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[oh-ver-cher, -choor]
overture, instrumental musical composition written as an introduction to an opera, ballet, oratorio, musical, or play. The earliest Italian opera overtures were simply pieces of orchestral music and were called sinfonie. Jean Baptiste Lully standardized the French overture, using an opening section in pompous chordal style and dotted rhythms followed by a fugal section. This type of overture was much imitated, an example being the overture to Handel's Messiah. In some of the 17th-century Neapolitan operas, to some extent in Jean Philippe Rameau's operas and most notably in Gluck's, the overture began to foreshadow what was to come in the work's tunes. In many 19th-century operas and 20th-century musicals the overture is simply a potpourri of the work's tunes. The concert overture, a composition in one movement that may be in any of a variety of styles, arose in the 19th cent.; the overtures of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven are outstanding.
Overture (French ouverture, meaning opening) in music is the instrumental introduction to a dramatic, choral or, occasionally, instrumental composition. During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the term to refer to instrumental, programmatic works that presaged genres such as the symphonic poem.


17th century

The idea of an instrumental opening to opera existed during the 17th century. Peri's Euridice opens with a brief instrumental ritornello, and Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) opens with a toccata, in this case a fanfare for brass and drums. More important, however, was the Prologue, which comprised of sung dialogue between allegorical characters which introduced the over-arching themes of the stories depicted.

French ouverture

As a musical form, however, the so-called "French ouverture" begins with the court ballet and operatic overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully (Waterman and Anthony 2001), which he elaborated from a similar, two-section form called ‘ouverture’, found in the French ballets de cour as early as 1640 (Temperley 2001). This French ouverture consists of a slow introduction in a marked "dotted rhythm" (i.e. exaggerated iambic, if the first chord is disregarded), followed by a lively movement in fugato style. The ouverture was frequently followed by a series of dance tunes before the curtain rose, and would often return following the Prologue to introduce the action proper. This ouverture style was also used in English opera, most notably in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Its distinctive rhythmic profile and function thus led to French ouverture style as found in late Baroque composers Bach. The style is most often used in preludes to suites, and can be found in non-staged vocal works such as cantatas.

Italian overture

In Italy, a distinct form called "overture" arose in the 1680s, and became established particularly through the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, and spread throughout Europe, supplanting the French form as the standard operatic overture by the mid-18th century (Fisher 2001). Its usual form is in three generally homophonic movements: fast–slow–fast. The opening movement was normally in duple metre and in a major key; the slow movement in earlier examples was usually quite short, and could be in a contrasting key; the concluding movement was dance-like, most often with rhythms of the gigue or minuet, and returned to the key of the opening section. As the form evolved, the first movement often incorporated fanfare-like elements and took on the pattern of so-called "sonatina form" (sonata form without a development section), and the slow section became more extended and lyrical (Fisher 2001). Italian overtures were often detached from their operas and played as independent concert pieces. In this context, they became important in the early history of the symphony (Larue 2001).

18th century and Sonata style

With the increasing popularity of the Italian opera and the sonata style, the French overture fell out of fashion. Gluck (whose remarks on the function of overtures in the preface to Alceste are historic) based himself on Italian models, of loose texture, which admit of a sweeping and massively contrasted technique. By the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's later works the overture in the sonata style had clearly differentiated itself from strictly symphonic music. It consists of a quick movement (with or without a slow introduction), in sonata form, loose in texture, without repeats, frequently without a development section, but sometimes substituting for it a melodious episode in slow time. Instances of this substitution are Mozart's symphony in G, which is an overture to an unknown opera, and his overtures to Die Entführung and to Lo Sposo deluso, in both of which cases the curtain rises at a point which throws a remarkable dramatic light upon the peculiar form. The overture to Figaro was at first intended to have a similar slow middle section, which, however, Mozart struck out as soon as he had begun it. Mozart's last overture, The Magic Flute (1791), seemed to point toward the 19th century Rossinian model, with its grand opening and slow, heavy introduction leading to a lighthearted main theme. In Beethoven's hands the overture style and form increased its distinction from that of the symphony, but it no longer remained inferior to it; and the final version of the overture to Leonora (that known as No. 3) is the most gigantic single orchestral movement ever based on the sonata style.

19th century

Although Rossini retired from writing overtures after William Tell in 1829, 19th century overtures largely owe their focus to forms he had developed and perfected long before, primarily for Italian opera buffa. Rossini’s first professional operatic overture, La Cambiale di Matrimonio (1810) bypassed strict sonata form, employing a grand opening, a slow introduction, first main theme, an extended bridge to a second main theme, crescendo, then a closing section. Attempts at this style can be clearly heard in overtures of Adolphe Adam, Carl Maria von Weber, Giuseppe Verdi, Hector Berlioz and others, though none having achieved Rossini’s reputation as craftsmen of overtures, as the simple, transparent style requires a preponderance of inspired melodic ideas for lasting effect. However, William Tell may have more successfully served as the model for the 19th century romantic overture, with its revolutionary four part form, achieving the grand affect of a mini symphony, expanding the boundaries for 19th century opera as a whole. The William Tell Overture signaled the close of the classical period for the operatic stage at its premier, paving the way for Meyerbeer and Wagner, its influence being heard as far forward as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Modern opera

In modern opera the overture, Vorspiel, Einleitung, Introduction, or whatever else it may be called, is generally nothing more definite than that portion of the music which takes place before the curtain rises. Tannhäuser is the last case of high importance in which the overture (as originally written) is a really complete instrumental piece prefixed to an opera in tragic and continuous dramatic style. In lighter opera, where sectional forms are still possible, a separable overture is not out of place, though even Carmen is remarkable in the dramatic way in which its overture foreshadows the tragic end and leads directly to the rise of the curtain. Richard Wagner's Vorspiel to Lohengrin is a short self-contained movement founded on the music of the Grail. It does not represent a further departure from the formal classical overture than that shown fifty years earlier by Méhul's interesting overtures to Ariodant and Uthal, in the latter of which a voice is several times heard on the stage before the rise of the curtain.

