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An Overture (of French ouverture , Opening ') is a work of instrumental music , the opening of stage works ( opera , ballet or dance suite , drama ), major vocal works ( cantata , oratorio ) or generally serves as a prelude to a concert program.


Since the end of the 16th century, instrumental introductions to dance and theater events have been documented, which are named very differently ( Toccata , Sonata, Sinfonia ). Often they only consist of a short fanfare . Pieces made up of two movements with different tempo have prevailed since the 17th century . This could be followed by a third sentence. In the French-speaking area they are often called Entrée , in Italian Sinfonia . Around 1800 the term overture became popular (although the term sinfonia as an overture in Italian remains common).

As far as its formal structure is concerned, the story of the overture is related to the sonata and the symphony . In the 18th century, the French and Italian overtures predominate as types. The history of the development of the Italian overture is related to the concerto grosso and the pre-classical symphony, from which the classical symphony ultimately developed.

A work of Johann Sebastian Bach of this genre is the First Brandenburg Concerto in its early form, i.e. without the third movement added later. Bach simply gave his four works of this genre the title of the opening movement, "Overture", without a title for the entire composition. This is why his orchestral suites (and other late Baroque suites ) are now often referred to as “overtures”.

Around 1800 the division into French and Italian overtures dissolves, and the overtures either have a sonata form or are composed of themes from the subsequent opera, so that they can be close to the program music. Since the end of the 19th century, the longer overtures have often been given up and give way to a short prelude.

to form

French overture with its typical three-part form:

  • solemn introductory part with dotted rhythms
  • fast, fugal middle section
  • Closing part based on the first part

Italian overture also in a three-part form

  • fast introductory part, often held in concert
  • slow, arioso middle section
  • Dance, often based on the first part


  • The opera overture is an instrumental introductory piece to an opera , which is usually played with the curtains still closed. In the overture, the tenor of the work and often also essential elements of the plot as well as prominent character traits of the characters are presented musically. Sometimes it is important to show the way to the first scene musically ( Rameau , Gluck ). A variant of the opera overture is the potpourri overture , which is particularly common in operettas . The most important melodies from the opera or operetta are mixed together (a typical example is the overture to the operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss (son) ).
  • The concert overture is a smaller orchestral piece, composed especially for use in orchestral concerts (without reference to an opera). It usually takes the form of a rapid sonata movement with a slow introduction in front. Often these overtures also have a programmatic background (Mendelssohn: The Hebrides ) or were composed for a celebration (Beethoven: On the Consecration of the House , Brahms: Academic Festival Overture ).


  • Riemann Musik Lexikon , Sachteil, Schott, Mainz 1967, pp. 696–697

Web links

Wiktionary: Overture  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. See for example Adalbert Quadt (ed.): Guitar music of the 16th – 18th centuries. Century. 4 volumes. Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1970–1984, Volume 3, pp. 33–35 (suite by an anonymous composer around 1700, beginning with the overture, followed by an Allegro and an Adagio part).