Francis Poulenc was part of a prominent group of early 20th-century French composers dubbed “Les Six.” A self-taught composer, his music is unconventional, with understated wit and simplicity. In 1918, while serving in the French army, he wrote a four-hand sonata for piano which was premiered in 1919 and revised in 1939. Darius Milhaud (also a member of “Les Six”) was much taken by Poulenc’s sonata, and orchestrated the last movement for a concert he conducted in 1923 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It is a short, playful work. As a contemporary reviewer put, “High spirits, wit and animal grace break out of the merry brass in the ‘Overture.’”

Overture to “The Magic Flute”

Overture to “The Magic Flute”

This delightful overture is the precursor to Mozart’s last opera, and indeed one of his last compositions. It opens with three grand chords and a slow adagio evoking the high priest Sarastro and his attendants. A lively allegro, built on four repeated notes, is taken up in turn by strings, winds and brass.

The overture’s contrasting elements, by turns grandiose and playful, make a perfect introduction to the opera which also embodies them.

“Tragic” Overture

“Tragic” Overture

Johannes Brahms composed The Tragic Overture, Op 81 in the fall of 1880 as a companion to the Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 written a few months earlier. In a letter to Karl Reinecke, Brahms wrote: “one [overture] weeps while the other laughs”.

According to the writer and music critic Max Kalbeck, the Tragic Overture was inspired by Goethe’s Faust for which Brahms is said to have intended to write incidental music (a claim denied by the composer). The dramatic and contrasting character of the two main themes of the overture is more than evident and the themes’ very individual and character-like qualities support Kalbeck’s claim.

The formal organization of the overture also seems to support Kalbeck’s theory. The two main themes are both “square” with their 8-measure structure and both have their preliminary development in the exposition. The development section is designed as a separate section with its own austere (Molto Piu Moderato) character. It borrows material from the first theme of the exposition, but is reshaped in a completely different manner. Another interesting moment in the overture is the beginning of the recapitulation where the first theme is omitted in favor of a differently orchestrated second theme.

The overture ends in a manner similar to the ending of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony – a deceptive retreat, followed by sudden intensity.

“Coriolan” Overture

“Coriolan” Overture

Beethoven was a great admirer of Shakespeare’s plays, and according to the composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler, planned to compose an opera based on Macbeth. Unfortunately, such a plan never materialized and aside from Schindler’s unreliable testimony, there is no evidence of any Shakespearean influence on this work. When Beethoven chose the story of Coriolanus as a subject for his overture, he turned instead to the play of his contemporary, Heinrich Joseph von Collin.

The overture was written in 1807 and premiered the same year in the residence of Prince Lobkowsky in Vienna. The overture depicts a specific moment from the tragic story of the Roman general Coriolanus — the moment when his mother tries to convince him to return to Rome, even though the city has cast him out as a traitor.

The overture begins with powerful and decisive unison in the strings, followed, in the third measure, by an explosive eruption of the entire orchestra. This motive is repeated many times during the course of the overture, clearly symbolizing the heroic nature of the protagonist. After the heroic first subject, Beethoven introduces a theme closely associated with the image of the young general’s mother.

While the first subject of Coriolan is in C minor (Beethoven’s most tragic key), the second subject is in E-flat major, picturing the inner world of a loving mother. This C minor/E-flat major key relation is one that Beethoven had used a few years earlier in his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”. There, the second movement is a funeral march in C minor, and is surrounded by three movements in E-flat major.

A striking similarity between the ending of the “Eroica’s” funeral march and the Coriolan’s ending is the way in which the musical texture breaks apart. It seems as if there is no gravity anymore or, according to the tragedy, no point in living anymore. Thus, Coriolan stabs himself to death as the only way to reconcile honor, false betrayal and a son’s love.

“William Tell” Overture

Rossini composed this overture for his 1829 tragic opera William Tell (his last opera before a 40-year retirement). The opera is based on the story of William Tell, the Swiss crossbowman who shot an apple off of his son’s head, and sparked an uprising against Austria that led to Swiss independence in the 14th century.

