A festive musical introduction for an opera, ballet or suite. The form combines a slow opening, marked by stately dotted rhythms and suspensions, with a lively fugal second section. It originated with Lully’s ballet overtures of the 1650s and quickly became the sole pattern for French opera and ballet overtures. In its day it was much copied, borrowed and adapted, but gradually in the mid-18th century it gave way to more flexible, energetic or dramatic approaches, particularly the rival Italian sinfonia. The French overture is now regarded not only as a prominent Baroque form, but as an expression of the elegant tastes of 17th-century France, as an illustration of Lully’s penetrating influence, and above all as the earliest important genre of prefatory music for the stage.
1. Structure and style.
2. Early history.
3. Later history.
GEORGE GOW WATERMAN/JAMES R. ANTHONY
1. Structure and style.
Division into two parts is basic to the French overture. The main sections, each embraced by double bars and repeat signs, depend upon and balance each other partly because they are in complementary styles, and partly because the first ends on dominant harmony that calls for an answering structure with a tonic ending. In more than half the early examples and in many of the later ones, the second section ends with a brief echo of the first, recalling its style, pace and sometimes even its melodic content (e.g. Lully, Alceste overture, HAM no.224). This functions as a closing statement, rather like a codetta; and because it occurs before the repeat sign of the second section, it leaves the bipartite structure intact. Other additions usually found in later examples are set off by double bars either between the two sections or at the end. They may recall the general style of a main section, as in Purcell’s overture to the 1692 Ode on St Cecilia’s Day, or belong to a standard dance type, such as the minuet in Handel’s overture to Samson. Generally such added sections lengthen the work without altering its balance or lessening the significance of the two principal sections.
The most conspicuous stylistic feature of the first section is its combination of a slow tempo (usually marked grave or lent) with dotted rhythms, often called saccadé (meaning ‘jerked’). The dotted rhythms sometimes move along at differing paces, as shown in ex.1, and those in longer values invite exaggerated performance to bring all the short notes down to the same value (seeDotted rhythms and Notes inégales). This kind of rhythm gave rise more than any other stylistic element to the descriptive adjectives commonly applied to the opening section: majestic, heroic, festive and pompous. In fact, these associations may have arisen from the halting footsteps employed in ceremonial processions. The tirades produce a similar effect. These upbeat flourishes (ex.1 bar 4) are found in many opening sections and were often performed even where not written. They herald the downbeats with an elegance perfectly suited to the court of Louis XIV. Although the general style of the opening section is homophonic, some contrapuntal activity is heard among the inner voices; occasionally homophony gives way almost completely to imitation, as in Lully’s overture to the opera Xerxes (1660). Binary metre (C or C) is almost universal, and five-part texture is normal, though four-part is common in the early overtures. The overtures by later composers, as well as those composed or transcribed for keyboard instruments, often show free-voiced texture in both sections. A grand close on dominant harmony typically ends the first section.
The second section unfolds in a contrasting fugal style; entries come in rapid succession (ex.2), imitating at the octave, 4th or 5th, and develop a fleet but dignified motion of the full texture. Thus the two principal characteristics of the second section, speed (usually indicated by vite or gai) and imitation, make themselves evident at the outset. Later portions of the section, however, often become more homophonic, and in this respect resemble the Venetian canzona, the supposed ancestor of the fugal section (see below). Only one feature, in fact, is maintained throughout this section in almost all French overtures: a faster pace than that of the opening section. Other features commonly associated with the form are less pervasive and less universally employed. Ternary or compound metre (especially 6/4) is used for the second part of slightly more than half of all French overtures. The texture of the second section is often less consistent than that of the first, and a few overtures even achieve a concertato effect, as between an instrumental trio and the rest of the orchestra (e.g. Handel’s overture to Teseo). Hemiolas are often found at cadence points (e.g. overture to Lully’s Armide). A tonic cadence concludes the second section unless it is followed by a separate Grave, in which case the former may end on dominant harmony, thus allowing the latter to function as a tonic return. Though deviations from this plan were common, the French overture remains a distinct and recognizable form because its most basic features (i.e. slow–fast contrast between sections, with dotted rhythms in the first and fugato in the second) are so obvious. Only when the form was passing out of favour did hybrid forms appear, usually with added sections or a mixture of French and Italian overture characteristics.
