We tend to associate the word overture with opera because the two have existed side by side for the last four hundred years. The word looks slightly French which is not surprising, because it is. It means “opening” and it’s used to describe the orchestral introduction to an opera. Even the earliest known opera, written in the late 1590s by the Italian singer-composer Jacopo Peri is preceded by a short instrumental section.
The custom continued through the history of opera. Perhaps the original idea was to give the audience sufficient time to shuffle around and settle down before the serious stuff began. The notion of introductory music also crept into the movie industry but served a different purpose: to provide an appropriate mood setting during the opening credits.
By the end of the eighteenth century, popular opera overtures were often played as separate items in the concert hall. Not long afterwards, the so-called concert overture began to appear. It was intended not as an introduction to an opera but as a stand-alone piece, often played at the beginning of a concert.
The word overture was adopted possibly because no one felt the need for an alternative. Many of these concert overtures were based on literary themes and although Weber wrote a couple of them, it’s generally assumed that the first genuine concert overture was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) by the seventeen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn derived of course by Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Mendelssohn went on to write several other notable concert overtures such as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828) and The Hebrides (1830) inspired by his visit to the Scottish island of Staffa in the summer of the previous year.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the concert overture was firmly established and remained a favourite among composers for generations. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture springs to mind as does Tchaikovsky’s old pot-boiler, the 1812 Overture. The twentieth century saw the appearance of countless others including Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Walton’s Portsmouth Point.
Incidentally, Malcolm Arnold wrote A Grand, Grand Overture in 1956 which is a hilariously vulgar spoof on the heroic concert overtures of the late nineteenth century. It’s scored for an enormous orchestra with organ, three Hoover vacuum cleaners, an electric floor polisher and four rifles. In contrast, these two lively overtures are operatic overtures but they’ve become popular concert pieces in their own right.
Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987): Overture to Colas Breugnon. New England Conservatory Philharmonia cond. Andrew Litton (Duration: 05:42; Video: 1080p HD)
This was the first piece I heard through a pair of stereo headphones when I was about twenty-two. It sounded wonderful at the time and still sounds a fresh as ever. The sizzling opening section is tricky to bring off successfully and there are several other recordings on YouTube in which the ensemble is all over the place. Not so with these students from the New England Conservatory who give a thoroughly professional performance.
Kabalevsky was a prolific composer of piano music and made a significant impact on Russian music education. Like Glinka, little of his work is known in the West with the exception perhaps of the Third Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. This really is a shame for he wrote some wonderful works including four piano concertos and four symphonies. This overture is from his three-act opera Colas Breugnon, written between 1936 and 1938 and based on a novel by the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic, Romain Rolland.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Overture to Candide. Symphony Orchestra of Galicia cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 04:41; Video: 480p)
In case you’d forgotten (or possible never knew) Galicia is an autonomous community in Spain which lies in the farthest north-west corner of the country just north of Portugal. Go any further north-west and you’d be sloshing about in the Atlantic Ocean. The orchestra, under the distinguished American conductor gives a superb performance of this Bernstein classic and I enjoyed it more than that the famous one by Bernstein himself with the London Symphony.
Perhaps best known for his opera West Side Story, Bernstein was also an author, music lecturer, and brilliant pianist. Music critic Donal Henahan, claimed that Bernstein was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” His operetta Candide was first performed in 1956 and based on the novella of the same name written almost exactly two hundred years earlier by the French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire.
The overture is a lively and engaging work with a catchy opening theme which gives way to a passionate melody (01:24) that recurs triumphantly later in the work. This theme has a wonderfully fluid quality produced by using alternate bars of two and three beats. The overture combines energy, delight, passion and vulgarity and the exciting Rossini-style crescendo (04:57) drives this heart-warming work to a satisfying conclusion.