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What’s on First?


The Serenade by Wilhelm Stenhammar that the BSO played last week began with an Overtura first movement, appropriately enough for a serenade, and this set me to thinking: what’s an overture for? Begin with a specialized dictionary definition, e.g.: “an act, an offer, or a proposal that indicates readiness to undertake a course of action” — diplomatic overtures, for instance. The French overture (in two or three sections) in Baroque suites is one formal type that disappears after Bach. The Overtura of 30 bars that begins Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is essentially a herald, announcing all the different guises of the basic theme, and one thinks of his use of this sectional title as idiosyncratic. But a classical overture is basic: an orchestral introduction to an opera, necessarily of at least a few minutes’ length but also something in the nature of a symphony as well — especially of a first movement of a symphony, necessarily in sonata form. But it won’t do to have a 15-minute symphonic first movement as a curtain-raiser, nor even ten-minute example in most cases. Let’s imagine that the opera composer, after completing the sung portion of an entire evening’s opera, needs to come up with an orchestral introduction, but would rather, at that point in creativity, be writing a symphony for relaxation, or at least change of pace.

So arose the concept of overture form: a sonata allegro, but shorter than the usual movement in that form, and within the shortened space, to engage the listener intently with plenty of prime melodic material. What gets abbreviated or omitted? The Development section is the first thing to go — and that amputation may be enough to consolidate the form. Mozart’s Figaro Overture is a good example: it’s a sonata Exposition in D major, closing in A major (the dominant, naturally), and immediately re-transitioning to the Recapitulation, all in D major, the transition occupying just a few bars. At some point, Mozart may even have given the overture a separate title, “Sinfonia.” The Don Giovanni Overture is similarly constructed, but has extra details, like the slow Introduction (from the cemetery scene in Act II), and the Coda transition with change of key to the opening scene (D major to F major) — a genuine curtain-raiser. Schubert’s Zauberharfe Overture is similar, also with a slow Introduction, but the transition from Expo to Recap takes a bare 12 bars. Rossini’s Barber Overture has a much-abbreviated Recap to compensate for the fairly long slow Intro (this overture was written in a single day, according to the composer); Gazza ladra is perhaps more conventional in form, if Mozart’s can be said to establish the convention. Mozart’s German operas don’t follow that Italian convention: Abduction has an Overture in sections, and Magic Flute employs a full sonata form with Development and Coda as well as Intro, and a three-chord motto in the middle.

Come to the 19th century and overture conventions disappear. Beethoven’s three Leonore overtures offer a spectrum of sonata variants, especially the monumentally expansive no. 3, with a Development centrally occupied with offstage trumpet calls which bring everything to a standstill. Weber’s Freischütz Overture also embraces a big sonata form with an Intro to match, a brilliant Coda, and many operatic leitmotives carefully positioned in the narrative. Rossini’s overtures, contemporaneous with these, mostly follow the abbreviated sonata model, until Guillaume Tell, whose 12-minute overture constitutes a mini-symphony in 3½ scenes (cello, storm, pastorale, Lone Ranger). With the young Wagner the overture becomes a big orchestral splash (Tannhäuser), but in Meistersinger it’s called a Prelude, as is also the case with Lohengrin, Tristan and Parsifal, with never more than a vestigial sonata form at best; Verdi, his exact contemporary, often preferred a short prelude or nothing at all before the singers get busy. Thus also arose the non-operatic overture that came to be identified as a concert overture, as in Brahms’s two examples (one can’t imagine Brahms writing an opera); several beloved Beethoven overtures originated with incidental music that is otherwise mostly forgotten (Egmont) or for special occasions (Consecration of the House).

In Russia, Glinka’s two operas begin with overtures in the Rossini manner, but Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov raises the curtain after just a few bars. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is similar to Boris in that regard, as in many others. Overtures of any kindbecaome rare thereafter, but a few that remain popular, e.g. Carmen, in short three-part form. Chabrier’s Overture to Gwendoline is by exception a brilliant sonata form, unique in his output, and Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys is similar. Most other French and German operas of the late 19th century have ruminative Preludes. A luminous Prelude, about as long as a classical overture introduces Hansel and Gretel. Richard Strauss wrote a short but noisy Prelude in Rosenkavalier to limn the behind-the-curtain hanky-panky. The long mysterious Prelude to Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichneten became an actual separate concert piece, called Vorspiel zu einem Drama. In the 20th century, the American musical comedy typically sports an operetta overture in the form of a medley of several numbers, like Die Fledermaus and Gilbert and Sullivan, but Bernstein’s Candide Overture, using Beethoven as a model, employs a unitary sonata form with a long Coda.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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