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The improvisational prelude in the 19th century functioned as a soundcheck for the pianist to test the instrument and the acoustics. But the piano as an instrument was evolving constantly; the sustain pedal had become a new tool and the tonal range of the instrument had increased from five to seven octaves, which allowed many possibilities for new and eloborate playing techniques. Therefore preluding made use of the whole or a big part of the keyboard's tonal range. This couldn’t have been done using harmonic progressions alone, so this is where the 'diminution' technique comes into play. Diminutions were used in previous centuries to 'replace' long notes with melodic ornamental figures. 19th-century scales, arpeggios, and embellishments can be seen as a far echo of diminutions.


The three main techniques are:

  • arpeggiation

  • scales and scale figures

  • embellishments


By using and combining these three techniques, a chord progression can be spread out over the whole keyboard.

Moscheles' prelude nr.1 opus 73 illustrates the three main techniques:

moscheles_50_preludes_491333528 (gesleep
arpeggio techniques
scale figures

Hummel's prelude in B major Op. 67: 

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arpeggio techniques / harmonizations

Piano methods throughout the 19th century offer countless examples of diminution techniqes in exercises that formed the backbone of a pianistic training. Among the most interesting publications of such exercises are those of Dussek, Adam, Montgeroult, Müller, Cramer, Hummel, Herz, Czerny, Moscheles, Zimmermann, Kullak and Liszt.

Although written for harpsichord or harp, the 'Twelve flourishing movements arising from the diatonic scale and the common chord' by August Friedrich Christoph Kollmann (1756-1829) in the third lesson of An Introduction to the Art of Preluding (1792) offers many possibilities for exploring the keyboard.


Philip Anthony Corri (1784-1832) offers even more pianistically elaborate examples in his Original System of Preluding (1812), in which all main diminution techniques -- scale figures, arpeggios and embellishments -- are used in a balanced way.



Since studying all the existing keyboard exercises may take more than a lifetime, it is a better choice to acquire the 'diminution' skills through a selection of specific exercises. Selecting the exercises is not easy, since the different options can also be strongly influenced by personal taste. But some skills are so important that they are indispensable for moving freely within a tonal field.

A selection of these exercises, with explanations, is provided by clicking on the subsections below.

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