The overture is one of the most recognizable classical works ever composed, due to its use in many non-classical contexts in television and film. The work is in four sections, and can be viewed as almost a mini-tone poem.

It starts with a sunrise scene, played by solo ‘cellos and basses. The second section depicts a sudden Alpine storm (reminiscent of the storm on the lake which enabled Tell to escape his Austrian captors). The third section evokes a bucolic Swiss mountain scene, complete with birds and lyricism. The concluding section is a quick march – the return of the victorious Swiss from their campaign against the Austrians – but modern popular culture has attached a quite different type of hero to it.

The Hebrides Overture

The Hebrides Overture

The Hebrides are probably the best-known group of Scottish islands off the west coast of Scotland. They are composed of the oldest rock formations in the British Isles. Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa is the most famous of all the caves. Nowhere else is there a sea-cave formed completely in hexagonally-jointed basalt. The size, sounds, colors, and remarkable symmetry of this 227-foot cavern is viewed by a natural crude walkway that allows exploring visitors to go far inside. The impact of the cave on all those who enter it is likely to be remembered for life.

In the 1800’s it was common for wealthy young men to undertake a “Grand Tour” of Europe to gain perspective on life. Felix Mendelssohn, being from a wealthy family, went on such a tour. His tour lasted four years and took him through most of the major countries and cities of the time. During his travels he went to Scotland, where he visited the Hebrides and the renowned Fingal’s Cave with his friend Klingemann. In order to see the rock formations, they set out on the newly introduced paddle steamer service. The sea was wild, the weather bad, and all the passengers were ill. Here Klingemann tells of the adventures at Staffa:

“We were put out into boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the celebrated Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide gray sea within and without.”

With conditions such, Mendelssohn can hardly have enjoyed seeing Fingal’s Cave since he was so seasick. However the visit to Staffa, and the sight and sound of the Atlantic swell tumbling into the cave, made a profound impression on him. Tremendously affected by the loneliness and beauty of this immense place, he quickly wrote down what would later become the opening notes of an overture. The most striking aspect of this overture was its successful tone-painting. Mendelssohn portrays overcast skies, gray seas, and barren a landscape. We can hear the breaking of the waves, almost see the basalt columns and strange colors, and above all, experience the overwhelming vastness of the cavern.

Mendelssohn worked on this composition for many years fine tuning his musical decisions. He wanted the listener to be immersed in the experience, just as he had been when he viewed the cave. Among the numerous sketches, four complete versions with distinct titles exist of this work: The Hebrides Overture (1829), Overture to the Solitary Island (Die einsame Insel) (1830), The Isle of Fingal (1832), and Fingal’s Cave (Fingalshöhle) (1835).

“La Cenerentola” Overture

“La Cenerentola” Overture

Rossini composed his opera based on the Cinderella story in 1817, one year after writing the Barber of Seville, at the age of 25. Rossini “borrowed” the music for this overture from one of his unperformed operas – standard practice at the time – and it works remarkably well in this context.

As with most Rossini overtures, it opens with a slow section in which one can almost imagine the scolding stepmother and the heroine scrubbing the floors. The following allegro is light and lively. It prominently features the winds (particularly the clarinet, his favorite instrument), as well as two versions of the famous long “Rossini crescendo” presaging a happy ending to the story.

Overture in Bb Major

Schubert wrote the Overture in B flat in 1816. By this time, he had already written four symphonies and several other overtures.

Schubert was a good violinist as well as pianist and held a principal position in his school orchestra in Vienna. Legend has it that the orchestra would rehearse every night with the windows of their rehearsal room open, stopping traffic as the Viennese would pause to listen.

That Schubert was steeped in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, one of which the school orchestra would play every night, is apparent in both the style of Schubert’s writing, as well as his deep knowledge of the capabilities of the orchestra. Even though this lineage is readily apparent, one can also already detect Schubert’s individuality, in his ever warm mood, and particularly in his presentation of themes in even more remote keys than was usually practiced before.

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