Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Latin American Prelude and Some History

Last week I posted a performance of myself playing the Prelude No. 4 for guitar by Villa-Lobos. I'm going to put up some more preludes by another Latin American composer soon, but I want to say something about form first. The pre-lude, literally the thing you do before you play, started out in the 17th century as a couple of chords just to check the tuning for lute-players. I went into that in some detail in this post. Given that origin, the earlier preludes tended to be fairly simple arpeggiations. Bach, of course, made them a lot more complex, but the basic idea of a single, fairly simple, texture throughout, remained. Let me just give you some examples. First, a 17th century unmeasured prelude by Louis Couperin:


Other preludes by Louis Couperin extend into fantasia-like pieces. Here is a very typical lute prelude by S. L. Weiss based on a simple arpeggio:



And here is the kind of prelude Bach liked to write. There is but a single musical idea and it tends to be some sort of arpeggio:


Chopin, the next composer after Bach to really take the prelude seriously, followed this basic idea but with one important addition. Alongside a kind of arpeggio pattern he placed a touching and expressive melody:


But the idea of a prelude as being essentially a piece without contrasting sections was preserved. The first guitar composer to write preludes was Manuel M. Ponce, probably in the 1920s or 30s. He wrote twenty-four preludes, more or less emulating the example of Chopin. They are mostly very short pieces, less than a minute long, and each explores a single idea. Here is the Prelude in F# minor (they have different numberings depending on the edition), one of the longest:


Then came Villa-Lobos who wrote his five preludes for guitar slightly later, in 1940, with quite a different model. Though Bach was an important influence, when it came to his preludes the popular music of Brazil was just as important. All of his preludes are in at least two different sections with two different tempos, themes and moods. Take the Prelude No. 2, for example: short arpeggios with appoggiaturas and occasional scale passages are found in the first section, while the second section, piu mosso, uses a single arch-like arpeggio throughout. Then the first section returns for a basic ABA form. Here it is a live performance with John Williams. Sorry about the funny sound, but even with that, I think you would like to hear this version:


With the exception of the Prelude No. 5, that has three contrasting sections (ABCA), all the Villa-Lobos preludes rely on two contrasting ideas in different tempi. Except for the Prelude No. 3, that repeats ABAB, they are organized as ABA.

So that's a little history of the prelude with special attention to preludes written for guitar in the 20th century. This will be an introduction to the next group of recordings I am going to post. I am going to put up the Five Preludes by Máximo Diego Pujol (b. 1957), the Argentinian guitarist and composer. As one might expect, a major influence on his music is that of Astor Piazzolla, the great tango composer.

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