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date: 23 September 2020

French overturelocked

  • George Gow Waterman
  • , revised by James R. Anthony


A festive musical introduction for an opera, ballet or suite. The form combines a slow opening, marked by stately dotted rhythms and suspensions, with a lively fugal second section. It originated with Lully’s ballet overtures of the 1650s and quickly became the sole pattern for French opera and ballet overtures. In its day it was much copied, borrowed and adapted, but gradually in the mid-18th century it gave way to more flexible, energetic or dramatic approaches, particularly the rival Italian sinfonia. The French overture is now regarded not only as a prominent Baroque form, but as an expression of the elegant tastes of 17th-century France, as an illustration of Lully’s penetrating influence, and above all as the earliest important genre of prefatory music for the stage.

Division into two parts is basic to the French overture. The main sections, each embraced by double bars and repeat signs, depend upon and balance each other partly because they are in complementary styles, and partly because the first ends on dominant harmony that calls for an answering structure with a tonic ending. In more than half the early examples and in many of the later ones, the second section ends with a brief echo of the first, recalling its style, pace and sometimes even its melodic content (e.g. Lully, ...

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Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association
Revue de musicologie
Early Music
Music & Letters
Studies in Music [Australia]
L. de La Laurencie: L'école française de violon de Lully à Viotti (Paris, 1922-4/R)
Musical Quarterly
J.R. Anthony: French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau (London, 1973, 3/1997)
Sammelbände der Internationalen Musik-Gesellschaft