The for the Académie Royale de Musique

The
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines ‘an Overture’ as thus: “a
piece of orchestral music containing contrasting
sections that
is played at the beginning
of
an opera
or oratorio.”
However,
the overtures from
more
recent compositions, such as the modern Musical Theatre production or
even that of the Operettas of the 20th
Century, are often comprised of the main musical themes of the piece
and little else, resulting in a short
‘Medley’ of
the show’s most memorable tunes instead
of any original musical material.
In
this essay I
am going to explore the evolution of the Opera Overture between the
17th
and 20th
Century by identifying any
distinct changes to
the structure of the Overture,
whilst ascertaining why there was such a clear digression into the
heavy use of the central thematic material and distinguishing
any stylistic developments.

Operas
composed in the late 16th
Century and early 17th
Century often
began with a sung prologue or a short instrumental piece called a
‘sinfonia’ or a ‘sonata’. The
purpose of this piece was to indicate the commencement of an opera or
oratorio and to grab the attention of the audience before the action
began. An
example of this comes from Claudio
Monteverdi’s
Orfeo,
which was composed in 1607 and opened with a short virtuosic
trumpet
flourish known as a ‘toccata’. Monteverdi based this toccata on
the typical signal for the opening of a performance in
the court of his employer, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, and
used the same fanfare for
the opening of his Vespers
of
1610. However,
it wasn’t until 1675 that an ‘overture’, as we would recognise
it today, was first used at
the beginning of an opera.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!


order now

It
was in 1675 that Jean-Baptiste
Lully was working in the court of Louis XIV as ‘royal composer’
providing instrumental music for the ‘ballet de courts’ and
writing operas for the Académie
Royale de Musique
(an
early incarnation of the Paris Opera)
of
which he had recently been appointed as the Director, when
he composed the
opera
Thésée.
The
overture to this opera was innovative
in style and was to spearhead
a new
opening movement called the
‘French
Overture’.
Lully devised
this by developing an existing musical
form
called ‘ouverture’,
which had
been
used by
his rival, Robert Cambert, from
1640 onwards in ballet and opera. The
French
overture
is
made up
of two
contrasting sections or movements:
a slow section
mainly
consisting
of dotted rhythms,
succeeded
by a faster
section
in the
‘fugato’
or
‘imitative’
style.
The
second section
was often followed by a short passage in
a steadier tempo which
was occasionally expanded
into a full
third
section.

Contrary
to its name, this style was also used in other countries, including
Britain, and many well-known Baroque works have a ‘French
Overture’, including
George
Frederic
Handel’s Messiah
and Henry
Purcell’s
Dido
and Aeneas. The
Messiah,
although not an opera, is a good example of this style and shows the
clear structure of the French
Overture. Composed
in 1741, the overture to the Messiah
was
titled ‘sinfony’, as the name ‘overture’ wasn’t coined
until much later. The first section is
slow,
stately and
made up of dotted crotchets with frequent ornamentation and
lasts for 12 bars
before being repeated
(as
was typical of the Baroque period).
At
bar 13, the ‘fugato’ section begins with the subject played by
the first violins before the entry
second
violins at bar 17 and the cellos at bar 21. The
second section is much longer than the first at 84 bars long,
although the faster tempo makes it seem of a similar length. This
overture is also full of characteristic musical features of the
Baroque period, such as the use of sequential material in bars 38 to
43, frequent use of suspensions in
bars
74 to
76
and a dominant pedal in
the basso continuo part
between bars 70 and 73¹.

In
1681,
the sinfonia
avanti l’opera, or
the ‘Italian
Overture’ as
it is now known, was
established in Italy by Alessandro
Scarlatti
in
his opera ‘Tutti
il mal non vien per nuocere’.
This form would go on to surpass that of the French
Overture
by the mid 18th
Century. In
contrast to the two-section structure of the French
Overture,
the new Italian
Overture consisted
of three, generally homophonic,
sections.
The
first movement was
typically
fast,
in duple time and
a major key, followed
by a
slower
section
that
was often
in a
contrasting key and
finishing with
the lively
third section
which
would often
use the rhythm of a Gigue
or
Minuet
and would return
to the original
key.
Later
on the structure
of the
Italian
Overture
would provide an outline for the symphony
when it
started to emerge
in the 1730s. A
good example of this form is the ‘sinfonia’ to Scarlatti’s
‘Serenata
il Giardino di Amore’,
composed
c.1700 – 1705, the first section begins with a lively trumpet
fanfare
followed by a slower minor section, finishing with a dance-like
final section in which the trumpets carry the melody once again.

