Unmeasured preludes - is the written text 'holy writ' or just a guideline?

This YouTube video (link below) poses an interesting question - are the unmeasured preludes meant to be played exactly as written, every note on the page taken very literally? In our time, a great deal of effort has gone into preparing ‘Urtext’ editions of these pieces, trying to reproduce the exact positioning of each note, and the length of each slur.

Or are these preludes just outlines for an improvisation?

My own, perhaps rather ungenerous, opinion is that the vast majority of them are not really interesting music as written. There are of course some real stand-outs - the d minor preludes of Louis Couperin and d’Anglebert, for example. And for that reason, perhaps they don’t need the extravagant approach of this performer. But the lesser preludes might benefit from more imagination and freedom on the part of the player.

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No. If that were the case they would just write them out in full, which they were fully capable of. I can’t see how the idea of a literal interpretation sits with the general 17-18C French worldview or aesthetic.

Re modern engravings, I am not convinced care is taken to position the notes and length of slurs with engineering precision indicating duration or somesuch, so much as to be as close as possible to the look of the original, very freely engraved publications. They are not metrical after all. Surely the slurs indicate great freedom and relaxation as well as harmonies?

But Unmeasured Preludes are a topic nearly as fertile as The Great Glue Debate on our forums.

Hi guys,

I just read this piece by David Chung the other night. The recent Froeberger discussion got me off on an unmeasured prelude reading binge over the last week. I guess D’angelbert was the only xvii century composer to have left behind a semi- measured print version of his preludes to guide the use of his white note preludes. This definitely provides insight into at least his practice and maybe a clue to guide one when approaching others. I very much love the openness of unmeasured preludes, ricercars, toccatas. Such a mystery is fascinating. Hopefully this link is attached correctly.

Best regards,


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The verbal descriptions of unmeasured preludes say that the intention of the notation - as distinct from the ‘conventional’ one with chord notes apparently simultaneous and metrical rhythms - is that one plays exactly the notes that are written, in the order they are written. In other words, the notation tells you how to play the ornaments (if there are to be ornaments) and how to play the arpeggiation, de-synchronization between hands etc, neither of which is given in standard (Frescobaldi-like) toccata notation.
And the slurs tell you how long to hold the notes down and/or give some idea as to the rhythm.

I.e. this notation is more accurate and precise as to what the player should do than the conventional metrical one.

Indeed if that were not the case, there would be no point in using it. One can notate an ‘outline for improvisation’ as just a set of chords with occasional melodic fragments - many of Handel’s ‘minor’ preludes are just that - but most existing French unmeasured preludes obviously contain much more detailed notation of musical intentions.

The two constraints to ‘play the written notes, in the order they are written’ do leave you with a truly vast amount of interpretive freedom. So I have to say I find the question as phrased (‘play the notes exactly as written’) rather misleading.

You may well doubt whether the exact number of repetitions in a trill is important enough to reproduce exactly … that at least is not really worth arguing about. But beyond that I don’t see any reason to doubt the ‘exactness’ of the notation method.

It is a separate question whether the manuscript sources we have are accurate copies of what the composers wrote or intended to communicate to players. Probably, from internal evidence, the Louis Couperin preludes have numerous problems in terms of misplaced left vs right hand notes and inaccurate/redundant slur or tenuto or other ‘general purpose lines’ snaking across the score. That is probably inevitable given the radically innovative nature of the notation. The fact that we have imperfect copies does not mean that the original was vague or ambiguous, only that it was difficult to understand and copy.

(And, for instance Colin Tilney’s edition does, I think, a rather good job of correcting obvious transcription problems for L Couperin.)

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Thanks for the comments, Thomas.

What ‘verbal descriptions of unmeasured preludes’ are you referring to, which describe the ‘intention of the notation’?

@sphaerenklang verbal descriptions? Whatever do you mean? I don’t think there are any tape recordings from that period ( I may be wrong :frowning: )

In any case, what written descriptions? It would be good to see these.

[As a footnote, in my optimistic dreamlike aspirations for the forum I’d always like people to adhere to standards somewhat like WIkipedia and put references or links to assertions. Otherwise we get the inevitable posts all the time, what reference, where, what evidence and so on. That’s because this is not FB where people assert anything they like with no proof. Just a dream, but I think it helps keep the level of discourse high.]

[And you can do footnotes in Markdown by the way! :slight_smile: :slight_smile: ]

Yes and No. There are several dozens of “tape recordings” of that period: the music boxes, sérinettes, barrel organs, many of them with their music supervised by great musicians…
… unfortunately, AFAIK, none of them performs a prélude non mésuré.

