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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.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an orchestral work that precedes an opera, oratorio, ballet, dramatic performance, or motion picture; an independent orchestral composition in sonata form.

An opera overture prepares the listener for the forthcoming action. An early example of the overture is the prelude to Monteverdi’s opera La favola d’Orfeo (1607). By the late 17th century, two major types of overtures had developed: the French, consisting of a slow introduction, a fast polyphonic section, and a slow conclusion (J.-B. Lully); and the Italian (sinfoniá), consisting of a fast, a slow, and a fast movement (A. Scarlatti). Both types were important in the development of the sonata and the symphony. The French overture became very popular in Germany, where it was placed at the beginning of a suite, or Partiia, as in the first movement of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites and of his Partiia in D major.

Opera overtures initially had no relevance to the themes of the character of the opera itself; it was only in the later 18th century that composers came to treat the overture as a symphonic prologue designed to reveal the content of an opera. In this regard, C. W. Gluck stated that the overture should “apprise the spectator of the nature of the action that is to be represented and should form, so to speak, its argument.” The overture may be themati-cally linked to the opera, as in Glinka’s Ivan Susanin and Ruslan and Liudmila, or it may generally express the opera’s character, as in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

There are several types of opera overtures. The classical overture in sonata form, sometimes having a slow introduction, was established in the second half of the 18th century; examples are the overtures to Gluck’s Alceste, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The prelude and introduction are brief pieces, not in sonata form, that sketch out the main conflict or idea of an opera, as in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Bizet’s Carmen, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, or that lead directly into the first act, as in R. Wagner’s symphonic preludes. The overture in the form of a series of successive musical numbers, frequently linked by means of contrasts or an accelerating tempo, may be found in operas by G. Rossini and L. Aubert and in many operettas.

The most famous overtures to dramatic works are Beethoven’s overtures to Goethe’s Egmont and Collin’s Coriolan, Balakirev’s overture to King Lear, and Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the 19th century the concert overture—an independent orchestral piece, usually programmatic—occupied a prominent place in symphonic music. Examples include Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave (The Hebrides) and Melusine, Berlioz’ The Roman Carnival, and Dvorak’s My Home. In addition to overtures to dramatic works—Schumann’s Manfred and Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet—and overtures inspired by nature—Grieg’s In Autumn—the occasional overture also became popular. Examples of this type include Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Glazunov’s Cortege solennel, Gliére’s Solemn Overture for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Miaskovskii’s overtures, Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, and A. I. Khachaturian’s Greetings Overture. M. I. Glinka composed classical overtures on folk themes, and the tradition of his overtures Summer Night in Madrid and Jota aragonesa was carried on by M. A. Balakirev in his Overture on Three Russian Themes, S. I. Taneev in his Overture on a Russian Theme (On Tatar Captivity), and many Soviet composers. The overture to dramatic works and the concert overture were direct precursors of the symphonic poem.


Asaf ev, B. “O frantsuzskoi klassicheskoi uvertiure i, v osobennosti, ob uvertiurakh Kerubini.” In his book Glinka, 2nd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Asafev, B. “Uvertiura ’Rustan i Liudmila’ Glinki.” In Izbrannye trudy, vol. 1. Moscow, 1952.
Druskin, M. Voprosy muzykal’noi dramaturgii opery. Leningrad, 1952. Pages 290–95.
Popova, T. Uvertiura, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1960.
Riemann, H. Die französische Ouvertüre zu Anfang des 18. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig, 1899.
Botstiber, H. Geschichte der Ouvertüre und der freien Orchesterformen. Leipzig, 1913.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Music
a. a piece of orchestral music containing contrasting sections that is played at the beginning of an opera or oratorio, often containing the main musical themes of the work
b. a similar piece preceding the performance of a play
c. a one-movement orchestral piece, usually having a descriptive or evocative title
d. a short piece in three movements (French overture or Italian overture) common in the 17th and 18th centuries
2. something that introduces what follows
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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