Italian
Opera became very popular in
the early 18th
Century
and the French
Overture soon
fell out of fashion, allowing
the
three-section
‘sonata
form’ stucture
to
prevail
in the overtures of the Classical period.

When
composing Alceste
in
1767,
Christoph
Gluck
decided
that the overture to
an opera
should not
be totally unrelated to the plot as
they had been previously,
but that
the overture should
prepare
the audience
for the emotional atmosphere of the first act.
As
a result, Gluck composed an overture that did not finish before the
opening of the curtain,
instead
merging
the
music
into
the
mood of the opening scene.
This
technique became increasingly popular among composers of
the time,
and in many of Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart’s
works the music
alludes
to the emotions that are thematic in the opera itself, preparing the
audience for the plot. However, it is with Mozart that we find the
beginnings of the ‘medley-style’ overture. In Don
Giovanni,
composed
in 1787, Mozart used musical motifs
from songs in the opera, in
order to
further prepare the audience for what was to come and,
as was quickly becoming more popular, to enable the overture to be
performed in a separately in a concert setting. The
overture to Don
Giovanni is,
in
fact, a good example of the changes made to the Overture
since it was established as a form. Startling
minor chords at the beginning foreshadow the end of the opera and
echo the opera’s subtitle, ‘The
immoralist punished’,
while
conforming to a convention of opera
buffa
at
the time: the finale of the second act would be composed in the same
key as the overture. The
minor
tonality also matches the resolution of the plot, when Don Giovanni
is led away to Hell to burn for his sins. The
second section fits with the model of the Italian
Overture,
with a more upbeat tempo and is in D major, while the third and final
section (or the coda) sets up the key of the first musical number and
modulates to the dominant just in time for the curtain to rise. Here
we can see Gluck’s idea about linking the overture to the plot of
the opera in action; Mozart clearly makes musical references to parts
of the plot whilst preparing the audience for the action in the first
scene,
a huge change from the unrelated two-section overtures on the 17th
Century.

The
use of thematic material in an overture became hugely successful,
especially in France at the beginning of the 19th
Century. Two
French composers,
Daniel Auber and François Boieldieu, were particularly famed for
this, and the nickname ‘pot-pourri overture’ was coined for this
type of overture. The ‘pot-pourri overture’ began to be used most
commonly in musical comedies and operettas, as it
was
seen as a
‘lighter’ form of overture. Meanwhile
in Italy, the overture carried a lot less weight, and was seen just
as a way to impress the audience before the beginning of the opera
and no more. Rossini would often use the same overture for multiple
operas, as
it wasn’t worth composing new material for something of that
importance. At
the end of the 18th
Century, the opera overture still had the title of ‘sinfonia’ and
was a prelude to the rest of the opera. Over the course of the next
century, the
form and style of the overture advanced along with the development of
new musical conventions. In order to demonstrate the differences that
occurred we will be briefly comparing two overtures that were
composed thirty-four years apart; The
Barber of Seville by
Giovanni Paisiello, and Il
Barbiere di Siviglia by
Gioachino Rossini. Both of these operas were based
on the same libretto (although not entirely the same) and Rossini’s
setting has become a firm favourite of the opera community. However,
it is their differences that we are interested in, and without
further ado let’s begin. Paisiello’s overture begins with a
lively theme, propelled by staccato quaver octaves and arpeggios in
the continuo parts.
The
theme rises in pitch and dynamic, inducing excitement in the
listener. But Paisiello goes against the usual structure, and instead
of the usual ‘sonata form’ order, the ‘development’ section
comes in the middle of the ‘recapitulation’ section,
surprising the audience. Rossini’s
overture to ‘Il
Barbiere di Siviglia’
was
originally written for ‘Aureliano
in Palmira’, one
of Rossini’s ‘flops’. However,
during the composition of Il
Barbiere
he felt the overture was never brought the justice it deserved and
decided
to adapt it for Il
Barbiere di Siviglia,
which is now one of the most popular opera overtures of all time.
This
overture is
a stark contrast to that of Paisiello as it begins with a long and
slow introduction, reminiscent of the
dramatic beginning to
Mozart’s Don
Giovanni that
we discussed earlier. However, Rossini’s overture is much more
elaborate in structure than
Paisiello’s,
as the introduction itself is composed in ternary form which is then
followed by a much livelier main section in binary form and finished
by
Rossini’s trademark codetta. In
fact, Rossini was so well-known for using the codetta to increase the
excitement before the opening of the curtain, that the term “Rossini
crescendo” was used to describe the immense tutti crescendo while a
short melodic motif is repeated rising higher and higher over a tonic
to dominant bassline.
In
comparison to the Paisiello overture, this is one of much larger
scale and embellishment which demonstrates the difference that those
thirty-four years made in the evolution of the opera overture.