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Overture (from the French ouverture, meaning opening) in music is the instrumental introduction to a dramatic, choral or, occasionally, instrumental composition. During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the term to refer to instrumental, programmatic works that presaged genres such as the symphonic poem.



17th century

The idea of an instrumental opening to opera existed during the 17th century. Peri's Euridice opens with a brief instrumental ritornello, and Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) opens with a toccata, in this case a fanfare for muted trumpets. More important, however, was the Prologue, which comprised sung dialogue between allegorical characters which introduced the over-arching themes of the stories depicted.

French overture

As a musical form, however, the so-called French overture begins with the court ballet and operatic overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully (Waterman and Anthony 2001), which he elaborated from a similar, two-section form called Ouverture, found in the French ballets de cour as early as 1640 (Temperley 2001). This French overture consists of a slow introduction in a marked "dotted rhythm" (i.e., exaggerated iambic, if the first chord is disregarded), followed by a lively movement in fugato style. The overture was frequently followed by a series of dance tunes before the curtain rose, and would often return following the Prologue to introduce the action proper. This ouverture style was also used in English opera, most notably in Henry Purcell's Dido and ├ćneas. Its distinctive rhythmic profile and function thus led to the French overture style as found in the works of late Baroque composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach. The style is most often used in preludes to suites, and can be found in non-staged vocal works such as cantatas, for example in the opening chorus of Bach's cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61.

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