A History of the Overture and its Use in the Wind Band: An Annotated Guide to Selected Overtures Scored Originally for Wind Band

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A History of the Overture and its Use in the Wind Band

The term overture is be defined as "a piece of music of moderate length, either introducing a dramatic work or intended for concert performance" (Sadie, 1980). It may be a single or multi-movement composition preceding an opera, ballet or oratorio; a single movement prelude to a non-musical dramatic work; or a single movement concert piece detached from its original context intended to be performed alone (Peyser, 1986).

The overture grew out of 17th century baroque dramatic works which began with either a French ouverture, the word from which the term is derived, or an Italian overture (Sadie, 1980). Composers such as Lully, Purcell and Handel used the French overture which is in two sections, each marked with a repeat. The French overture begins with a slow homophonic section frequently using dotted rhythms often ending on a half cadence and then moves to a faster fugal or "quasi-fugal" section which usually makes a return to the slow tempo and rhythms of the first section (Stolba, 1998). The Italian overture, or sinfonia as it was sometimes called, was written in three movements which are fast-slow-fast in order, the finale often written in a dance like character (Peyser, 1986). By the eighteenth century, this type of overture prevailed for operas even in France with the first movement becoming longer and more elaborate. Sonata form was generally used and a slow introduction would often begin the work (Sadie, 1980). Due to the loose terminology of the eighteenth century, symphonies and suites were sometimes called overtures (Peyser, 1986). The slow-fast-slow alternation of tempos foreshadowed the order of movements in the Classical symphony, lacking only the menuetto. Some historians go as far as to say that the Italian opera overture served "as the true model for the symphony" (Cuyler, 1995).

By the mid to late eighteenth century, there came a tendency to drop the second and third movements of the overture as it split from the symphony. Mozart and Haydn both wrote their last three-movement overtures in the 1770’s with the remaining movement in many cases leading immediately into the first scene. A special ending had to be added for separate concert performance (Peyser, 1986). The repeat found at the end of the first movement exposition of a symphony is most often not present and the development section while modulatory, contains little or no thematic development (Sadie, 1980). Some composers such as Schubert or Rossini would "omit the ‘development’ altogether, as in Il barbiere di Sivigilla (Sadie, 1980). The style of a Mozart overture using, sonata form often with a slow introduction, became standard even until 1820 (Sadie, 1980). Overtures of this period would use few or no musical ideas of the main work it was introducing (Peyser, 1986).

Changes began to appear in the overture from the time of Beethoven and on. The notion of tying the overture in mood and theme became much more developed. While the formal structure changed very little, "Beethoven made powerful use of the dramatic motifs in his three Lenore overtures and Weber in Der Freischutz used almost every theme of the overture in important points in the opera "(Sadie, 1980). The French grand opera overture was expanded by adding a slow lyrical section preceding the loud fast conclusion. Eventually the prelude took the place of the overture in many cases as with composers such as Wagner, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. The overture survived longer in the comic opera and operetta with the structure based on themes from the drama which "became a mere medley of tunes, with perhaps a short final sonata form section as a link with the traditional form" (Sadie, 1980).

While the opera overture had faded as a type of new composition, many existing works found a means of survival as part of "concert repertory long after the theater work was long forgotten" (Sadie, 1980). Several endings had to be created to the Don Giovanni overture, the first by Mozart himself, in order for it to work as a concert piece. This is particularly true of works written for the spoken play such as Beethoven’s Coriolan which was played in concert before the performance in the theatre (Sadie, 1980). From this it was only a matter of time before the creation of the overture as an independent piece.

It was Beethoven who was the "first composer to write overtures for occasions that traditionally had called for symphonies: the emperor’s name day (Namensfier, 1815) and the opening of a theater (Die Weihe des Hauses, 1822)" (Peyser, 1986). Several of Beethoven’s overtures which were written for special purposes became standard concert works. Many German composers wrote one-movement overtures in the style of Mozart between 1805 and 1820 even without a title or one only naming the occasion for which it was written. This became the common style of the Romantic concert overture, written in traditional form bearing a "title of historical, poetic or pictoral character which the composer set out to illustrate" (Sadie, 1980).

Mendelssohn may be regarded by some "as the first true composer of concert overtures", many of which "are held in much higher esteem than most of his symphonies" (Sadie, 1980 and Peyser, 1986). A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hebrides are two of his more splendid works that capture the moods as well as the pictoral and programmatic effects that Mendelssohn aimed for in his overtures (Peyser, 1986). In these works, he took a well known form understood as a means of setting the mood for an opera and changed it ever so slightly to portray his personal feelings toward a specific work of art or nature, the result of which is a mood piece (Sadie, 1980).

Other composers followed his lead throughout the nineteenth century writing pieces that were inspired by drama and literature such as Wagner’s overture to Goethe’s Faust and Berlioz’s King Lear. Several overtures were written for particular events such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture and others being more evocative in a general way such as Brahms’s Tragic Overture (Peyser, 1986).

As Liszt’s symphonic poem began to rise in popularity in the 1850’s, the decline of the concert overture began (Sadie, 1980). By 1900, the overture was virtually irrelevant to what was occurring in European music; however, today it is still used in Broadway musicals, music written for festive occasions and as a concert opener (particularly in the genre of wind band literature).

The overture has achieved great success in the genre of wind band literature. While a detailed look at the growth of the wind band falls outside of the scope of this project, a brief description of the how the wind band has found its place in the history of music is necessary.

The wind instrument went through great development in the 1800’s as result of European composers using "full ‘families’ of wind instruments when writing for large orchestras" (Campeau, 1999). Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner helped to catapult the wind instrument to a new level in terms of usage in orchestral writing. This was also aided by Berlioz’s Grand Treastise on Instrumentation in 1844 (Fennell, 1954). As a result of the work of Blumel, Stoelzel, Bohehm, Klose, Buffet, Wieprecht, Heckel, Sax and others to create new instruments as well as to improve the mechanics of existing instruments, composers were able to create new sonorities as well as write more freely without worrying about technical facility (Fennell, 1954).

Due to the growth of wind instruments, wind bands were created mostly to provide music for specific occasions and needs, both military and civic. This makes the wind band quite different from the orchestra in the fact that the orchestra developed because of a demand for serious music (Goldman, 1961). The origins of the wind band as an artistic unit trace back to 1789 with the formation of the band of the National Guard in Paris. Made of 45 players, this group was the "first modern wind band, in terms of size, of function and of repertoire" (Goldman, 1961). In 1792 this group was dissolved, as was the fate of many other groups as time passed and it was not until approximately 1850 that the modern wind band as we know it was established. Prior to this composers such as Mendelssohn, Ponchielli, Weber, Rossini, Donizetti, Schubert, Beethoven, and others wrote marches or overtures for the smaller bands of their time. However, first rate composers did not become aware of the existence of the wind band as a medium of serious expression until after the beginning of the 20th century (Fennell, 1954). For some time, the band had only the march as its own indisputable musical genre, and perhaps the cornet solo (Goldman, 1961). These types of compositions are landmarks in the band repertory, but conductors, performers and listeners wanted more.

As the number and quality of bands in Europe and especially the United States grew, demands increased for a more serious repertory for the band. The overture found its place in the repertory of the wind band as a result of the many transcriptions that were written for the orchestral overtures of the nineteenth century. Composers often encouraged the transcriptions of their works for it helped to circulate them (http://www.grovemusic.com/grovemusic//article/section/4/407/40774.3.5.html). Many great works for the wind band have emerged as a result of these transcriptions.

As the number of pieces written specifically for the band grows larger each year, so do the number of overtures that exist for the band’s performance. This type of composition proves to work well in length and style for the band, as well as providing the composer a great vehicle for expression. The following pieces are overtures that were written or originally scored for wind band by the composer. They have all been selected from the National Band Association Selective Music List for Bands and grade levels indicated are those used in this list. These pieces are considered to be high quality literature, having been selected for use in Band Music Notes and the Teaching Music Through Performance in Band series as well as appearing on many other state and district music lists. This list represents only a fraction of the many great overtures that have been composed for the wind band.

Chester Overture for Band

William Schuman (1910-1992)

Grade 5

Duration: Approx. 6’15

Publisher: Theodore Presser, Co.

Completed in 1957, Chester is titled and crafted after the William Billings’ hymn and marching song which was popular during the American Revolution. Chester first appeared as the third movement to his orchestral work New England Triptych, but one month after the orchestral score was completed, Schuman used it again in the work for band commissioned by Pi Kappa Omicron. Rather than transcribe the orchestral score, Schuman wrote a new piece that was 50% longer (Brown, 1993).

The piece is written as a type of theme and variations. The hymn is presented as a chorale in four- voice harmony first by the woodwinds and secondly by the brass. Each phrase is clearly marked by a strong cadence and enhanced by timpani rolls giving drive into the next phrase while the brasses perform (Miles, 1998). Following the opening chorale, five variations and a coda using the melodic and motivic elements of the hymn finish the piece. The second section begins in the brasses with sharp staccato chords leading to a unison presentation of the melody by the woodwinds at a more rapid tempo than the opening. The melody is then fragmented amongst different voices of the band with each variation being treated differently harmonically and rhythmically (Turner, 1990). Schuman uses such techniques as rhythmic augmentation and bitonality in the five variations and coda. The plagal cadences used at the end of the coda reflect the spiritual nature of the source material and the creativity of the composer (Garofalo, 1992). The work requires rapid tonguing by the trumpets and woodwinds, good finger facility, superior tonal and tempo control, and rhythmic precision (in particular regards to the quarter note = 160 tempo of the second section) (Turner, 1990). Chester is consider by many to be a standard in the band repertory and is performed frequently by high school, college and professional groups.

Overture for Band, Op. 24

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)

Arr. John Boyd

Grade 5

Duration: Approx. 10’

Publisher: G. Shirmer

At the age of fifteen, Mendelssohn composed Overture in C Major, Op.24 in 1824 for the wind band at the seaside resort of Doberan (Smith and Stoutamire, 1989). Originally titled Noctorno, the score was lost but recopied in 1826 by the composer. He then completed a new version in 1838 for 23 winds and percussion and titled it Ouverture fur Harmoniemusik (Garofalo, 1992).

Richard Franko Goldman writes that this piece "is good, solid band music, the more interesting because we have so few examples of the sort from the pens of the great composers" (Goldman, 1961). The piece is modeled after the French Overture having two sections; slow (Andante) and fast (Allegro vivace) which is in sonata allegro form. The piece uses melodic and harmonic sequencing as well as melodic arpeggiation throughout and offers a few surprises such as the tonic seventh chord (C7) on the beginning of the coda (Garofalo, 1992). The keys of C major and its related keys are need for the entire ensemble. The basic rhythmic figures of quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes are used with ostinato rhythms used in the "Allegro Vivace". Phrasing and articulation are uniform with everyone needing to be able to play the contrasting styles of staccatos and accents versus tenutos and slurs. Rapid double tonguing is required for the brass players (Miles, 1997).

An Outdoor Overture

Aaron Copland

Grade 5

Approx. Length: 9’30

Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes

An Outdoor Overture was commissioned in 1937 by Alexander Richter, director of the New York High School of Music and Art, as part of a campaign entitled "American Music for American Youth". In his commission, Richter requested "a single-movement composition, somewhere between five and ten minutes in length....rather optimistic in tone, that would appeal to the adolescent youth of this country" (Clarys). Copland found the idea so irresistible that he stopped work on Billy the Kid in order to complete this work. The work in its version for orchestra was premiered on December 16, 1938 and then set for band by Copland in 1941 at the request of Edwin Franko Goldman (Clarys). The word "outdoor" in the title "stems from the style of spacious chord writing, implying that very high and low sonorities are present throughout" (Smith and Stoutamire, 1989).

Copland’s writing in the 1920’s was somewhat obscure; tonal but boldly so, using complex and often harsh sonorities, and rhythms associated with jazz and Stravinsky. In the late 1930’s, he progressed to more diatonic melodies and simplified counterpoint. Parkany writes that "the rhythmic vitality, widely spaced textures, and hints of bitonality of his earlier style still remain, to make his music more accessible, yet still distinctive" (Smith and Stoutamire, 1989). Since this piece was written for young people, for it to be accessible was important to Copland making this piece a key link to his new style of writing which put a good deal of importance on this piece in terms of its place in music in America during the 1900’s.

Copland scored An Outdoor overture for the expanded concert band of the 1940’s. The piece requires a good trumpet section and soloist. Clarinet parts are written very high with the first clarinet reaching high A and seconds high G. One problem with this piece is the number of errors found in both the score and parts. A complete listing of these can be found on pages 410-425 in Teaching Music Through Performance in Band Vol. 2. The piece is written in sonatina form, opening in a very grandiose manner introducing the main melodic and rhythmic motives. Four themes occur both in the exposition and recapitulation and are all combined as climax to the piece before a brief coda (Miles, 1998).

Overture for Winds and Symphonic Overture

Charles Carter (b.1926)

Grade 3

Duration 5’30

Publisher: Bourne Co. and Carl Fischer

Charles Carter is well respected as a composer of music for the young band. He has written over 30 pieces for the concert band, six of which are overtures. Two of these, the Overture for Winds and Symphonic Overture are both outstanding examples of writing in this genre with the later being the "most technically challenging and complex" (Stone, 1999). Both pieces use ABA form with the opening themes ,rhythmic and energetic, being contrasted by slower more lyrical themes of the middle sections. A look at each piece separately will demonstrate differences in the two.

In Overture for Winds (1959), the keys of E-flat Major, C minor and B-flat Major should be known by all members of the ensemble. Triadic harmony is used throughout to accompany the tuneful melody. Rhythmic precision is required for sixteenth note passages and as well as to ensure a proper entrance on the upbeat of one in the main motive. The middle section is more polyphonic in texture and features a flowing melody with countermelody lines. There is a short development section before the return to the A section (Miles, 1997).

In Symphonic Overture (1963), Carter uses a very tonal melody that uses an eighth followed by two sixteenth and two sixteenths followed by an eighth providing great opportunity for teaching rhythm. However the second more lyrical theme introduces contrapuntal lines and new more complex harmonies that will sometimes mislead the listener in terms of direction. The fast tempo of the two themes in the A section is contrasted by a slower middle section which is followed by a fugue made of six bar phrases rather than four to begin the last A section (Stone, 1999). After all four entrances of the fugue, the contrapuntal gives way to a homophonic quality which closes the piece (Smith and Stoutamire, 1989).


Brown, M. R. (1993) Conducting Schuman’s Chester Overture. The Instrumentalist, XLVIII, 29-36.

Campeau, E. K. Overtures Colonel Lowell E. Graham and The United States Air Force Band. Compact Disc: BOL-9904, 1999.

Clarys, J. The Legacy of Aaron Copland. The United States Army Field Band. Compact Disc.

Cuyler, L. (1995) The Symphony, Second Edition. Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press,

Fennell, F (1954) Time and the Winds; A Short History of the Use of Wind Instrumentsin the Orchestra, Band and Wind Ensemble. Kenosha, WI: G. Leblanc.

Garofalo, R. J. (1992) Guides to Band Masterworks; Teacher Manual. Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Meredith Music Publications

Goldman, E. F. (1961) The Wind Band. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Miles, R. (1997) Teaching Music through Performance in Band. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.

Miles, R. (1998) Teaching Music through Performance in Band, Volume 2. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.

National Band Association (1997) Selective Music List for Bands 4th Edition. Nashville, TN: National Band Association.

Peyser, J. (1986) The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations. New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons.

Sadie, S. (1980) New Grove Dictionary for Music and Musicians. London: MacMillian.

Smith, N & Stoutamire, A. (1989) Band Music Notes. Lake Charles, LA: Program Note Press.

Stolba, M. K. (1998) The Development of Western Music, A History, Third Edition. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill

Stone, S. (1999) Charles Carter’s Symphonic Overture. The Instrumentalist, 54, 36, 38, 40, 42.

Turner, D. L. (1990) Conductor’s Choice: Annotated Selective Music List for Band

Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press.


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"A History of the Overture and its Use in the Wind Band: An Annotated Guide to Selected Overtures Scored Originally for Wind Band." 123HelpMe.com. 25 Nov 2015

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