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date: 19 September 2021

Overture (Fr. ouverture Ouvertüre sinfonia)free

Overture (Fr. ouverture Ouvertüre sinfonia)free

  • Nicholas Temperley

A piece of music of moderate length, either introducing a dramatic work or intended for concert performance. See also French overture.

1. Definitions.

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 Die Entführung aus dem Serail, for example, does not). But it is expected to conclude with a fast section of some brilliance. If it does not it is more likely to be called a ‘prelude’ (Vorspiel), as in the case of Tristan und Isolde, or an ‘introduction’, as in the case of Swan Lake.

The word also extends to a work of similar scope designed for independent performance in a concert. A concert overture usually, but not always, has a title, either suggesting a literary or pictorial content (as Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides) or identifying the occasion for which it was written (as Beethoven’s Die Weihe des Hauses or Brahms’s Akademische Festouvertüre). It is approximately equivalent to the first movement of a symphony, and is more restricted than a symphonic poem.

2. Dramatic overture.

Renaissance court entertainments frequently began with a flourish of trumpets, of the type that survives as the Toccata of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). A ‘sinfonia’ at this early date was any instrumental movement in the course of the opera; commonly they were played before each act or section. The one at the beginning of Landi's Il Sant'Alessio (1631 or 1632) happens to be in three sections, fast–slow–fast, but this was long before any systematic use of such a plan. The Venetian operas of the 1640s and 50s generally began with a simple homophonic movement for solo strings and continuo, in three short, slow phrases. In some cases this served also as the ritornello of the first vocal section. In Cesti's La Dori (1657) it was used twice: in D before the prologue, and in C before the first act. Later this ‘sinfonia’ expanded to two or more movements of different tempos and metres, and as time went on the most common pattern became slow duple followed by fast triple, not unlike a pair of dances (e.g. Cavalli's Scipione affricano, 1664).

A similar form was used in the French ballet de cour, and had been termed ‘ouverture’ at least as early as 1640 (in the Ballet de Mademoiselle, printed in Prunières). Lully expanded it, and began to develop the characteristic contrast between the two sections. The opening became march-like, with pompous dotted rhythms that would become almost synonymous with the majesty of absolute monarchy. Typically it would end with a half-cadence and would be repeated. The second section was usually in triple or compound metre and was canzona-like in its use of imitation; it, too, would generally be repeated. There was often a brief return to the tempo and rhythm of the first section at the close. The first fully characteristic French overture is that to Lully's ballet Alcidiane (1658). In the tragédie lyrique, from Lully to Rameau, it was usual to include a pair of overtures, one before the prologue and the other to introduce the opera itself. The scoring was predominantly for oboes, five-part strings and continuo. The French overture was imitated in Germany, England, and sometimes even Italy. Handel preferred it for both operas and oratorios, but used it with freedom, and often with a variety of additional movements, sometimes linked to the ensuing action. In England the French overture could be used as prelude to a spoken play, as in The Beggar's Opera, and also became popular as a keyboard form (Pont).

The Italian overture (sinfonia avvanti l'opera), coming from the same ultimate origins, began to develop a standard pattern in late 17th-century Naples. It was typically in three short, simple sections arranged in the order fast–slow–fast. Alessandro Scarlatti employed this type in Tutto il mal non vien per nuocere (1681), and with some regularity after 1695. He often scored for one or two trumpets in the two outer movements, playing brilliant passages that were echoed by the violins (also by unison flute and oboe in Eraclea, 1700). Indeed, the Italian overture from this period is sometimes indistinguishable from a trumpet concerto, naturally in D major (a good example is the sinfonia to Scarlatti's serenata Il giardino di amore, c 1700–05). The slow middle section for strings alone would often move briefly into related minor keys, and the last section was a binary dance movement in compound time. Italian oratorio overtures in this period might resemble church sonatas, or be in the French or Italian overture form.

In operas of the early 18th century the Italian overture gradually spread north of the Alps. Keiser's Croesus (1711) at first had a French overture, but when he revived it in 1730 he substituted a new overture in the Italian style. In France the overture formed part of the lengthy public debates over Italian versus French styles. Increasingly, the outer movements began to resemble sonata form designs without development sections. There were two subclasses: the ‘reprise’ overture, in which the third section used the same material as the opening one (it is found as early as Caldara's Don Chisciotte, 1727); and the two-movement type, where the opening vocal number serves as the finale of the overture (Fux, Elisa, 1719).

