The Versatile Overture


The opera house is packed, the lights dim as applause greets the conductor who enters the pit, steps onto the podium and takes a bow. The evening begins with a dramatic overture. But wait – an overture is much more than a mere curtain-raiser for opera. In this Active Minds program, we'll trace its history, back to the very beginnings of Italian opera, then to the court of Louis XIV, then into the concert hall to hear overtures meant to stand on their own. Finally, we'll hear a “Grand, Grand Concert Overture” by a composer known for his wicked sense of humor.


The French word for “to open” is ouvrir. From that comes the word “overture,” aptly named, because an overture does indeed start things off – for an opera, a play, a suite of dances played by an orchestra or piano. Most of us think of it as the music heard before the curtain goes up on an opera performance. Maybe a Rossini or a Mozart overture pops into your mind. But, as with so many forms of music, the term itself has been used in all sorts of contexts. Back in the days of Louis XIV's court in Versailles, the pompous music that began an entertainment was an indication to all in attendance that the King was arriving. Once his party was seated, the guests would return to their chairs and the lively part of the Overture would begin, followed by a selection of dance music accompanying the hopping and skipping of Louis' ballet troupe (sometimes he'd join the dancing himself!). As the rest of Europe discovered the pleasures of various styles of courtly dance music, composers fashioned suites of such dances as the Bourée, Sarabande, Minuet, Allemande, Courante and Gigue. These gatherings for solo keyboard, chamber groups and orchestras were intended mostly for listening rather than dancing. Each would begin with an Overture, built just like the ones heard in Louis' court: a slow, ponderous start followed by a quick, virtuosic bit of counterpoint (separate musical lines overlapping each other). As theatrical entertainments grew in popularity during the 1700s, the Overture was employed as a way to begin the evening – and, it should be noted, to strongly encourage patrons to find their seats and cease their conversations (Monteverdi's brief Toccata at the start of his opera L'Orfeo instructs the musicians to play the piece three times, to settle the audience). As opera grew in popularity, the overture became a commonly used way to open matters, by introducing the mood of the coming story, comic or tragic, and, in some cases previewing tunes that will be heard later on. During the late 1700s and into the 1800s, theatrical plays used a pit orchestra that provided music during scene changes, moments of non-speaking onstage action and, just as in opera, offered an overture intended to set the tone for the production. One of Beethoven's most famous overtures (and he wrote several) introduces the tragic story of a long-ago hero named Egmont, whose patriotic sacrifice and words of resistance rang true with Austrian audiences aware of Napoleon's march toward Vienna. Opera composers used the overture to project the story's thrust: In Mozart's whirlwind Marriage of Figaro, the curtain goes up after a quick little opener that brims, appropriately, with wit and surprises; Verdi's La Traviata begins with a tragic Prelude (not an Overture) that predicts the sad, lonely end of its title character; Wagner creates a massive storm at sea in his Overture to The Flying Dutchman, a tale about a sailor cursed to sail the oceans in search of love. But there are overtures meant solely for the concert-hall, serving as curtain-raisers or stand-alone works for symphonic programs – pieces such as Dvorak's Carnival and In Nature's Realm and, of course, Tchaikovsky's famous, slam-bang 1812 Overture. But how can any composer top the antics of Matthew Arnold's A Grand, Grand Concert Overture?

Exploration Questions

  • Which of the German writer Goethe's works inspired overtures by Beethoven and Mendelssohn?
  • How did Puccini approach the concept of the overture in his operas?
  • In what inventive ways did operetta composers such as Johann Strauss Jr. (and much later, Leonard Bernstein) use overtures to preview upcoming tunes?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do some composers choose not to treat the overture as a medley of melodies to come?
  • Imagine hearing the teenage Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny entertain guests in their parents' home with a two-piano setting of his extraordinary Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • Do you prefer opera overtures or concert overtures? If it's the former, is it necessary to know the opera's storyline?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Riding, Alan, Dunton-Downer, Leslie. Opera (Eyewitness Companions). Dorling Kindersley. 2006. 432 pages. To learn more about the growth of opera and its overtures, here's a solid, nicely illustrated beginner's guide.
    Click here to order