The Vorspiel to Die Meistersinger, though needing only an additional tonic chord to bring it to an end, in its proper position leads to the rise of the curtain. The Vorspiel to Tristan was finished for concert use by Wagner himself, and the considerable length of the added page shows how little calculated for independent existence the original Vorspiel was. Lastly, the Parsifal Vorspiel is a composition finished for concert use by Wagner in a few extra bars. The orchestral preludes to the four dramas of the Ring are mere preparations for the rise of the curtain; and these works can no more be said to have overtures than Verdi's Falstaff and Strauss's Salome, in which the curtain rises at the first note of the music.

Operettas and musicals

Many nineteenth century operettas and light operas substituted for the specially composed overture in strict "overture form", as detailed above, a potpourri of airs based on the tunes of the songs that were to follow. Sullivan, for instance, seldom actually wrote out his own overtures - since they followed the potpourri format expected from an English "comic opera" of the time, any competent orchestrator could be trusted with this task.

Twentieth century and contemporary overtures accompanying Broadway (and other) Musicals almost always follow this pattern, consisting of segments from the more popular songs in the musical - although some musicals dispense with a formal overture altogether. The overture usually is played before the musical starts. However, in the recent revival of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, the overture appears after the opening chorus of "Another Op'ning, another show", with the chorus remaining on stage. (In the original 1948 production, and all other productions of the show up to 1999, the overture to the show appeared in its usual place - before the first song.)

Symphonic poem

Another form of overture is the so-called concert overture, intended as an individual concert piece. Early in the Romantic era, Carl Maria von Weber wrote two concert overtures, Der Beherrscher der Geister ('The Ruler of the Spirits') and Jubel-Ouvertüre (Jubilee-Overture, incorporating God Save the King at the climactic close), and Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Fingal's Cave (alternatively known as the Hebrides Overture) and the Meerestille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) Overture. Hector Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture might be taken for such an independent work but (like the Leonore overtures) originated as music for an opera, Benvenuto Cellini.

In the 1850s the concert overture began to be supplanted by the symphonic poem, a form devised by Franz Liszt in several works that began as dramatic overtures. The distinction between the two genres was the freedom to mould the musical form according to external programmatic requirements (Temperley 2001). The symphonic poem became the preferred form for the more "progressive" composers, such as César Franck, Richard Strauss, Alexander Scriabin, and Arnold Schoenberg, while more conservative composers like Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, and Arthur Sullivan remained faithful to the overture (Temperley 2001).

In the age when the symphonic poem had already become popular, Brahms wrote his Academic Festival Overture, op. 80, as well as his Tragic Overture, op. 81; with the latter piece having a wide range of emotions encapsulated, can also be taken for a symphonic poem but are not titled as such by the composer. Another example is Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. His equally well-known Romeo and Juliet is also labelled as a 'fantasy-overture'.

Robert Schumann wrote overtures based on literature written by Friedrich Schiller, Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe such as the Overtures to Die Braut von Messina, Julius Caesar and Hermann und Dorothea. Although these overtures derive their musical inspiration from literary works, Schumann neither composed music for the entire work as he would for an opera nor necessarily intended a spoken performance to immediately follow. Both Schumann and Tchaikovsky would, in fact, incorporate bits of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise into their overtures Hermann und Dorothea and Overture 1812 respectively which indicate the independent nature of this type of overture.


In motion pictures, an overture is a piece of music setting the mood for the film before the credits start. It does not underscore the credits or part of the plot but is seen as introductory music "in its own right". It is typically accompanied by a blank screen (played with the lights already dimmed and/or with closed curtains) or a still picture and can be several minutes long.

Notable examples are: Gone with the Wind (1939), Since You Went Away (1944) (again, a David O. Selznick Production), Lawrence of Arabia, Oliver! (1968), King Kong, West Side Story, Spartacus, Ice Station Zebra, Guns For San Sebastian, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange. 1979 was the last time a major American studio made use of an overture (with the films Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Black Hole), although the film Dancer in the Dark included an overture in the year 2000. Many of these (epic) films also featured entr'actes and exit musics, which, together with the overtures, have often been cut from TV and video releases and can only be found on recent "restored" DVDs. Some of these "incidental musics" were made for roadshow presentation and were cut afterwards for the wide release.

The anime series Space Battleship Yamato (1974) had the distinction of a vocal overture instead of instrumental.

For a more comprehensive list, see List of Films with Overtures.

Overtures in popular music

Apart from the forementioned albums, many other concept albums in popular music feature overture-like instrumental opening pieces, although they might not be titled as such. Examples are:


  • Fisher, Stephen C. 2001. "Italian Overture." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Larue, Jan. 2001. "Sinfonia 2: After 1700". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Temperley, Nicholas. 2001. "Overture". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Waterman, George Gow, and James R. Anthony. 2001. "French Overture". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

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