Pray Tell, What is a Prelude?
Pray Tell, What is a Prelude?
You’ll find the prelude a connective branch rooted in the context of a larger theme of a given service – may it be a sort of filter for you to pass through that lightens the heart, cleanses the mind, and prepares the spirit.
Corporate worship is one of the most important things we do as church-going Christians. It is a time of sacred togetherness in which we pray, sing, listen, commune, and learn among other things. I like to view worship as something that lives and breathes not only with the church year, but with changing modern times while also reflecting the history and timelessness of our tradition, and the all-knowing, understanding, and loving nature of God. And when you put it like that, worship is perhaps not as simple as it might appear in our weekly bulletin, or as routine as it might feel returning to it week to week. Sometimes it’s easy to gloss over, or even forget the answer to the question, “What is this and why do we do it?” as it pertains to any given element of our service. In light of that, I would like to take this opportunity to examine one of the musical aspects of worship and answer that burning question, “What is a prelude and what purpose does it serve?!?”
Indeed, there have been murmurs and whispers floating about of which my ear has caught wind – inquiring minds endeavoring to decipher strange words, names, or titles appearing in the bulletin, inevitably resulting in the scratching of heads and the crinkling of brows. Such enigmatic expressions may include words like Slane, Stuttgart, Suite, and Siciliano. These are easily explained, I assure you, and shall facilitate future understanding of any voluntary title again encountered. The first two terms are simply tune names of common hymns. The common title of Slane is none other than Be Thou My Vision, and Stuttgart has a common title of Child of Blessing, Child of Promise, both found in the Methodist hymnal. Tune names come in handy because these hymns can be set to varying texts. For instance, there is another hymn set to the tune of Slane entitled, Lord of all Hopefullness. Often I will default to the tune name for my preludes/offertories/postludes in the interest of saving space – next time you spot a tune name in one of my voluntaries, exercise your curiosity and explore the tune name index in the back of the hymnal to see if you can find the corresponding hymn! The other two terms, Suite and Siciliano, are musical forms whose definitions aren’t immediately apparent in their titles. But, things like these are fun and easy to “google” if you’re interested and will almost always appear in Wikipedia. A Suite is just a larger work consisting of smaller movements. A Siciliano might indeed be a movement of such a suite; it is written in triple-meter and has a lilting characteristic.
Now, relating to everything I’ve just explained, I was posed a question recently wondering why many of the organ preludes lately have seemed more secular than sacred. A very fair question that I am happy to answer! My inkling is that some preludes may not necessarily appear sacred or religious at first glance for their, as I’ve just pointed out, possibly unrecognizable titles. Further, many composers may weave known melodies into their arrangements in such a fashion that could make them difficult to identify, giving the illusion of unfamiliarity. Or, it’s possible I’ll play a tune that is not as well known (there are many hymns I am unfamiliar with myself!) but which is otherwise suited to a particular season or service. Either way, I will often play a hymn-arrangement prelude of something the congregation will later sing in the service. Lastly, I may play a piece drawn from the vast array of organ repertory composed over the last 500 years. Though many of these pieces may not be based on hymns, they are no less religious! Despite the evolution of the form, the notated prelude originated in the church in the mid-15th century as a way of introducing service music. I would venture to say that a majority of organist-composers over the centuries were as spiritual/religious as they were musical, the former surely inspiring the latter. Johann Pachelbel and J.S. Bach wrote entire volumes of organ chorale-preludes based on German hymn tunes, some of which we still sing today. Alexandre Guilmant of the Romantic Era wrote a collection of fifty practical pieces (not based on hymns) intended for the church service. The late-Romantic Frenchmen Widor and Vierne also wrote music specifically meant to be sung/played in church. Many organ pieces that aren’t overtly religious were nonetheless conceived to be heard within grand churches and cathedrals since that’s where most organs are housed. Every piece I play in worship is intended to enhance our prayers and praise, even if it has a weird title like Choral, Op. 37, No. 4, written by Joseph Jongen, which I played several weeks ago. Though the title doesn’t appear to be religious per se, the term choral is indicative of a hymn-like character. The afore-mentioned composition begins quite prayerfully and grows to a grandiose and powerful conclusion.
So, this all brings us back to the time the prelude occurs in our order of worship and the second part of our burning question. Now that we understand a little more about the prelude itself, what is the purpose of this point in our service? Is it the start of the service proper? Is it a mere signal that the service is about to begin? Is it a backdrop for Christian fellowship and conversation? I submit that the prelude be a time of preparation; a time of mental and spiritual transition. While upon entering the sanctuary a ‘hello’ and joyful exchange between friends and neighbors is quite appropriate, imagine upon taking your seat the benefit of such a centering of the heart and mind. As we come to the Sabbath, do we not drag with us, unnoticed even, the distractions of a heavy heart, a scattered mind, a conflicted conscience, a physical weariness? Should there not be some time of intentional anticipation before we allow Christ to strip away all that is burdensome? If just for a little while, indulge this experiment: allow the prelude to inflame the engagement of the Holy Spirit through silent prayer, thought, and meditation. You’ll find the prelude a connective branch rooted in the context of a larger theme of a given service – may it be a sort of filter for you to pass through that lightens the heart, cleanses the mind, and prepares the spirit.
UPUMC Organist and Associate Director of Music Ministries