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Title: Overture  
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Subject: Prelude (music), Potpourri (music), The Flying Dutchman (opera), Richard Wagner, Classical period (music)
Collection: Overtures
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Overture (French ouverture, lit. "opening"; German Ouvertüre, Vorspiel, i.e., "prelude", lit. "play before") in music is the term originally applied to the instrumental introduction to an opera.[1] During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the term to refer to independent, self-existing instrumental, programmatic works that presaged genres such as the symphonic poem. These were "at first undoubtedly intended to be played at the head of a programme".[1]


  • History 1
    • 17th century 1.1
      • French overture 1.1.1
      • Italian overture 1.1.2
    • 19th-century opera 1.2
  • Concert overture 2
    • Early 19th century 2.1
    • Later 19th century 2.2
    • 20th century 2.3
  • Film 3
  • List of some common overtures 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6


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 muted trumpets. More important, however, was the prologue, which comprised sung dialogue between allegorical characters which introduced the overarching themes of the stories depicted.

French overture

As a Handel also uses the French overture form in some of his Italian operas such as Giulio Cesare.[4]

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.[5] 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.[5] 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.[6]

19th-century opera

In 19th-century 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. Richard Wagner's Vorspiel to Lohengrin is a short self-contained movement founded on the music of the Grail.

In Italian opera after about 1800, the "overture" became known as the sinfonia.[7] Fisher also notes the term Sinfonia avanti l'opera (literally, the "symphony before the opera") was "an early term for a sinfonia used to begin an opera, that is, as an overture as opposed to one serving to begin a later section of the work".[7]

Concert overture

Early 19th century

Although by the end of the eighteenth century opera overtures were already beginning to be performed as separate items in the concert hall, the "concert overture", intended specifically as an individual concert piece without reference to stage performance and generally based on some literary theme, began to appear early in the Romantic era. Carl Maria von Weber wrote two concert overtures, Der Beherrscher der Geister ('The Ruler of the Spirits', 1811, a revision of the overture to his unfinished opera Rübezahl of 1805), and Jubel-Ouvertüre ('Jubilee Overture', 1818, incorporating God Save the King at its climax). However, the overture A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) by Felix Mendelssohn is generally regarded as the first concert overture (Temperley 2001). Mendelssohn's other contributions to this genre include his Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture (1828), his overture The Hebrides (1830; also known as Fingal's Cave) and the overtures Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusine, 1834) and Ruy Blas (1839). Other notable early concert overtures were written by Hector Berlioz (e.g., Les Francs juges (1826), and Le corsaire (1828)).

Later 19th century

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, Robert Schumann and Arthur Sullivan remained faithful to the overture.[3]

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. An example clearly influenced by the symphonic poem is Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. His equally well-known Romeo and Juliet is also labelled a 'fantasy-overture'.

20th century

In European music after 1900, an example of an overture displaying a connection with the traditional form is brass instruments, and obbligato parts for four rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners (two uprights in B, one horizontal with detachable sucker in C), and an electric floor polisher in E; it is dedicated "to President Hoover".[8]


In motion pictures, an overture is a piece of music setting the mood for the film before the opening credits start. For a comprehensive list, see the list of films with overtures.

List of some common overtures

Some well-known or commonly played Overtures:


  1. ^ a b Blom 1954.
  2. ^ Waterman and Anthony 2001.
  3. ^ a b Temperley 2001.
  4. ^ Burrows 2012, ]
  5. ^ a b Fisher 2001.
  6. ^ Larue 2001.
  7. ^ a b Fisher 1998.
  8. ^ Anon. 1957; Maycock 2009; Burton-Page [n.d.]; Anon. 1957 mistakenly says just three rifles, but publisher's website confirms four, as stated also in Maycock 2009.


  • Anon. 1957. "Music: Op. I for Vacuum Cleaners" Time (April 22).
  • Blom, Eric. 1954. "Overture". Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, fifth edition, edited by Eric Blom. London: Macmillan Publishers; Toronto, Canada: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Burrows, Donald. 2012. Handel, second edition. Master Musicians Series. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Burton-Page, Piers. [n.d.] ", Programme NoteA Grand, Grand OvertureMalcolm Arnold: ". Chester-Novello publisher’s website. (Accessed 6 November 2009)
  • Fisher, Stephen C. 1998. "Sinfonia". The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, four volumes, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5.
  • Fisher, Stephen C. 2001. "Italian Overture." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Larue, Jan. 2001. "Sinfonia 2: After 1700". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Maycock, Robert. 2009. ", Op. 57 (1956)A Grand, Grand OvertureWhat's On/Programme Notes, Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006), " BBC Proms programme, Prom 76: Last Night of the Proms (Saturday 12 September).
  • Temperley, Nicholas. 2001. "Overture". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Waterman, George Gow, and James R. Anthony. 2001. "French Overture". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
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