When Is an Overture Played?
An overture was originally a piece of music played as an introduction to an opera and suggesting some of the themes that were to follow. The earliest operas usually opened with a trumpet fanfare or a sung prologue, as in the work of the French composer Luly. This form of the French overture was widely copied by German composers.
A more modern style was established by the German composer Glück who declared that an overture should “prepare the audience for the plot of the play.” He meant that the overture should not be brought to a close with the rising of the curtain, but should be merged into the mood of the opening act. Glück’s example was followed by Mozart in, for example, his overture to Don Giovanni, and by Beethoven in his overture to Leonore.
Towards the end of the 19th Century the opera was frequently replaced by a shorter introductory prelude, notably in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. This was an entirely new concept which was carried a stage further in Benjamin Britten’s overture to Peter Grimes, which consists of only 10 bars.
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. The concert overture became established as an independent work, as in the case of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. Some overtures took on the character of symphonic poems. They are now often heard as part of a concert and not merely as introductions to operas or plays.
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”.
Prior to the 18th century, the symphony and the overture were almost interchangeable, with overtures being extracted from operas to serve as stand alone instrumental works, and symphonies were tagged to the front of operas as overtures. With the reform of opera seria, the overture began to distinguish itself from the symphony, and composers began to link the content of overtures to their operas dramatically and emotionally.
Elements from the opera are foreshadowed in the overture, following the reform ideology that the music and every other element on stages serves to enhance the plot. One such overture was that of La Magnifique by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, in which several of the arias are quoted.
In Italian opera after about 1800, the “overture” became known as the sinfonia. 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”.