All three types were still alive after 1760, by which time the Italian overture had become normal for operas throughout Europe. The form was evolving, however, in ways that closely paralleled the modification of the da capo aria, and which caused it gradually to diverge from the symphony proper. The full three-movement type gradually disappeared: Mozart's last dates from 1775, Haydn's from 1779. The reprise overture survived at least until Paisiello's Socrate immaginario (1775) and Mozart's Die Entführung (1782), where it leads into an aria based on the slow section. The two-movement type also continued to flourish for a while, as in Haydn's Philemon und Baucis (1773). But by 1790 the established form was a single movement, generally with a slow introduction. It was very much like the opening movement of a contemporary symphony except for the absence of a substantial development section.

An important part of the reform of opera seria was the effort to link the overture emotionally and dramatically with the coming opera: this is clearly stated in the famous preface to Gluck's Alceste (1767), whose overture sets the tragic mood that will characterize the first act. Topical overtures were not entirely new: ‘storm’ settings can be traced as far back as Draghi's L'albero del ramo d'oro (1681), and Gluck himself had attempted a ‘Chinese’ overture to Le cinesi (1754) and a ‘Turkish’ one for La rencontre imprévue (1764). Mozart's Idomeneo, Die Entführung and Le nozze di Figaro prepare the audience, in very different ways, for what is to follow. In Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte the overture quotes significant musical ideas from the opera, a practice already established by Rameau in his later works, and indeed by Pepusch in The Beggar's Opera. The more thorough-going ‘medley’ overture, stringing together a number of tunes to be used in the opera, seems to have been an English invention, found for instance in Dibdin's The Touchstone (1779). The Times, reviewing Shield's The Lad of the Hills on 11 April 1796, complained that ‘the Overture was very la, la, it consisted of old provincial tunes ill put together’, tunes that were later sung to newly written texts in the course of the opera.

Thus, all the main ingredients of the 19th-century dramatic overture were already in place well before 1800. While Rossini's earlier works used a stereotyped one-movement model of a sonata form movement lacking development but with an independent slow introduction, Spontini, Méhul and the early German Romantics tended to develop the notion of tying the overture to the opera in mood and theme. Beethoven made powerful use of dramatic motifs in his three Leonore overtures, while Weber in Der Freischütz and Euryanthe extended the method to a point where almost every theme, in both slow and fast sections, was to reappear at an important point in the drama. But the formal structure changed little. Composers of French grand opéra, from Guillaume Tell onwards, tended to expand the traditional overture by means of a slow lyrical section preceding the loud, fast conclusion. Often they brought in important and symbolic themes from the opera, for example the chorale ‘Ein’ feste Burg’ in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Wagner in his early operas imitated this type, but in the Ring preferred a ‘prelude’ which was fully integrated into his music drama. Tannhäuser (1845) was one of the last important serious operas to be preceded by a full-dress, independent overture. For Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi the prelude was always an alternative possibility, and it became normal in Italian opera after the mid-century, though La forza del destino (1862) has an extended overture. With Verdi the prelude to the first act may be no longer than those to the other acts. For Aida (1871) he experimented with a full-scale overture, but decided on a prelude that had been first planned as an entr’acte. Otello has no overture or prelude at all. Some ‘nationalist’ operas were conservative in their overtures, for instance Prince Igor, which has a full sonata form movement complete with slow introduction.

In comic operas and operettas the independent overture lasted longer, and here the structure based on themes from the drama became a mere medley of tunes, with perhaps a short final sonata form section as a link with the traditional form. This ‘potpourri’ overture was the pattern frequently chosen by Auber, Gounod, Thomas, Offenbach, Johann Strauss (ii) and Sullivan; it can still be traced in musical comedy overtures of the mid-20th century.

Oratorio overtures tended to be conservative. An exception is the ‘Representation of Chaos’ that introduces Haydn’s The Creation (1798), a unique triumph of imagination in which the instrumental prelude is made the first term of the drama itself. In this respect it anticipates Wagner’s methods by more than 50 years. The French overture never quite died out in oratorio, and in the 19th century it received a new impetus from historicism. Smither's study provides lists of some 40 German and English oratorios that began with French overtures, chiefly on the model of Handel. Composers frequently felt constrained to write full-dress fugues, as did Spohr in Des Heilands letzte Stunden and Mendelssohn in Elijah. But Liszt, for each of his two oratorios, wrote an overture that was a free rhapsody based on an old hymn tune.

