O is for Overture

I played the clarinet in concert bands from fifth grade through high school. We played many classical pieces that had the name overture in the title. So, it made me wonder, what’s an overture?

An overture is a prelude. An introduction to something more substantial. Kind of like the preliminary discussions that take place before the bigger negotiations. They also appear in many musical compositions of classical music.

What’s also interesting is what the inspiration was for these pieces to be composed. Was it based on a tune someone was humming? Or was it a song they had thought of in their own minds? It reminds me of the kinds of things that prompt authors to write the stories that they write. This music is then put with a play or an opera which adds that something extra to the story they are trying to tell.

Three famous overtures that come to mind are 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, William Tell Overture by Rossini, and The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart.

1812 Overture

Written in 1800 to commemorate Russia’s defense  against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armee in 1812. It debuted in Moscow in 1882 and Tchaikovsky actually directed it in 1891 at the dedication of Carnegie Hall. This overture is commonly used as the background music for fireworks displays.

William Tell Overture

This is the prelude to an opera based on the William Tell legend. The legend says that Tell, a local farmer and famous hunter, went to the market square of Altdorf with his son one day. In the town, a Hapsburg hat was hung on a pole by bailiff Gessler, agent of the Duke of Hapsburg. Anyone that passed by the pole was supposed to take off their hat, showing their respect to the ruling authority. William Tell kept his hat on as he walked by. Since this act was seen  as disrespectful, he was ordered to put an apple on his son’s head and shoot it off with one arrow from a distance of 120 paces. If he missed, both him and his son would be put to death. Tell winds up taking the apple off his son’s head with the arrow.

He had pulled out two arrows from his quiver. ne was for the apple, the other was going to be for Gessler if he had killed his son. Gessler was on his way to throw Tell in a dungeon for hs disrespect when he escaped. Tell later killed Gessler with an arrow which they say sparked a rebellion.

The Opera premiered in 1829 as the last of Rossini’s operas. It was also made popular as the theme music for the Lone Ranger on radio, television and film. The opera was originally one of the Nazi favorites until a 1941 assignation attempt on Hitler by a Swiss man changed their thoughts on that.

The Marriage of Figaro

This is a comic opera which continues the plot line started by the story of The Barber of Seville, only it is now several years later. The music was composed in 1786 and premiered with the opera on stage in Vienna on May 1, 1786.

It recounts a single day of madness in the palace of Count Almaviva near Seville, Spain.  Count Almaviva has degenerated from a romantic youth to a scheming, bullying and skirt chasing man. Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna conspire with the Countess to expose his scheming. Through some manipulation by Figaro and Susanna, the Count’s love for the Countess is restored.

Overtures are introductions to something more substantial. These three classical pieces were not only used as overtures but were also used as background music to make fireworks shows more dramatic, theme music for more contemporary entertainment, or simply just as the preludes to operas. But, they still remain memorable, some for reasons other than for what they were originally written for.

I remember playing classical music in concert band. Some of the pieces were overtures, some were marches and some were made of multiple styles in one piece. I have very fond memories of my clarinet playing days and the people who I played in band with.  Playing the music is what ultimately brought us together.

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