggio is not to be played quickly, but evenly, as D’Anglebert’s ornament table illustrates. Therefore, the passages in Exx. 12a and 12b would be played identically, except that one would restrike the D in the upper voice at the end of Ex. 12a and the G in the bass register at the end of Ex. 12b (as noted above, there are no ties in D’Anglebert’s preludes).
D’Anglebert’s manuscript contains an additional attractive short prelude in C major, notated completely in semibreves. It does not present many difficulties, for it has relatively little melodic movement and consists almost entirely of harmonic texture in which the melody is embedded. Its brevity suggests that it may have been intended as a teaching piece.
D’Anglebert’s unmeasured preludes, with their many seventh and ninth chords, suspensions and other dissonances, are filled with rich sonorities, which produce expressive preludes of profound beauty. The avoidance of sequential patterns and any semblance of rhythmic pulse makes the form one of totally convincing improvisation, while the precise slurring indicates clearly which notes are to be sustained and their rhythmic placement. Surely no better form of notation could be devised, for D’Anglebert clarifies the structure for the performer without sacrificing the improvisatory element. His notation was not adopted by later composers, for interest in the preludé non mesuré was waning by the end of the century. Thereafter, it is found in editions only occasionally, rather than as the rule. The pirated Amsterdam edition of D’Anglebert’s works (1704-1705) omits the preludes, giving weight to the belief that the unmeasured prelude was not popular outside France.
Three anonymous unmeasured preludes in the Parville Manuscript are thought by some to be in D’Anglebert’s style, but Kenneth Gilbert declined to include them in his edition of D’Anglebert’s works. All three are short, roughly comparable in length to the Prelude in C major from D’Anglebert’s manuscript, with opening gestures resembling his. The tritone with leading tone is prominent in the beginning of the Preludes in C major and F major, and the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale are emphasized in the Prelude in G major. The final cadence of the Prelude in F major is the only cadence that is similar to D’Anglebert’s. The harmonic treatment of the preludes is in keeping with D’Anglebert’s style, but the scale passages of the Prelude in C major are not typical of his work, nor is the slurring style or the symbol for the mordent (although these elements of style could be attributed to the scribe’s preference).
While it seems unlikely that these pieces are by another known composer of unmeasured preludes, it is possible that they were written by someone who left no signed unmeasured preludes, e.g., François Couperin. Whatever the case, these fine examples of the prélude non mesuré deserve to be better known. Their brevity makes them suitable for those who wish to become acquainted with this style, and their structure is easily grasped.
Preludes by Other Clavecin Composers
The unmeasured preludes by D’Anglebert and Louis Couperin furnish the most outstanding examples of this genre. Other French composers experimented with differing forms of notation, but none achieved D’Anglebert’s notational clarity or his harmonic richness and melodic beauty. It is interesting to observe how they grappled with the thorny problem of notation for the unmeasured prelude. Chambonnières, the only major seventeenth-century claveciniste from whom we have no preludes, may have considered the notational difficulties insurmountable.
Lebègue included five unmeasured preludes in his first book (1677) (see Ex. 6), the first published attempt to convey the movement of the unmeasured prelude, but none in his second book. Lebègue’s note values vary from breves to 32nd notes, with many passages written in measured, but unbarred, notation. Quarter notes as well as half notes are used for free arpeggiation, but the vertical alignment is occasionally inaccurate or unclear. Diagonal bar lines, found in all but the first prelude, have an obscure meaning; in some instances they may be intended to set off harmonic changes or to indicate pauses. Slurs indicate notes to be sustained, although they also are used to tie notes. Despite his good intentions, Lebègue’s notation is sometimes mystifying (see the passage quoted on p. 136 above, giving the performer license to correct faults in the notation).
All but one of the four preludes in Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre’s first book of clavecin pieces follow Louis Couperin’s precedent for a measured section in the middle and a brief unmeasured close.8 The fourth suite opens with a Tocade (reflecting Italian influence) in which a short unmeasured introductory section launches into brilliant passage-work. La Guerre’s notation is the most similar to D’Anglebert’s, for it uses whole notes primarily to indicate harmonic structure and eighth or quarter notes to designate melodic or nonharmonic tones. The third prelude opens with an extended sixteenth-note run in the treble register that is echoed by the bass, but thereafter the sixteenth notes recur sporadically. Unike D’Anglebert, La Guerre places slurs over or to the right of notes (or groups of notes) to indicate that they are to be sustained. Occasionally, she employs an oblique line in the same contexts, the significance of which is not clear. La Guerre’s edition might have included instructions for the performance of these preludes, for some of the prefatory pages in the only extant copy in Venice have been cut out. Her preludes, which often include sequences, tend to fall into recognizable patterns (see Ex. 13). La Guerre’s notation seems experimental, but her directions are somewhat more precise than Lebègue’s. It only remained for D’Anglebert to add his refinements; though simple, they clarify the composer’s intentions.
Louis Marchand’s first book (1702) contains an early instance of a French prelude written in conventional notation. Most of the notation of the prelude in his second book (1703) is measured but unbarred, with whole notes indicating free arpeggiated passages and quarter notes the nonharmonic tones. One finds a distinct rhythmic pulse in Marchand’s prelude, together with three-and four-voice part writing.
Two preludes from Louis-Nicolas Clérambault’s Pièces de clavecin (1704) also consist primarily of measured notation, with whole notes used only for free arpeggiated passages. The Prelude in C major contains numerous scale passages, sequences, and imitative writing, suggesting a dramatic, rapid performance and indicating a change of character for the prelude. In contrast, the chromatic Prelude in C minor, marked Fort tendrement, uses small motivic cells to construct melodic lines and relies heavily on sequence.
