unbarred preludes

One of my favorite unbarred pre­ludes for baroque lute, by Sylvius Leopold Weiss:

This par­tic­u­lar one in d minor—actually it styles itself a fan­ta­sia— is so idiomat­ic and easy to play, it just rolls out from under the fin­gers, and it’s dark­ly beau­ti­ful.

Unsub­stan­ti­at­ed his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tion fol­lows.

About pre­ludes and their kin: I love these open­ing pieces to dance suites, which seem to me (and this may be play­ing fast and loose with the real­i­ty of the mat­ter) to have evolved by an organ­ic process from the notes at the begin­ning of the suite show­ing the tun­ing by unisons or octaves.

That’s why these pieces always seem to begin with a casu­al arpeg­gio, a pre­lim­i­nary sur­vey of the key, per­haps some­thing you can use to tune the instru­ment, per­haps some­thing you begin to play and can con­tin­ue, with­out a clear tran­si­tion, from tun­ing to try­ing, test­ing, play­ing.  Hence toc­ca­ta or the old­er terms ricer­car and the Span­ish tien­to, touch, explo­ration, exper­i­ment, pre­lude.  Often they devel­op from these ten­ta­tive for­ays into fugal pas­sages, thus fur­ther “test­ing” not only the har­mon­ic char­ac­ter of the key, but the melod­ic and con­tra­pun­tal pos­si­bil­i­ties of the themes to be devel­oped through­out the suite.

Typ­i­cal­ly a Weiss pre­lude breaks down into block chords at a cer­tain point, in the case of this fan­ta­sia in the sec­ond half of the sec­ond line.  (I can’t find a copy, but seem to remem­ber that Bach does this some­where in the suites for solo cel­lo also.)  Mod­ern play­ers tend to just arpeg­giate the chords, fol­low­ing the implied pat­tern in the rest of the piece, but I’m fair­ly con­vinced that Weiss intend­ed these pas­sages to be impro­vised over the chordal struc­ture, sort of like a jazz solo.  I imag­ine lit­er­al enun­ci­a­tion of the chords as writ­ten to have been a stop­gap for begin­ners.  It still sounds beau­ti­ful that way.

Unbarred: mean­ing, unlike the rhyth­mic dances that fol­low (e.g. alle­mande, min­uet, sara­bande, gigue) there are no bar­lines, no explic­it beat.  It’s sug­ges­tive of a loose­ness in the rhythm, an inter­pre­tive free­dom con­sis­tent with the explorato­ry nature of the piece.  My old teacher, Pat O’Brien, pen­ciled in the word gestalt over the top of one of these.  I don’t remem­ber the con­text, but I imag­ine he meant that to play these pieces one can’t be too lit­er­al, one must be able to flow from posi­tion to posi­tion with­out being too tight­ly bound to the notes, to allow the rhythm to emerge vari­ably from the music instead of con­strain­ing the music to fol­low the rhythm, as one will when one gets down to busi­ness in the alle­mande.

In the end I think it’s this sense of gestalt that makes me love these open­ings even more than the suites that fol­low.

I like the indef­i­nite, the bound­less; I like con­tin­u­al uncer­tain­ty.”

—Ger­hard Richter

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