The past comes to life

In the old days — which I used to think meant the 18th and 19th centuries — pianists used to improvise introductions to pieces they played. This was called “preluding,” and gave rise to the short, freeform pieces we call “preludes” (like Chopin’s), which were written-out versions of the kind of music pianists might improvise.

But now I’ve learned that pianists preluded well into the 20th century. And that there are recorded examples, from old-time like Josef Hoffman and Wilhelm Backhaus! I guess I’m late in learning this, because many people seem to know about it — go here, for instance. But still this is exactly the kind of thing that’s been forgotten in the classical music world today, since we’ve all been taught to believe we should play only what composers wrote. It’s heresy to add something of your own, like an improvised introduction.

And yet here’s a lovely example of Backhaus doing it, in a live performance as late as 1954. First you’ll hear an announcement, in German, saying that Backhaus is ill, and will end with concert with a short Schumann piece, instead of a Beethoven sonata. There’s a splatter of applause, and then Backhaus starts to improvise, leading into the Schumann, which grows easily out of the improvisation. It’s as if Backhaus had cleared his palate with a sip of water, before starting on a new course at a meal. Nothing could be more engaging. I’d even say that the Schumann sounds more welcome and more personal — and certainly more striking — than it would it if stood on its own.

Backhaus plays it beautifully, too. Listen for yourself, and see what happens when classical musicians take ownership both of the music they play, and of their performances.

(Many thanks to Anders Vinge, who’s been studying improvisation in classical music, and sent me the Backhaus performance, along with four by Josef Hoffman. It’s from a Carnegie Hall recital, recorded live, and currently available, or so I’ve read, on a Decca release in Japan. For preluding in the 18th and 19th centuries, see Valerie Woodring Goertzen,

“By Way of Introduction: Preluding by 18th- and Early 19th-Century Pianists.” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Summer, 1996), pp. 299-337.)

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  1. says

    I just researched this for my Mannes course. Two great reads on the subject you don’t want to miss: 1) “Method of learning to prelude” by Andre Gretry. Deliberately written as simple as possible, this book would have been called “Preluding for Dummies” or “Preluding in 5 minutes a day” if released nowadays, showing how those type of books have a long history. And because Gretry was a very respected composer in his day, it would be like, to pick a name, John Harbison writing such a book. 2) “The Art of Preluding” ed. Betty Mather, which very interestingly is on the subject of woodwind preluding! Compiling all the printed wisdom on woodwind preluding in those days, the editor adds her own ersatz approach.

    Thanks, Eric. Do you think we’ll ever hear preluding again, in our own time? Will you try it? You’d be perfect for it, needless to say. (Eric, who’s a pianist, puts a new improvisation on his website every day. I just listened to the one for 2/18, and it’s lovely.

  2. Rafael de Acha says

    Greg, Nice entry! It reminds me of Horowitz playing his riff on Stars and Stripes Forever, which sort of falls into this category.

    Hi, Rafael. Good to hear from you. Horowitz, I’ve read, preluded before strictly classical pieces, too. I wonder if there are recordings. Does anybody know?

  3. David Cavlovic says

    I have a broadcast recording of Backhaus “preluding” some Chopin from the late 50’s/early 60’s. And Gieseking and Furtwängler did it, too.

    Furtwangler did it as a pianst? Or did Gieseking do it before a concerto he played with Furtwangler?

    A few years ago, Chick Corea toured around playing a Mozart concerto with Bobby McFerrin conducting. As I recall, they preluded together before the performances.

  4. Rafael de Acha says

    Yes, there definitely is one (recording) of Horowitz doing the Stars and Stripes Forever…I believe it is a PBS program – possibly still available on VHS or DVD of his return recital in Leningrad (then)But I definitely remember seeing and hearing this not long ago.

  5. says

    I am a devoted Josef Hofmann fan, and adore the “”preluding” he does in his live recitals.

    I am really a jazz pianist, but used to perform classical music when I was Mark Morris’ music director. During my tenure, he made up a dance to Chopin called “Sang-Froid.” The first piece was Op. 10 no. 2. Any pianist will agree that this hardest of etudes is not the most agreeable piece to start a program (and “Sang-Froid” was always the first dance of the evening). To calm my nerves and make some sound at the piano before the onslaught, I insisted on a pair of rolled chords before the downbeat, which I varied every night. I stuck in transitions between pieces when I could, too. One night I went too far, and Mark irritably asked me afterwards, “Ethan! Is this why you like playing this piece, simply to put in your outlandish transitions between nocturnes?” I innocently claimed the great Josef Hofmann as my forebear.

    And you were right! Great story. And I think you’ve shown one of the benefits of preluding. Pianists get to prepare themselves for the pieces they’re going to play. And the audience prepares itself, too. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. David Cavlovic says

    Furtwängler “preluded” albeit slightly in a performance with Schwarzkopf accompaning her on Hugo Wolf lieder. Gieseking simply “preluded”.


  7. says

    There definitely is a recording of Horowitz’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” on RCA, ’cause I have it at home. I don’t know of any records of him preluding, though.

    At an Awadagin Pratt solo concert I saw a few years ago, he played a pre-written transition between (I think, memory iz hazy) a William Byrd piece and a Bach work. It worked really well.

  8. Tim Dodd says

    It was interesting that at the very beginning of his preluding to the Schumann piece, Backhaus alludes to the piano sonata (Op 31 No 3) which he wasn’t playing.

    Thanks, Tim! I hadn’t noticed this. It shows yet another lovely benefit of preluding. You can comment on what’s going on around you.