Apart from the many doubts about how to perform these préludes, I devoted to them in my "Playing " book, section 5.4, two pages of text with very obvious analysis and advice (for example, if the purpose appears to be to imitate the lute style, the arpeggios should be moderately fast, not terribly slow as in so many recordings).

For those that have access to Grove Music Online, there is a good article: Prélude non mesuré by Davitt Moroney, one of our list members at one time. Grove IP restrictions of course do not allow me to reproduce it here. But here’s the bibliography for the article, which may be of interest.

  • A. Curtis: "Unmeasured Preludes in French Baroque Instrumental Music* (diss., U. of Illinois, 1956)

  • A. Curtis: ‘Musique classique française à Berkeley’, RdM, 56 (1970), 123–64

  • D. Moroney: ‘The Performance of Unmeasured Harpsichord Preludes’, EMc, 4 (1976), 143–58

  • C. Pfeiffer: ‘Das französische prélude non mesuré* für Cembalo: Notenbild, Interpretation, Enfluss auf Froberger, Bach, Händel’, NZM, Jg.140 (1979), 132–6

  • P. Le Prevost: Le prélude non mesuré pour clavecin (France 1650–1700) (Baden-Baden, 1987)

  • C. Tilney: The Art of Unmeasured Prelude for Harpsichord: France 1660–1720 (London, 1991)

  • R.W. Troeger: ‘The French Unmeasured Harpsichord Prelude: Notation and Performance’, Early Keyboard Journal, 10 (1992), 89–119

Moroney mentions;

The surviving repertory of préludes non mesurés for harpsichord comprises over 50 works.

Enough to keep us busy for a while!

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An interesting thesis:


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I was writing from memory: having checked, what I remembered is part of Tilney’s commentary volume, the chapter on notation. (Everyone on this thread really ought to go and read that volume, part of a set cited by Andrew - in particular, Tilney discusses the connections with French lute tablature which has some use of ‘lines’ in comment with L Couperin. ‘Far more important is Couperin’s leap of imagination itself - the realisation that certain features of lute notation could be adapted for the harpsichord and given simple, consistent application.’)

[Louis Couperin’s] colleague Nicholas Lebègue, the first Frenchman actually to publish an unmeasured prelude for harpsichord, may also have been influence by production difficulties of this kind; he was also genuinely uncertain how best to turn the act of improvisation into printed notes and he knew that his readers were equally puzzled by the reverse procedure. The Yale copy of Lebègue’s first harpsichord book contains a letter from the composer to a Scottish purchaser who was baffled by the preludes. Lebègue’s advice might seem elementary:
‘play the notes one after the other; the “little circle” which runs from the bass to the treble means that you hold all the notes within it, in order to fill out the harmony; if you come to a chord with lines after it, hold it while the other hand moves’

Short of typing out many dozens more lines I can’t summarise everything Tilney says, but it is all helpful or insightful or both.

I think the assessment ‘not really interesting music as written’ almost begs the question - what is written, on its own, i.e. without any specific rhythm, does not determine the interest of the music. It is the performer’s job to make it into interesting music, or rather to dig out the interesting music that the notation allows.
(Or you could look side by side at the first few bars of the Froberger Toccata I in A minor and the Prelude a l’imitation de Mr Froberger : if played ‘as written’ which is more interesting music?)

Here is one nice example I just saw :

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verbal descriptions? Whatever do you mean?

VERBAL Definition & Usage Examples | Dictionary.com : “consisting of or in the form of words”

In contrast to musical notation, for instance. (And not ‘oral’ either.)

If you are mounting the ‘higher level of discourse’ horse, it would be good to first take things in the sense they are written.

In any case Douglas already asked the question, which I answered as far as I can.

@sphaerenklang There was no intent to offend. And I was genuinely curious what you meant and keen to see the sources. I even tried to introduce some levity. But here’s how I read ‘verbal’ from OED II:


I.4.a. Expressed or conveyed by speech rather than writing; uttered aloud; spoken, oral.

It has sometimes been argued (e.g. in H. W. Fowler Dict. Mod. Eng. Usage (1926) 689/1) that the use of verbal in this sense is incorrect and that oral should be preferred. However, verbal is well established in this sense and is the usual term in certain expressions, such as verbal communication, verbal contract, and verbal evidence.

So everyone has their own filters and perceptions I suppose. So, public apologies and please don’t be offended.

I do think it’s reasonable to back up assertions with references or whatever. I can’t see anything wrong with that, apart from the extra work involved. It’s not meant to be pompous or snobbish. I think many members here read for the very high quality and vigor of discussion we encourage. I certainly value your contributions @sphaerenklang .

I agree that this performance of the C major prelude is very good indeed. The instrument sounds nice too.