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an instrumental musical piece, usually a solo. Originally a prelude was a short introduction to any piece and was played by a lute, a stringed-keyboard instrument, or an organ. Especially in its early form, it is characterized by an improvisational style, free development, figurate treatment of the material, and the application from beginning to end of a single manner of execution, which makes it close to the genre of the étude. Preludes have often been designated by other names, including a praeambula, intrada, recercari, and fantasia.
In the 18th century composers wrote preludes as independent pieces, chiefly for stringed-keyboard instruments. At the same time, above all in the work of J. S. Bach, the prelude was combined with the fugue, becoming a standard short cyclic form. Bach also established the large cyclic form that combines preludes and fugues and embraces all the major and minor keys, for example, the first and second volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Similar forms were created later, for example, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano. In addition, a cyclic form consisting only of preludes, also in all keys, was developed by such composers as F. Chopin, A. N. Scriabin, C. Debussy, and D. B. Kabalevskii.