Maybe it’s time for us to digest the fact that talking about French “Unmeasured Preludes”, or (using the frenchified version of that) “Préludes non mesurés”, is using an entirely modern phrase. It’s a neologism, and unnecessary. And as Bossuet warned dryly in his magnificent sermon on “The Pleasures”, delivered in front of Louis XIV in 1666, “Everything that is not necessary is too much.”
All French seventeenth-century Préludes were by definition what we call now “unmeasured”, so it’s a redundancy to call them unmeasured. It is quite sufficient simply to call them – as they did – Préludes.
I’m quite aware that I have been one of the perpetrators of this unfortunate state of affairs! My Early Music article back (1975), my article for Grove’s Dictionary (1980), the preface to my Louis Couperin edition (1985)… but all that was over 35 years ago and we have learned much since then.
Calling them “Unmeasured Preludes” or “Préludes non mesurés” is both confusing and misleading because it opens the door far too easily to the concept – a particularly dangerous and enticing mirage – that the performance style must therefore be all over the place rhythmically.
What is definitely unmeasured in these pieces is only the notation, but not necessarily the performance. They are Préludes written down in an unmeasured (or semi-measured) notation. But many of them clearly fall into firm and regular harmonic schemes with rhythmic clarity. Imagining them as some sort of separate musical subspecies, requiring a rhythmically random performing style all of their own, is highly misleading. The result is often, in concerts and on recordings, music that sounds like nothing at all from the seventeenth century. That surely can’t be how they sounded at the time. They must sound striking, arresting, and original, yes; but their language must remain essentially a seventeenth-century musical language. So I feel it’s time to say that this particular emperor often has no clothes! Much of what we hear presented as “unmeasured preludes” is simply musical nonsense (in terms of seventeenth-century musical language), albeit often an unhinged nonsense that panders to the prevalent modern concept of “self expression”. There is no evidence that that was true in seventeenth-century France.
Among the most important principles for players, when performing seventeenth-century French préludes, are the following: to define a pulsation; to find the bass and the harmonic progressions; and to give declamatory shape to them. Yes, that pulsation can alter slightly, as it does in many technically “measured” pieces, so there is room for discretion, and there can even be moments when we pause on chords and hold our breath, just as we do sometimes for special effect when speaking. That’s all just good declamation. As François Couperin noted, Préludes are written in musical “prose” not musical “verse”, so they can be as subtle as a highly prepared rhetorical speech in careful prose. They are certainly not like the prose of unstructured every day chit-chat. They are like magnificently constructed paragraphs of Milton’s prose works, or Bossuet’s Orations, not like the prose of dialogues in a television soap opera or a dinner conversation with friends…
The harmonic schemes identifiable in Louis Couperin and d’Anglebert only make sense if a defined pulsation is observed and performed. When we do that, all sorts of things emerge, including polyphonic passages and strict imitations of melodic fragments. Accepting these restrictions paradoxically opens up space for greater freedoms – but of a different kind from the simple rhythmic formlessness that is, alas, all too current today.
Department of Music
University of California, Berkeley