Overture (Fr. ouverture Ouvertüre sinfonia)
- Nicholas Temperley
A piece of music of moderate length, either introducing a dramatic work or intended for concert performance. See also French overture.
The word ‘overture’ derives from the French ouverture, which denoted the piece in two or more sections that formed a solemn introduction to a ballet, opera or oratorio in the 17th century. (It was sometimes applied, notably by Bach, to a suite comprising a French overture and a group of dance movements.) In 18th-century usage it was extended to works of the symphony type, whether or not they were preludes to dramatic works; the terms were often used interchangeably. Thus in the 1790s Haydn’s London symphonies were sometimes billed as ‘overtures’.
In modern usage the word denotes, first, a substantial piece of orchestral music designed to precede a full-length dramatic work (it would thus include an Italian overture which might actually be called ‘sinfonia’). It may be in one or more sections, and may or may not come to a full close before the drama begins (Mozart’s overture to ...