The four short preludes of Gaspard Le Roux in his Pièces de clavessin (1705) are the only known published unmeasured preludes no-tated in semibreves, in the style of Louis Couperin. They may have been written much earlier than their publication date, although it is also possible that Le Roux considered this notation adequate for his purpose—it is less cryptic than Lebègue’s, for example. Two of the preludes contain a few figured bass numbers. Stylistically, Le Roux’s preludes have much in common with those of Louis Couperin and D’Anglebert; e.g., their nonrhythmic quality and their melodic line, which is exchanged between the treble and bass registers (see Ex. 14).
A youthful work by Jean-François Dandrieu, Pièces de clavecin courtes et faciles de quatre tons differents (early 1700s), contains four short, simple unmeasured preludes in semibreve notation that fall into easily recognizable rhythmic patterns. Dandrieu gives performance directions (see also his ornament table, p.73): “The slur requires one to hold the note with which it commences to that with which it ends, although there may be others between the two notes.”9
Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Premier livre de Pièces de clavecin (1706) opens with a prelude consisting of a short unmeasured section followed by a measured portion in 12/8 time. Measured three-and four-part writing is found intermixed in the opening section, with only the few whole-note arpeggios left to the performer’s discretion. The unmeasured portion of the prelude seems to present a declamatory, recitative-like introduction to the measured section.
Descendants and mutants of the prélude non mesuré made occasional appearances through the eighteenth century. Nicolas Siret’s Second livre de Pièces de clavecin (1719) includes both a measured prelude and an unbarred prelude containing measured notation with a few free whole-note arpeggiated chords interspersed. Durocher’s unbarred prelude (Pièces de clavecin, 1733) employs an unusual notational style with alternating whole and half notes in a type of triple movement; black note heads are found in chordal form with many ledger lines. Michel Corrette’s Premier livre de Pièces de clavecin (1734) includes two barred preludes containing measures with whole-or half-note chords marked Arpeggio. His ornament table realizes the arpeggio as a broken chord moving in sixteenth notes (like an Alberti bass). Balbastre’s Prelude (1777), consisting of unbarred broken chords and runs in measured note values and regular patterns, implies a virtuoso performance.
François Couperin’s eight preludes in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin (1716) are written in measured notation for “the ease with which one can teach or learn them.” Thus Couperin believed it was better to write in a measured style than to have his intentions misinterpreted. These preludes, intended to serve as introductory Pièces to the ordres of his first and second books, are to be played freely, unless marked mesuré:
A prelude is a free composition in which the imagination is allowed free expression. It is, however, extremely rare to find talented persons capable of producing them instantly. Those who use these non-improvised preludes should play them in a relaxed manner without being concerned about strict rhythm, unless I have expressly indicated it by the word Mesuré. Thus, one may venture to say that in many ways music (like poetry) has its prose and its verse.10
Although the prelude was customarily improvised, few players were skilled at this art, and Couperin preferred that his metrical preludes be used as introductions to the respective ordres of his pieces.
The Unmeasured Prelude as Toccata or Tombeau
The unmeasured prelude has been compared to the harpsichord toccata and tombeau.11 Froberger’s toccatas (like some of Frescobaldi’s) open with a whole-note chord that Frescobaldi earlier indicated was to be arpeggiated.12 The openings of some unmeasured preludes might be related to this practice; e.g., the Prelude . . . a limitation de M Froberger by Louis Couperin, which has been compared to Froberger’s first toccata for organ,13 as well as his Plainte faite à Londres,14 D’Anglebert likewise arpeggiates the tonic chord at the beginning of the Prelude in D minor (Ex. 7), and follows it with other sonorities over the tonic pedal.
After the opening chord, Froberger’s toccatas have passage-work in mixed note values, alternating between upper and lower registers, followed by a fugal middle section and sometimes a return of the fantasia style. Louis Couperin may have modeled his four preludes with internal measured sections after this pattern. The comparison with toccata style is perhaps more relevant to Couperin’s preludes than to D’Anglebert’s, for the latter’s lack the sweeping scale passages characteristic of the toccata.
The tombeau—a piece in memory of a deceased teacher or acquaintance—is also thought to have influenced the unmeasured prelude. Froberger’s Tombeau fait à Paris sur la mort de Monsieur Blancheroche carries instructions to play “very slowly with discretion and without observing any metrical pulse,” while his Lamentation for Ferdinand III is marked lentement avec discretion. From other contexts, it seems that discretion means to play with rhythmical freedom.
Although there are elements of the toccata and of the tombeau present in some unmeasured preludes, the prélude non mesuré is still a unique form having a connection with the lute prelude in its style of notation and in its improvisatory quality. Both the clavecin prelude and the lute prelude were intended to open a program. François Couperin says, “Not only do the preludes provide a pleasant announcement of the key of the pieces to follow, but they also serve to limber the fingers and to let the performer try out an unfamiliar instrument.”15 This description implies that the prelude was not considered a virtuoso piece. Couperin also speaks of students knowing only the little prelude with which they began study. D’Anglebert’s preludes are most effective at a relaxed tempo that allows the luxuriant harmonies and lovely melodies to flow effortlessly.
Another slant on the function of the prelude is provided by Pierre Richelet (1680) and Jacques Ozanam (1691), who define the prelude as the first piece “played on some musical instrument for the purpose of establishing a rapport with the audience.”16
That the prelude was a carefully thought-out improvisation is suggested by the similarity between D’Anglebert’s preludes in his manuscript and in his Pièces de clavecin. Only a few composers dared to tackle the problem of conveying an improvisational style via notation. It is remarkable that Louis Couperin and D’Anglebert were able to do so. D’Anglebert’s notational refinements simplify the performer’s task, make these lovely pieces more accessible, and provide insights into the interpretation of Couperin’s semibreve preludes.