What is an... Overture?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is an... Overture?
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At first glance, the history of the term ‘overture’ (French for ‘opening’) looks very like that of the prelude. Originally its function was literally to open proceedings then, gradually during the Romantic era (when so many terms went awry), it came to signify something else. In what way, for example, is Mendelssohn’s superbly atmospheric Hebrides Overture an ‘opening’ – unless it is the opening of a door on a world of dreams, Fingal’s Cave as recreated by a great creative imagination?  

Even before that, the term showed signs of developing a mind of its own. In the Baroque era, ‘overture’ could signify an orchestral or keyboard suite – an entirely self-sufficient collection of dances. In late 18th-century England the word was interchangeable with ‘symphony’. There’s more to this than the caprice of history. The first overtures began to appear as the new forms of opera and oratorio defined themselves in the 17th century – it soon became clear that some form of musical preamble was necessary, if only to get the audience to stop talking and pay attention. The trumpet and drum fanfare that opens Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a classic example. 

By the time of Lully, a standard basic pattern had emerged: an imposing slow introduction, with jagged ‘dotted’ rhythms and plenty of juicy harmonic ‘suspensions’, leading straight into a lively, perhaps fugal Allegro. The association with Lully led to this being identified as the ‘French overture’, but there are plenty of good non-Gallic examples: the overture to Handel’s Messiah for one. This might be followed by a slower dance movement, or by a return of the opening slow music – so we have an ‘opening’ framed by ‘openings’. Before long the Italians were offering a version of their own, on a fast-slow-fast pattern. These – sometimes also called ‘sinfonia’ – could be fairly substantial, and could be played independently: the work known as Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 is an Italian overture in all but name.

Eventually overtures began to anticipate themes or ideas from the opera or oratorio. Glück’s stormy overture to Iphigénie en Tauride is a pioneering case, Mozart’s Don Giovanni another. But it was in Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ that opens The Creation that the terms of the Romantic overture were set. Then in Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 we have an ‘opening’ so dramatic that it threatens to upstage the opera itself. Thus the tone poem was born – but that’s another story.

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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