Let’s start at the beginning. Or, at least, what used to be the beginning. As someone who has been attending orchestral concerts for a very long time, I’ve noticed that over the decades we have witnessed the decline of the overture to a point where it’s relatively unusual to find a concert that starts with one. What has happened?
It was once very different. I’m looking at a programme for A Grand Miscellaneous Selection of Music conducted by Henry Bishop at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on 4 April 1832. The substantial order of service was in three parts, each commencing with an overture: Weber’s Der Freischütz; Spontini’s Grand Overture to Nurmahal; and Rossini’s Grand Overture to Semiramide.
Move on 26 years, to the Hallé Orchestra’s first concert under its founder conductor Charles Hallé, at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 30 January 1858: it, too, opened with Der Freischütz, but also included Auber’s La Sirène and Rossini’s Le siège de Corinthe.
The early Prom seasons conducted by Henry Wood also featured plenty of overtures. The opening programme at London’s Queen’s Hall on Saturday 10 August 1895 began with Wagner’s Rienzi and Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon overture also featured. But during the 20th century, as orchestral concerts became shorter and, from the 1960s onwards, began to feature long symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner, the overture started to disappear from its regular spot as the opener (which is, of course, what the French word ‘ouverture’ means). Here, we name the greatest overtures of all time.
I raise the subject with Sir Mark Elder, whose two decades as chief conductor of the Hallé Orchestra (one of the best orchestras in thew world) have revived that ensemble’s artistic reputation. He tells me that when he first started conducting at the BBC Proms as a young man, the BBC controller of music, Robert Ponsonby, virtually banned operatic overtures. ‘He wouldn’t let me do them,’ says Elder. ‘He said, “they belong in the theatre, and that’s where they’re going to stay”.’
Elder agrees that overtures are now something of an endangered species, and reminds me that ‘programmes of 100 or 150 years ago very often had a sort of mixed-bag feeling. The “big listen” was often at the beginning of the first half. I’m trying to bring that back. I think that if you have the “difficult” listen in the first half, and then do a second half that is intentionally made up of shorter, lighter pieces, that’s a very nice way to have an evening of music.’
Does he think that the once near-ubiquitous format of Overture – Concerto – Interval – Symphony, known in the business as ‘meat and two veg’, worked? Or had it become a bit stale? ‘It worked, but you need to ring the changes to make the concert-going experience unexpected and full of variety, so that the public is intrigued.’
Still, isn’t there a risk of losing a lot of rather good pieces by not performing overtures? ‘Yes, absolutely. I enjoy them. In June, we’re welcoming an audience back into the Bridgewater Hall, and I thought we should do two pieces that show off the orchestra and different parts of our Hallé personality. So, it will be Petrushka – Interval – Enigma. Then I started to think about it, and I realised that what this programme needed was a curtain-raiser. People will be coming to the Hall for the first time in a while. Petrushka is about 35 minutes, and it’s a wonderful, colourful listen, but it is a listen, so we’re going to do Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila immediately as a sort of gunshot. It just feels completely right to me.’
Relatively short and often quite immediate in their effect, overtures are a good way, I suggest, of drawing the audience in to listen to something more complex later. ‘They are, and I do that sometimes; but it depends on the feel of the event. If it’s going to be a curtain-raiser to an opera, a good overture is by definition a theatrical event. Of course, there are some lovely concert overtures as well. You can make a fantastic effect with Berlioz’s Les francs juges, or with his longest overture, King Lear – a wonderful piece, so clever and so moving.’
The other sad thing is that, on the whole, opera composers don’t write overtures anymore – and indeed they haven’t for quite some time. Elder concurs: ‘The curtain goes up quickly, or there is just a short prelude.’ Yet the once standard operatic overture, if played in concert, can be a way of popularising the opera itself.
People hear themes from it, as with Weber’s Der Freischütz or Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, ‘which is really like an overture to a musical – it gives you all the good tunes. I think that the overture does have a place – and not just at the beginning of the concert, where it gets the audience’s ears open. I think the idea of finishing concerts with festive, attractive, popular short pieces is that everybody goes out with their spirits lifted.’
Sir Antonio Pappano, recently announced as the London Symphony Orchestra’s next chief conductor, also feels saddened by the slow but steady disappearance of the overture. ‘Overtures are often stirring because they’re almost always dramaturgically very interesting,’ he reflects; ‘they give a symphony orchestra a chance to express narrative.
‘Some years ago I did an entire concert of Wagner overtures, trying to find some kind of dramaturgical thread, and it actually worked quite well. The Weber overtures are good examples of pieces that used to be done all the time, and which offered the orchestra unique technical and musical challenges. What has been lost since we don’t do them anymore is that experience of doing pieces that are so well written and so compact – everything is packed into seven or eight, maybe maximum 12, minutes.’
The fashion for theme-based programming may have played a part in this change, he observes. ‘The specificity of a Weber Oberon, Euryanthe or Der Freischütz overture can make it difficult to put them into some kind of theme-based programming; those pieces have fallen by the wayside because our choices have become more, if you like, esoteric.’
Pappano also agrees that having a relatively short piece at the beginning – an eight-minute piece that makes an instant impression – is a good way of getting people’s ears open. ‘To put it in a very banal way, if you see the concert as some kind of feast of music, then it makes sense to have an appetiser, and then the next course is a little bit more demanding, and then you get the main course.’
As music director of the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in particular, Italian operatic overtures are second nature to Pappano, as well as essential programme ingredients, ‘especially on tour – you know, the Rossini overtures and the Verdi overtures, or even early pieces by Puccini like the Preludio sinfonico: in a way they are expected of us, as an Italian orchestra. I’ve discovered some wonderful things, like the big overture to Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth.’
He agrees that overtures such as those by Rossini and Verdi offer good ‘tasters’ of themes from their operas, but he also points out that there’s another type of operatic overture, including some by Mozart such as The Marriage of Figaro, ‘that doesn’t contain one theme that is in the opera. Instead, it’s a taster of the kind of scurrilous goings on of the “crazy day” – the alternative title of Beaumarchais’s source comedy. I find it fascinating that a composer comes up with something that creates an atmosphere rather than specifically helping the audience along with the themes.’
Domingo Hindoyan, soon to be the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s chief conductor, also rues the decline of the overture. ‘Many have very interesting musical contents and structure,’ he says, ‘so that it’s perfectly possible to play them on their own, or even a few in a concert. Sometimes an overture can introduce the subject of the programme, or it prepares the audience’s ear for a specific soloist – especially when the concerto has no introduction.’
So why are opera overtures less often played nowadays? ‘Because some conductors don’t really want to put the content of a drama into a programme with a symphony by a different composer. It would be very rare, for example, to play the Don Giovanni overture followed by Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, though it wouldn’t be such a bad idea! Also, there is less room in our programmes now because we all try to push forward contemporary composers; so often we’re opening concerts with a living composer – which is, of course, very important.’
Hindoyan also believes that it could be very interesting to include a few overtures in a concert occasionally – ‘and we should probably change the order more; I have seen some programmes which finished with an overture, which was very interesting.’ He agrees that the brevity and frequent immediacy of overtures can help prepare audiences for something more demanding. And like Pappano, he sees a culinary analogy in the building of a concert programme: ‘It’s like going to a three-star Michelin restaurant; every dish will prepare for the others. It doesn’t have to be linked especially, but it should be about preparing contrasts.’