3. Concert overture.

There was never a time when the concert overture was entirely distinct from the dramatic overture. Just as some of Haydn’s and Mozart’s early symphonies were used to introduce stage works, so their later overtures were sometimes detached from their operas and played as concert pieces. Several endings have been added to the Don Giovanni overture to bring it to a full close for concert use, the first of them by the composer himself. Like several of Handel’s overtures, many of Mozart’s, Cherubini’s and Beethoven’s were commonplace in the concert repertory long after the theatrical works to which they belonged had been forgotten. This was especially likely to happen with overtures to spoken plays, which were often far more substantial than any other music used in the play. Beethoven’s overture to Collin’s play Coriolan was played in concert even before its first performance in the theatre.

From this it was but a small step to the creation of an overture as an independent piece. One might be commissioned for the opening of a theatre, or for a patriotic celebration: several of Beethoven’s were written for such purposes, and then quickly became standard concert works. Between 1805 and 1820 many German composers wrote overtures, in one movement on the Mozartian model, without title – or with a title that told only the occasion of their performance. Among them were Hoffmann, A.J. Romberg, Weber and Winter. Schubert composed several, one of which, ‘in the Italian style’, was later revised and used as the overture to Rosamunde. Beethoven’s Die Weihe des Hauses was an ‘abstract’ concert overture in this tradition. It had an unusual structure, consisting of several unpredictable sections followed by a long and boisterous fugue. Untitled concert overtures were later composed by Spohr, Wagner, Bruckner and others; Kalliwoda wrote as many as 15.

But the typical Romantic concert overture, though still recognizably in the traditional form, had a title of historical, poetic or pictorial character which the composer set out to illustrate, in a general way, in his music. Perhaps the first true example was Weber’s Der Beherrscher der Geister (1811). Although it was a revised version of the overture to an unfinished opera, Rübezahl (1804–5), its title was purely descriptive, having no reference to any dramatic work. It is in one sonata form movement without introduction. Botstiber, however, regarded Mendelssohn as the first true composer of concert overtures. His overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written as a piano duet (1826) and first performed as a concert piece: the incidental music for the play was not added until many years later. His Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt was inspired by reading Goethe’s book of that name, while The Hebrides, originally called Die einsame Insel and later The Isles of Fingal, was suggested to him during a visit to the Scottish islands. In the case of Melusine the stimulus was the negative one of hearing Kreutzer’s opera: Mendelssohn disliked the overture so much that he decided to write another, expressing what he felt was the true essence of Schiller’s fairy tale.

In these pieces Mendelssohn took a form that was well known and understood as a means of setting the mood of an opera, and converted it, without radical change, to embody his personal response to a specific work of art or of nature. A detailed programme was hardly possible if the form was to be maintained: the result is a mood piece, not a musical narrative. Mendelssohn’s concert overtures are perhaps the most perfect examples of the genre. Certainly there is no other great composer in whose fame overtures play so important a part.

Many composers followed his lead. Almost simultaneously Berlioz began to write overtures on literary subjects, like King Lear and The Corsair. Though strongly marked in theme, they stay fairly close to the conventional model in form. Sterndale Bennett succeeded more than once in capturing the poetic charm of Mendelssohn’s form. Most of Schumann’s overtures were originally linked with dramatic works or with other music, but several became detached concert pieces. Of these the Rheinweinlied overture (1853) is interesting for one innovation: the use of rondo form. His Overture, Scherzo and Finale op.52 (1841–5) combines an overture of standard form with two other movements, not quite adding up to a symphony.

Nationalist composers frequently found the concert overture suited their needs: Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Smetana, Dvořák, Grieg and Elgar all contributed important examples. The medley overture of comic opera had its analogue in the concert overture based on one or more well-known national tunes, such as Wagner’s on Rule Britannia, Tchaikovsky’s on the Danish national anthem, Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘sur des thèmes de l’Eglise russe’, and Brahms’s Akademische Festouvertüre based on student songs. A late example was Quilter’s Children’s Overture based on nursery rhymes. An interesting experiment of Dvořák’s linked three self-contained overtures, ‘Nature’, ‘Life’ and ‘Love’, in a cyclic work entitled Carnaval (1891): a ‘nature’ motif is common to all three. Another type, designed for spectacular orchestral effect, is represented by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. It continued the ancient tradition of battle-pieces, which had appeared in the guise of many musical forms.