2. Early history.
Although the French overture arose as a fresh combination of formal and stylistic practices of its time, it nevertheless had a forerunner in the entrées of earlier ballets de cour. These were march-like instrumental pieces (not whole sections of the ballet, for which the term ‘entrée’ was also used) that developed within the French tradition of theatrically unified court ballet, which began with Beaujoyeux’s Balet comique de la Royne (1581). The entrées were short and ceremonious, usually bipartite, with rhythmically contrasting sections; each half was repeated, the first ending in dominant harmonies and the second returning to the tonic. The whole proceeded homophonically in a festive, declamatory style with many dotted rhythms. Either the second section or both parts were played as many times as required for the dancers to complete their initial promenade, a practice that may have been reflected later by the label ‘reprise’ (from ‘reprendre’, meaning ‘to take up again’) often inscribed over second sections of French overtures. Examples of entrées from the Ballet de Madame (1615) and Ballet du roi (1621), which survive in the Philidor Collection, are quoted by Prunières. Such pieces evidently gave rise to the earliest overtures: the livrets (programmes) of many ballets de cour, including Balet comique de la Royne, directed that performances were to begin with concerted instrumental music. Examples of this music have survived in the Philidor Collection from as early as the ballets de la chienne, des senateurs and de la comédie (1604, 1607 and 1608), and by 1640 such introductory pieces were entitled ‘ouverture’ (Prunières quoted from the 1640 Ballet de Mademoiselle and 1647 Ballet des rues de Paris). It is noteworthy that these early overtures not only show a structure and style nearly identical with those of the entrées but also immediately predate the fully developed French overture.
The notion of contrasting a fast concluding section with a slow beginning had been established in the 16th century in dance pairs such as the pavan and galliard. These dances, however, cannot be regarded as antecedents of the French overture, even though in style they resemble the later introductory pieces, often employing dotted figures. This manner of contrasting musical material had already been transferred to entrées half a century before the first fully developed French overture appeared (1658). Moreover, dance pairs show a trend of development which stands apart from overtures in that many are subdivided, so that each dance is multipartite. The allemande by itself tempts one to interpret it as a forerunner of the overture, since it developed some of the latter’s functions: it was performed as a musical entertainment apart from dancing as early as Mersenne’s treatise, Harmonie universelle (1636–7), and was placed at the head of suites. Yet its musical content only vaguely resembles that of the French overture: the allemande employs a similar general style (dance idiom) and is sometimes coupled to a faster piece. These resemblances between the two forms evidently derive from their common root in 16th-century dance music.
Lully is credited with having fixed the final form of the French overture in his ballets L’amour malade (1657) and Alcidiane (1658). The latter begins with the first true French overture, though a better example is that of Cavalli’s Xerse (1660; Lully’s overture was substituted to adapt the opera to the taste of its Parisian audience). These works differ from earlier overtures chiefly in scale and in a sharper differentiation of styles between the sections. The Reprise is not only faster than the Grave, but it is lighter, rhythmically more fluid, and markedly imitative. This fugal tendency, for which Lully is responsible, was perhaps inspired by the Venetian canzona, but the resemblance is only general, not tied to unique features of the two genres, and is insufficient to establish the canzona as Lully’s source of inspiration. It is not known exactly what Italian music Lully heard in the 1650s. Probably he heard canzonas and even Italian sinfonias (with fugato sections), or he may have known these forms from his Florentine boyhood. In Paris he also must have heard a variety of French imitative music: in addition to the continuing tradition of sacred polyphony there were fugato sections scattered among lute-songs and suites, and imitative fantasias were common in France as well as England. Denis Gaultier’s La rhétorique des dieux contains numerous imitative gigues (including binary ones), and Chambonnières wrote imitative dances. Louis Couperin wrote unmeasured keyboard preludes with measured, imitative second sections; these pieces further resemble French overtures in that about half of them show a return to the style of the first section. Since Lully knew of these composers and their works, it is reasonable to suppose he was influenced by their fugato compositions as well as the Italian forms.
