Etymologically unambiguous, the word Overture originallysignifies an opening, an introductory piece of music preceding an opera,ballet, play or concert suite. It assumed other meanings, notably in thenineteenth century with the development of the concert overture, an independentorchestral 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 dottedrhythm opening and following fugal section, and the Italian three-movement 'symphonybefore the opera', the origin of the later classical symphony. The famous overturesincluded in the present collection include only two concert overtures, Mendelssohn'sThe Hebrides and the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms. The otherovertures 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 writtenfor Vienna in 1786, a significant commission for a non-Italian composer. Thelibretto by Lorenzo da Ponte was based on the second of the Figaro trilogy bythe French playwright Beaumarchais, a work that had proved controversial in Parisand in other hands might have seemed to have its dangers in Vienna, as theFrench revolution drew nearer. The plot deals with the outwitting of Count Almavivaby his servant Figaro, ending happily in the reconciliation of Count and Countessand of Figaro and his Susanna. The Overture provides a sparkling introduction, leadingto an opening scene in which Figaro measures out the room, conveniently nearthe Count's own quarters, which he is to share with his bride Susanna.
Goethe completed his play Egmont in 1787, afterwriting and revisions that had occupied him intermittently for some twelveyears. Count Egmont is involved in the religious and political conflicts of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, his opposition to the Duke of Albaending with his death. The original production by Schiller at the Court Theatrein Weimar, for which various changes and cuts had been made in the text, wasunsuccessful. The play was to be revived in Vienna in 1810 with Goethe's fulltext and with music by Beethoven, starting with the Overture, a work in whichsome have heard the severity of the Spanish viceroy contrasted with thepleading of the Netherlanders. Hoffmann had preferred to find here a first subjectrepresenting 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 givenwide 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 thensailed for 1ona on the Ben Lomond, going on shore on Staffa, with itsremarkable 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 experienceson Staffa in some degree of tranquillity, to produce the new Overture, finally,after various revisions, completed in 1832. The music has grandeur and momentsof calm, but is said to have been inspired rather by Mull, the origin of theearlier title The Lonely Island, than by Staffa, and Fingal's cave, atitle preferred by the first publisher.
The careful Handel had rejected the offer of an honorarydegree at Oxford, although he had profited very considerably from a visit tothe University. Haydn, sixty years later, accepted his degree, althoughreluctant at the expense incurred. Cambridge University, indignantly rejectedby Handel, had hoped to award doctorates to Brahms and to Verdi in 1893, buthad to fall back on Saint-Saens, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Boito and Bruch, an ironythat would have pleased Brahms himself. Cambridge had attempted in 1876 to enticeBrahms over the Channel, but he resolutely refused the journey, althoughpleased at the honour intended. In 1879, however, the University of Breslau hadconferred a doctorate on him, an honour he gratefully acknowledged on apostcard. It was tactfully pointed out that a more tangible and musicalexpression of thanks was expected, and this took the form of the AcademicFestival Overture, written during a summer holiday at Bad 1schl and first performedin Breslau in 1881. The Overture makes use of student songs, culminating in Gaudeamusigitur (Let us then rejoice).
Partisan support, and the tactlessnes of one against theself-centred egotism of the other, caused a rift between Brahms and his oldercontemporary Richard Wagner .While Brahms was seen by his friends to continuethe tradition of Beethoven in Vienna, Wagner, self-appointed successor toBeethoven, sought to find the new music of the future in his massivemusic-dramas. Tannhauser was first performed in Dresden in 1845 anddeals with the medieval Minnesinger of the title, the worldly temptation towhich he is subject and his final redemption. The Prelude, which makes use of anumber of motifs of importance in what follows, starts with the music ofsalvation, associated with pilgrims returning from Rome, and the repentancemotif. This is followed by music associated with the Venusberg, the realm ofVenus in the Horsel Mountain, where pagan desire rules. The love grotto of Venusmusic is heard before the pilgrims' chorus motifs return, leading, at least inthe 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 otherstudies, embarked on a musical career. From 1840 he was associated with theTheater 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, insuccession, at the Kaitheater and at the Carltheater. It was at this last thathis comic operetta Light Cavalry was first staged in 1866, introduced bya fanfare, leading to music of the expected sparkle and brilliance.
The world of operetta in Paris was long dominated byJacques Offenbach, son of a Cologne cantor and an early virtuoso cellist. Hiscomic Orpheus in the Underworld of 1848 satirises both the society ofhis 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 landof the living, had he not looked round to see if she followed. The operetta includesmusical parody, notably of Cluck's opera on the same subject, and finds in Orpheusand Eurydice a couple glad to be rid of each other, were it not for theintervention of a personified Public Opinion. The Overture includes some of thebest known melodies from the operetta, with i