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Musical composition, usually brief, generally played as an introduction to another piece. The prelude originated as short pieces that were improvised by an organist to establish the key of a following piece or to fill brief interludes in a church service. Their improvisatory origins were often reflected in rhythmic freedom and virtuosic runs. A section in this style would often lead to a closing fugal section; in time this turned into a separate movement, and preludes came to be paired with fugues. In the 17th century, preludes began to be frequently written for lute or harpsichord. In later years the term came to be used for short piano pieces, often in sets, by composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Aleksandr Scriabin, and Claude Debussy.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on prelude, visit Britannica.com.