The decline of the concert overture began in the 1850s with Liszt’s invention of the Symphonic poem. Several of the works he called by this name originated as dramatic overtures, and in Prometheus (1850, revised 1855) and Hamlet (1858) the outlines of the old form can still be discerned. According to Raff, Liszt almost decided to call them concert overtures. Others, however, have a freely programmatic structure, in which the music follows the outlines of a story (Mazeppa), or attempts to depict the subject of a painting (Hunnenschlacht) or to sketch a character (Tasso). The freedom to mould the musical form according to outside requirements, though it may have been illusory, was the chief distinction between the two genres, and it allowed for a far more detailed ‘programme’ than the stricter form would admit. The symphonic poem naturally attracted the avant garde, while more conservative composers remained faithful to the overture, and preserved at least the spirit of its traditional form. So there are symphonic poems by Franck, Richard Strauss, Skryabin and Schoenberg; overtures by Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Sullivan. Brahms’s Tragic Overture (1880) is one of the most important late examples. It lacks an external association, but never deviates from the mood its title defines; it is one movement in strict sonata form, with profound thematic development more characteristic of symphonies than of overtures. This ‘symphonic’ style of overture was taken up by Karl Goldmark, who greatly expanded the form without crossing the border into the ‘free’ symphonic poem.

In general, after 1900 the overture was scarcely relevant to what was happening in European music. The title remained one of a number of alternatives to describe an orchestral piece in one movement of moderate length; it was frequently chosen for music written for festive occasions. One of the last that still shows some links with tradition is Shostakovich’s Festive Overture op.96 (1954), which is in two linked sections, Allegretto and Presto.


  • SmitherHO, iv (forthcoming)
  • D.F. Tovey: ‘Overture’, Encyclopaedia britannica (11/1911)
  • H. Botstiber: Geschichte der Ouvertüre und der freien Orchesterformen (Leipzig, 1913/R)
  • H. Prunières: Le ballet de cour avant Benserade et Lully (Paris, 1914/R)
  • G. Abraham: A Hundred Years of Music (London, 1938, 4/1974)
  • H. Livingston: The Italian Overture from A. Scarlatti to Mozart (diss., U. of North Carolina, 1952)
  • G.D. Durham: The Development of the German Concert Overture (diss., Catholic U., Washington DC, 1957)
  • R. Fiske: Beethoven Concertos and Overtures (London, 1970)
  • B. Deane: ‘The French Operatic Overture from Grétry to Berlioz’, PRMA, 99 (1972–3), 67–80
  • S. Steinbeck: Die Ouvertüre in der Zeit von Beethoven bis Wagner: Probleme und Lösungen (Munich, 1973)
  • P. Gossett: ‘The Overtures of Rossini’, 19CM, 3 (1979–80), 3–31
  • P.G. Langevin: ‘Von Bruckner zur Ethnoromantik’, Bruckner Jb 1980, 67–89; repr. in ReM, nos.388–90 (1986), 173–209 [with list of nationalistic orch works, 1863–1939]
  • G. Pont: ‘Handel's Overtures for Harpsichord or Organ: an Unrecognized Genre’, EMc, 11 (1983), 309–22
  • Editors’ introductions to The Symphony 1720–1840, ser. A, i, iv (New York, 1983); ser. B, 2 (1983); ser. D, 7 (1983); ser. E, i, vi (1984)
  • T.S. Grey: ‘Wagner, the Overture, and the Aesthetics of Musical Form’, 19CM, 12 (1988–9), 3–22
  • M. Dirst: ‘Bach's French overtures and the politics of overdotting’, Early Music, 25/1 (1997), 35–44
  • B. Jerold: ‘Overdotting in Handel's overtures reconsidered’, Göttinger Händel-Beiträge, 14 (2012), 229–252
  • S. Oechsle: ‘Form macht Theater: Performative reflexivität in Ouvertüren von Weber und Mendelssohn’, Ereignis und Exegese: Musikalische Interpretation—Interpretation der Musik: Festschrift für Hermann Danuser zum 65. Geburtstag (Schliengen, 2012), 387–398
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