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Famous Overtures

Famous Overtures


Etymologically unambiguous, the word Overture originally signifies an opening, an introductory piece of music preceding an opera, ballet, play or concert suite. It assumed other meanings, notably in the nineteenth century with the development of the concert overture, an independent orchestral piece that was complete in itself, leading to nothing in particular. In earlier times, notably in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, two forms of introductory overture were developed, the French, with a solemn dotted rhythm opening and following fugal section, and the Italian three-movement 'symphony before the opera', the origin of the later classical symphony. The famous overtures included in the present collection include only two concert overtures, Mendelssohn's The Hebrides and the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms. The other overtures here are preludes either to operas or, in the case of Beethoven's Egmont overture, to a play.


Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro was written for Vienna in 1786, a significant commission for a non-Italian composer. The libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte was based on the second of the Figaro trilogy by the French playwright Beaumarchais, a work that had proved controversial in Paris and in other hands might have seemed to have its dangers in Vienna, as the French revolution drew nearer. The plot deals with the outwitting of Count Almaviva by his servant Figaro, ending happily in the reconciliation of Count and Countess and of Figaro and his Susanna. The Overture provides a sparkling introduction, leading to an opening scene in which Figaro measures out the room, conveniently near the Count's own quarters, which he is to share with his bride Susanna.


Goethe completed his play Egmont in 1787, after writing and revisions that had occupied him intermittently for some twelve years. Count Egmont is involved in the religious and political conflicts of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, his opposition to the Duke of Alba ending with his death. The original production by Schiller at the Court Theatre in Weimar, for which various changes and cuts had been made in the text, was unsuccessful. The play was to be revived in Vienna in 1810 with Goethe's full text and with music by Beethoven, starting with the Overture, a work in which some have heard the severity of the Spanish viceroy contrasted with the pleading of the Netherlanders. Hoffmann had preferred to find here a first subject representing the hero Egmont and a second representing his beloved Klarchen, who took poison having failed to rouse popular rebellion to release her lover.


Scotland exercised a continuing fascination over romantic Europe, geographically remote and exotic, with a history and legends given wide currency through its ballads and through the writing of Sir Walter Scott. Felix Mendelssohn visited Scotland in 1829 with his friend Carl Klingemann, impressed by Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh and admiring the wild scenery of the Highlands. They travelled by paddle-steamer on the newly opened Caledonian Canal and then sailed for 1ona on the Ben Lomond, going on shore on Staffa, with its remarkable basalt rock formations. Mendelssohn was no sailor and it was at Tobermory, before his excursion into the rough Atlantic and the consequent gastric disturbance, that he jotted down the familiar theme of his Overture, The Hebrides. No doubt calmer memories of his voyage enabled him to recollect his experiences on Staffa in some degree of tranquillity, to produce the new Overture, finally, after various revisions, completed in 1832. The music has grandeur and moments of calm, but is said to have been inspired rather by Mull, the origin of the earlier title The Lonely Island, than by Staffa, and Fingal's cave, a title preferred by the first publisher.


The careful Handel had rejected the offer of an honorary degree at Oxford, although he had profited very considerably from a visit to the University. Haydn, sixty years later, accepted his degree, although reluctant at the expense incurred. Cambridge University, indignantly rejected by Handel, had hoped to award doctorates to Brahms and to Verdi in 1893, but had to fall back on Saint-Saens, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Boito and Bruch, an irony that would have pleased Brahms himself. Cambridge had attempted in 1876 to entice Brahms over the Channel, but he resolutely refused the journey, although pleased at the honour intended. In 1879, however, the University of Breslau had conferred a doctorate on him, an honour he gratefully acknowledged on a postcard. It was tactfully pointed out that a more tangible and musical expression of thanks was expected, and this took the form of the Academic Festival Overture, written during a summer holiday at Bad 1schl and first performed in Breslau in 1881. The Overture makes use of student songs, culminating in Gaudeamus igitur (Let us then rejoice).


Partisan support, and the tactlessnes of one against the self-centred egotism of the other, caused a rift between Brahms and his older contemporary Richard Wagner .While Brahms was seen by his friends to continue the tradition of Beethoven in Vienna, Wagner, self-appointed successor to Beethoven, sought to find the new music of the future in his massive music-dramas. Tannhauser was first performed in Dresden in 1845 and deals with the medieval Minnesinger of the title, the worldly temptation to which he is subject and his final redemption. The Prelude, which makes use of a number of motifs of importance in what follows, starts with the music of salvation, associated with pilgrims returning from Rome, and the repentance motif. This is followed by music associated with the Venusberg, the realm of Venus in the Horsel Mountain, where pagan desire rules. The love grotto of Venus music is heard before the pilgrims' chorus motifs return, leading, at least in the later version for Paris, into a Bacchanale of worldly delights.


Franz von Suppe, born in the Dalmatian town of Spalato (the modem Split), moved with his mother to Vienna, her native city, in 1835, after the death of his father, and there, after attempts at various other studies, embarked on a musical career. From 1840 he was associated with the Theater in der Josefstadt and worked for some years in Pressburg (the modem Bratislava), before establishing himself at the Vienna Theater an der Wien and then, in succession, at the Kaitheater and at the Carltheater. It was at this last that his comic operetta Light Cavalry was first staged in 1866, introduced by a fanfare, leading to music of the expected sparkle and brilliance.


The world of operetta in Paris was long dominated by Jacques Offenbach, son of a Cologne cantor and an early virtuoso cellist. His comic Orpheus in the Underworld of 1848 satirises both the society of his own time and the ancient legend of Orpheus, who, by the power of his music, was allowed to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the Underworld to the land of the living, had he not looked round to see if she followed. The operetta includes musical parody, notably of Cluck's opera on the same subject, and finds in Orpheus and Eurydice a couple glad to be rid of each other, were it not for the intervention of a personified Public Opinion. The Overture includes some of the best known melodies from the operetta, with its famous can-can for the Blessed Spirits below.


Paris, from the 1820s, had found in Rossini a composer to its taste. He had established himself at an early age in Italy, but moved to Paris, where, had it not been for the political changes of 1830, he might have undertaken yet more. The Thieving Magpie, first staged in Milan in 1817, reveals the nature of the plot in the title. A servant-girl is accused of theft and imprisoned, but later exonerated when the true culprit is discovered. The Overture opens with a drum-roll and a military march and makes use of the pathos of the heroine's music from the prison scene in one of the composer's most impelling dramatic introductions.


From the 1840s, when he had won success in Milan with Nabucco, it was Ciuseppe Verdi who held the operatic stage in Italy. The Force of Destiny, based on a Spanish drama, was first staged in 1862 in St Petersburg. It is based on a rambling story of love and vengeance, with the hero Don Alvaro, having killed the father of his beloved Leonora, the subject of the revenge of her brother Don Carlo, matters complicated by the failure of one man to recognise the other and by the assumption of a monastic habit by Don Alvaro and of a hermit's robes by Leonora. The Overture is exciting in what it threatens, making use of themes to be heard later in the opera. It starts with the short Fate motif, followed by a theme that remains dominant, with a following medley of thematic material.


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