Earliest French Préludes non mésurés

Thought to be those (undated) by Louis Couperin.
Are there any earlier such préludes for the harpsichord?
And for the lute?

[Needless to clarify, I exclude Italian especially Frescobaldi’s Toccatas: although he advised to play them with a lot of flexibility without anything like a strict beat, this was still measured music, in a completely different style very much for the sustained organ sound, not for plucked strings. And anyway these were not much earlier than Louis Couperin’s and Froberger’s Préludes.]

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.

Best wishes,

Davitt Moroney

Professor Emeritus
Department of Music

Morrison Hall

University of California, Berkeley

CA 94720-1200

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Thanks for the clear message. 100% agreeing. Same applies to the Italian Toccata I think. Declamation without rhythmical framework is unintelligible and therefore missing the whole point. It seems a concept from hippies in the 60s that freedom is enjoyable without restrictions. We should know better by now…:wink:

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What Davitt writes is undoubtedly correct; but I still wonder why, unlike the Toccatas of the Italian school or Froberger, the notation is, so to speak, encrypted, since analysis of the works implies many unnegotiable features.


I find Davitt’s detailed response very interesting and, although prima facie discusses my initial question, I totally agree. Let me just add two details:

  1. The distinction between measured and unmeasured does not only arise from the well-known unmeasured notation as observed by Davitt, but also by markings such as F. Couperin when he notated “mésuré” for some of his Préludes: these were visibly of a different character than the others, meant to be played (as for the usual Préludes) without a strict beat. Summarising, I see three types of notation: unmeasured one, measured one but meant for a flexible beat (L. Couperin Tombeau de Blancrocher is a classical example), and “mésuré” as per later préludes by F. Couperin and others.
  2. Davitt makes an important point. A relatively recent fashion for slow baroque harpsichord pieces, often dances, clearly meant to be played with a strict main beat (with flexibility inside the beat of course), is to play them almost completely unmeasured. With the “unmeasured preludes” it gets even worse. Davitt tells us that even the unmeasured writing implies harmonically-driven rhythms (pulsations, as Davitt explains). A very significant concept to bear in mind in order to achieve a stylish performance.

Oh, and by the way, Davitt (who undoubtedly was the first musician who explained us how to play them!) should not feel uncomfortable for his early use of the “unmeasured”/“non-mésuré” word: it was already employed by Alan Curtis in his Preface to Louis Couperin’s Heugel edition, printed in Nov. 1970, and perhaps it was not even then a novelty: it was also employed by Howard Schott in his “Playing the Harpsichord book”, 1st ed, 1971.

Interestingly, the non-mésuré term is so common today that some writers assume it was in use in ancient times as well. I just found Ariana Jane Odermatt’s “thesis submitted for the partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy, School of Music, Australian National University”.
Duly quoting Davitt’s publications on the matter, nevertheless she writes:
“Extant préludes non mesurés are contained within two manuscript sources (Parville and Bauyn),
while commentary addressing performance interpretation of the notation is limited to three
source documents specifically referencing the prélude non mesuré: Nicolas Lebègue’s preface to
his Pièces de clavessin (1677) … and the preface to François Couperin’s L’art de toucher Le Clavecin
Am I wrong or is this asserting that both Lebègue and F. Couperin employed the “non mesuré” term? This is of course untrue: in the mentioned publications they both just wrote “prélude”.

Needless to say, my initial question remains: I would like to know about pre-Froberger pre-Louis-Couperin free French preludes. Thanks for any information!