We somehow owe it to ourselves to contemplate the useful word sinfonia, one that once denoted the overture to an opera and suggested a pleasing combination of sounds. So yes—the term that denotes the tradition of symphony is derived from another musical convention which we think of as not symphonic, but rather related to opera. Going all the way back to Monteverdi, there was a distinction between vocal music and instrumental music, the former preceding the latter. If we consider how long it took for Beethoven’s symphonies to be played in Italy (more than a generation after the composer’s death), we can see how fixated Italy was on vocal and operatic presentations. Here musical distinctions reflect broader cultural ones, as Milan is contrasted with Vienna.
So the qualities of symphonic construction and even the sonata form have their beginnings in the conventions of opera. The projection of contrasting first and second subjects in sonata form was probably influenced by operatic tradition and the contrasts of female and male characters and voice-types. The struggle in sonata form seems to be an abstraction of other conflicts that were acted out onstage. Outstanding music recapitulates more than its themes—it seems also to re-enact musical evolution. And in that evolution, the overture became the sinfonia, and the overture became an independent entity, a concert overture detached from opera, even achieving the status of a tone poem.
At the height of its original function, the overture served Mozart well, the overture to Don Giovanni being only one example. A few years later, Beethoven was ringing in the changes, even as Rossini was at the top of his form. I suppose that as far as the operatic overture is concerned, Rossini is the one we think of immediately, and rightly so. Gatherings of his overtures are necessary, and in some sense, his most famous one, having nothing to do with the Lone Ranger, is his best or at least his most recognizable. And we would have to say that the overture to Guillaume Tell, with all its scene-painting and episodes, is a nod in the direction of the symphony (being a sinfonia), and also a tone poem if ever there was one. Did Berlioz have it in mind when he wrote his Symphonie fantastique of 1830? The Ranz des vaches of the one seems to be reflected in the Scène aux champs in the other.
But I am getting ahead of myself, or at least ahead of Beethoven. Written for various reasons and purposes, his overtures stand alone, famously in the first, second, and third Leonore overtures that have often been presented as a group, though only on recordings, I hasten to add. Today, the third Leonore overture is probably and properly regarded as Beethoven’s best, but in its time it was thought of as harmonically disordered and challenging. Of course, other overtures of Beethoven are tense and symphonic in their own ways: the Egmont, the Coriolan, and so on. But we don’t have to deal with every one of Beethoven’s overtures. (I digress only momentarily to acknowledge such travesties as the “Leonore No. 4” of Sir Malcolm Arnold, and his Grand, Grand Overture as well—and yes, that is the title.)
Was Beethoven, in this environment, a bit uncomfortable and possibly even out of his element, as the schematics seem so arbitrary? The opposite is true for Rossini—his overtures are insinuating, teasing, amusing, and even thrilling. They are entertainment at its best, as they were then and still are today. There are so many good ones besides the most famous, starting with La gazza ladra. The late Carlo Maria Giu lini recorded an album of Rossini overtures years ago, one still valued today for its refusal of hurry and of incidental or reckless noise. Such elegance still sets those performances of Rossini overtures apart from the others.
But to go on in the unfolding of music history, in spite of Beethoven’s tense grasp and Rossini’s indulgent relaxation, there were other achievements in the construction of overtures in the new Romantic age. Some of these come from Carl Maria von Weber, such as the overtures to Euryanthe, Oberon, and Der Freischütz. The works were the markers of a new sensibility, and the point was made unmistakably. Their romantic color and anticipation are still powerful, even today. Liszt and Wagner, in their day, were well aware of the implications.
But if I had to identify the most outrageous of concert overtures, there is no doubt that the Roman Carnival Overture of Hector Berlioz is the most brilliant and effusive.
In my youth, I heard it for the first time in a live and aggressive performance, and I was swept off my feet. I also like very much the Berlioz Les francs-juges—an overture for an opera that was never written. Today, I think it’s telling that some of the best of Berlioz is to be found in his overtures. Another Romantic composer, and I think an underrated one, is Mendelssohn. His Hebrides or Fingal’s Cave overture is a memorable example of the overture as tone poem.
But of course we have to acknowledge the achievement of Wagner and Verdi in the operatic realm, different from each other as those composers are. And these men in their field dominated the last half of the 19th century, so we would expect some striking overtures from them; there will be no disappointment on that score—or in those scores. Several overtures by Wagner come to mind: The overture to Der fliegende Holländer is most exciting, inspired by stormy experience. The overture to Rienzi is revealingly Italianate in construction, showing how the younger Wagner oriented himself—he was for one thing quite fond of Bellini’s Norma. The overture to Tannhäuser is again an early work and a highly appealing one—Liszt’s monumental bar-for-bar piano transcription of it is a challenge to the virtuoso. The prelude to Die Meistersinger is a symphonically complex work such as had never been heard before. As Wagner developed, his radicalism led him to such things as the prelude to Parsifal, which opened up a new musical world.
Giuseppe Verdi was a peer of Wagner, and his astounding Falstaff has been called the best Wagnerian opera (and so has the Hansel und Gretel of Engelbert Humperdinck, who assisted Wagner; and I must insist that this Humperdinck is not the one who had a hit with “Please Release Me”). But the man Verdi was altogether unlike Wagner the man, and it is a relief to entertain imaginatively a man of such talent and integrity. My favorite Verdi overtures are the ones for I vespri siciliani and La forza del destino, but those are only two of several to be enjoyed.
In musical history and development, the overtures of Robert Schumann are not half so well-known as that composer’s piano music, songs, symphonies, and chamber music. Yet the Schumann overture trove is extensive and impressive: the Manfred (after Byron), the Genoveva, Hermann und Dorothea, the Julius Caesar, the Bride of Messina—and the title of the Overture, Scherzo and Finale itself expresses the relation which I have been suggesting all along, as here the overture or sinfonia is the first movement of a symphony.
The dissimilarly matched set of overtures by Johannes Brahms are notable perhaps by the reflection of the Tragic one back through Schumann to his model, Beethoven’s Coriolan. The other, the Academic Festival Overture, is a refreshing change that is humorous and youthful. These are a well-known pair—deservedly so. While we are in this vicinity, the overtures of Dvorák must be cited: the Carnival, the Hussite, and the Othello overtures pull us into the orbit of this “other Brahms.”
Looking further afield, we find not only more overtures but more extravagant uses of the term itself, as in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In this all-too-well-known example, the battle of the anthems is a struggle of the music—and now the term overture means whatever you like, including cannon fire. Of course, those Russians were capable of using the term in an ordinary sense, as in Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Lyud mila, and there are other Russian overtures of prime quality—even though today, “Russian overtures” often denote arms-control proposals, rather than musical opportunities. Still, there are Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture and Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, in the Russian school.
And late in the 19th century, there are such examples as Bizet’s overture to Carmen, not to mention Johann Strauss’s Overture to Die Fledermaus and the Donna Diana overture of Emil von Reznicek. As a child, I was moved by the Donna Diana because it was the theme song of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, as I heard it on the radio. Those were the days! You never know when beauty will strike, until it does.
But following history into the 20th century, we don’t find a preponderance of overtures. The one that comes to mind first is Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide, and unfortunately this is not only the most well-known overture of recent times, but also the one most often played and heard. It may even be the best, if it has much competition. I wouldn’t know, not being interested in Broadway shows or in other evidence of the decline of a civilization. But there are so many impressive overtures, not to mention symphonies and concerti, that we need only time for every opportunity to investigate and evaluate and even savor the music that rewards us most with the richest of satisfactions.