Posted on Apr 28, 2016

Photo by Patrick Drury

Photo by Patrick Drury

Prelude # 1 from

12 Preludes

for Solo Guitar

by Ken Hatfield


The purpose of this blog series, of which this is the first of 12, is to provide additional information regarding the form and content of each of the 12 Preludes I composed and recorded for my upcoming Arthur Circle Music release 12 Preludes For Solo Guitar. This book/CD package contains the printed scores and a 12-track CD of my recorded performances of the 12 Preludes, and will be commercially released on July 15, 2016. For the next 12 weeks I’ll be posting the audio of each of the 12 Preludes (at a pace of one per week), along with a blog entry corresponding to each week’s audio posting. This week’s entry pertains to Prelude #1. 

Link to Prelude # 1 on SoundCloud here:

As I mention in the introduction to 12 Preludes For Solo Guitar:

The prelude has a unique history in western music. As one of the earliest examples of a style or form that developed specifically for instrumental music, it is distinct from vocal music.

According to Willi Apel’s Harvard Dictionary of Music, whose comprehensive definition is the basis for much of the information regarding preludes that I include in my introduction to the folio, a prelude is “a piece of music designed to be played as an introduction . . . .”[1] This introductory function remained the accepted norm from the mid-fifteenth century until the nineteenth century.

The evolution of the prelude in western music can be loosely divided into three historical periods, each having its own stylistic, structural and functional characteristics:

(I) The “unconnected”: These are short pieces often comprised of arpeggiated chords that function as generic, multi-purpose introductions to non-specific works written in the same key. These date from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

(II) The “connected”: Around 1650 composers began to “connect” preludes to specific contrasting compositions. Such preludes established the key while introducing a contrasting work of greater complexity. Frequently the work the prelude introduced would be contrapuntal in nature. The seminal preludes and fugues (Books I and II) of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier exemplify this approach.

(III) The “disconnected”: In the nineteenth century the stand alone or disconnected prelude emerged as a creation for solo instrumental performance and was not intended to introduce anything. This approach originated with Chopin and was adopted and elaborated upon by composers of later generations, like Debussy, Villa-Lobos and Ponce. These preludes are often composed, published and even performed in groups, much like the twelve in this folio.

Prelude # 1 is in the first style, that is, the “unconnected” style. As you’ll hear if you listen and see if you read through the score, this prelude is predominately in C Major and is built upon a series of arpeggiated chords that follow a chromatically descending bass line, which begins on the tonic I Major chord and moves through inversions of diatonic chords (I to V/VII) touching upon a secondary dominant chord (V of IV/bVII) to get to the IV chord before passing through the subdominant minor to get to the I 6/4 chord (I/V) to set up the V7 chord, before employing a variation on a plagal cadence (IV/I) to set up a second pass through what is in essence the same harmonic sequence (at least for the first five bars, i.e., bars 9 through 13, which replicate bars 1 thru 5). Though bar 14 is a different chord voiced over the same bass note in the bottom voice of bar 6, this section (bars 9 thru 14) roughly parallels the first six bars of the prelude.

It is at bar 15 that things move in a different direction as we move from I/V (in bar 14) to a secondary dominant chord, i.e., V to IV/V to V of V/#IV to I, to another secondary dominant chord: an open voicing of a second inversion of V of VI, all of which is designed to get us to the relative minor for what is essentially the bridge or B section of this prelude.

The B section focuses harmonically on “a” minor (i.e., the relative minor of C Major: the tonic key of this prelude) to create, contrast and reinforce the tonal relationships in this “type” of prelude (more about this momentarily). Once we arrive at “a” minor I use another descending bass line (mirroring the one previously used in the C Major/ letter “A” sections), resulting in another six bar harmonic sequence of harmonized bass notes “attached/connected” to a two bar cadential/connecting phrase designed to get us back to C Major for what is in essence a recapitulation of the harmonic idea(s) employed in the first 16 bars (i.e., 2 eight bar sequences), though this time the first 8 bars (i.e., bars 1 thru 8) feature the chords voiced in higher inversions over the same bass notes, while the second time through the sequence during the recap (bars 36 thru 44) begins as a true recap of bars 9 through 13 before moving on to the final 6 bar, which concludes with a diatonic cadence referencing a country folk phrasing of the tonic chord and an ending comprised of harmonics.

The tertiary form (comprised of this prelude’s three sections), basically functions as a variation of an AABA form that, combined with the chords voiced over the bass line, suggests (at least to me as I composed/improvised this prelude) how musicians from earlier epochs could have employed figured bass in combination with forms they were comfortable/familiar with to improvise “generic” preludes that could serve/function as introductions to larger movements in the same key, which is the functional definition of what distinguishes prelude type one from the other two.

In a recent post on the ArtsJournal Blog on the future of classical music (February 19, 2016), Greg Sandow delves into both the traditional and the contemporary approaches that performers use to improvise preludes that serve as introductions to pieces written by other composers (i.e., not the performer playing the piece or improvising the prelude). This was a relatively common practice for concert pianists in the 19th century. And Mr. Sandow even mentions a 20th century example, in “1969, when the great German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus improvised a prelude to a Schumann piece in what turned out to be the last recital he ever gave.”[2] (I hope that is merely a coincidence and not a commentary on the audience’s reception to a classical musician improvising.)

I hope you enjoy the first of my blog entries exploring aspects of each of the 12 Preludes that I’ll be posting audio files of over the next 12 weeks, in anticipation of the release of my book/CD collection 12 Preludes For Solo Guitar on July 15, 2016.


1. Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966, s.v. “Prelude.”

2. Greg Sandow, “Improvising Preludes,” February 19, 2016: