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Catherine Bott picks some of the most important, interesting and entertaining overtures, which have preceded the curtain rising on operas, plays and even movies.
The opera Euridice was written by Jacopo Peri in 1600 for the marriage of King Henry IV of France to Maria de Medici. It is the earliest opera to have survived to the present day. Even that far back, Peri opens with a brief instrumental prologue.
As a musical form, the French overture first appears in the court ballet and operatic overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully which he elaborated from a similar, two-section form called Ouverture, found in the French ballets de cour as early as 1640. This French overture consists of a slow introduction followed by a lively movement.
The French ouverture style was also used in English opera, most notably in Henry Purcell's 1688 work, Dido and Aeneas. Its distinctive rhythm and function led to the French overture style as found in the works of late Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach.
Handel also unusually used the French overture style in some of his Italian operas, including Giulio Cesare in Egitto – Julius Caesar in Egypt – written in 1724.
Italian overtures often detached from their operas and played as independent concert pieces became important to the early history of the symphony. Such was the case for Mozart’s overture to his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Similar to the later Magic Flute overture, this one opens quietly and is then interrupted by loud passages similar to the Turkish military band music later in the opera.
In 19th-century opera the overture, Vorspiel, Einleitung or Introduction became clearly defined as the music which takes place before the curtain rises. Richard Wagner's Vorspiel – or Prelude – to Lohengrin is a short self-contained movement founded on the music of the Grail later in the opera. Photo: Bill Cooper
Although by the end of the 18th century opera overtures were already beginning to be performed as separate items in the concert hall, the "concert overture", intended specifically as an individual piece without reference to stage performance and generally based on some literary theme, began to appear early in the Romantic era. This 1826 overture by Mendelssohn is generally regarded as the first concert overture.
A 20th-century parody of the late 19th century concert overture, scored for an enormous orchestra with organ, additional brass instruments, and obbligato parts for four rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners (two uprights in B♭, one horizontal with detachable sucker in C), and an electric floor polisher in E♭; it is dedicated to President Hoover!
Even films get overtures sometimes. Lawrence of Arabia was composed by the then relatively unknown Maurice Jarre in just six weeks, after both William Walton and Malcolm Arnold had proved unavailable. Jarre won his first Oscar for the music which is now considered one of the greatest movie scores of all time.