3. Later history.
The French overture flourished for at least 60 years beginning in 1660 (D’Alembert, De la liberté de la musique, 1759). From the first, Lully’s works in this form met with great success (undoubtedly in part because they delighted the young Louis XIV), and his long adherence to the genre anchored it in the minds of many. He composed them for all his ballets, beginning with Alcidiane (1658), and for his yearly opera, starting with Cadmus et Hermione in 1673. Beauchamp was next to take up the form, in his ballet for Molière’s play Les fâcheux (1661), and other composers quickly followed, including Cambert, Bullamord, Blow, Bannister, Grabu, Lalande, M.A. Charpentier, Provenzale, Purcell and possibly Cesti (the Venetian performance of L’Argia, 1669). The cosmopolitan nature of this sample suggests how fast and how far the French overture spread, aided no doubt by the abundance of French music and musicians at provincial and foreign courts during the later 17th century. To Germany, where Hammerschmidt had introduced French dances and airs, the overture travelled with Georg Muffat, J.C.F. Fischer, Kusser and Steffani. Kusser, for example, spent most of the decade 1672–82 in Paris, returned to Germany and published his Composition de musique suivant la methode françoise, contenant six ouvertures de théâtres accompagnées de plusieurs airs (Stuttgart, 1682).
By 1700 the French overture had long enjoyed widespread use (by François Couperin, Collasse, Destouches, Mouret, Montéclair, Clérambault, Marais, Desmarets, Campra, Corelli, Erlebach, Keiser, Ariosti, Bononcini and many others). Its adaptive possibilities too had been extensively explored: French overtures had been played as concert pieces, joined to operas and ballets other than those with which they originated, transcribed for keyboard (D’Anglebert, Pièces de clavecin), and placed at the head of numerous suites and sonatas (Böhm; later Dieupart, Christophe Moyreau, Mondonville). In Germany Georg Muffat (Florilegium primum, 1695) and Fischer had begun writing overture suites (so called because they open with French overtures), and some were even entitled ‘Ouvertüre’, for example Bach’s orchestral suites. But also by 1700 the rival Italian overture, or sinfonia, with its tripartite, fast–slow–fast form and energetic, popular style, was fast becoming a fully developed and successful alternative. In opera particularly it began to displace the French overture, passing beyond its national boundaries much as the French overture had done 40 years earlier. But with certain composers in France and elsewhere the French form remained popular for several more decades, spawning some noteworthy examples. Handel and Bach, among others, used and adapted both overture forms, the former composing monumental French overtures for all his operas (e.g. Deidamia, Alcina, Serse) and for many of his anthems and oratorios, including Messiah; Handel’s use of the form, like that of such of his English contemporaries as Boyce and Arne, is sometimes unorthodox. Bach contributed, in addition to the four orchestral suites and the ‘French overture’ for harpsichord (bwv820), overtures to cantatas (bwv97, 110 and 119), the fourth keyboard partita (bwv828), and, on the same French plan, such divergent items as the 16th Goldberg variation and a choral fantasy (in the cantata bwv61). These and other French overtures of the time, such as Telemann’s, were contrived carefully and perhaps deliberately with somewhat limited expressive means, as if to accommodate the precise requirements and formality of the French plan. Such qualities had been well suited to the kind of formalized heroic expression that Lully sought and his century idealized, but by the time of Rameau they were old-fashioned, and the French overture became obsolescent as a result. Rameau used the form only in his early operas such as Hippolyte et Aricie(1733), but with La princesse de Navarre (1745) he broke away from it. In some later operas he used the slow–fast formula but not the style of the French overture. Monsigny, Philidor and Grétry continued occasionally to write overtures in this pattern, and a few anachronistic examples appeared at the time of the French Revolution (by Méhul, Catel and others), mixing but not blending old musical language with new. Vestiges also survived in slow introductions to first movements of some sonatas and symphonies, especially of the Viennese masters (including Haydn’s symphonies nos.7, 50, 85 and 104, Mozart’s Symphony no.39 k543 and Die Zauberflöte overture, and Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata and op.111). At least some of these illustrate the persistent association of dotted rhythms with regality.
The French overture played a major role in the 20th-century controversy concerning the performance of dotted rhythms in French music. The problem concerns the double dotting (or overdotting) of notes and rests within the context of passages dominated by dotted rhythms. The conventional view, adhered to by most musicologists, was that in a French overture the lengthening of the dotted note and the corresponding shortening of the complementary note was common practice in performance, in spite of the notation. That view was first challenged in 1965 by Frederick Neumann, who held that the concept of double dotting was ‘essentially a legend’. The battle of the double dot continues unabated, with charge and counter-charge often shedding more heat than light on a complex problem of performing practice.
H.Prunières: ‘Notes sur les origines de l’ouverture française’, SIMG, xii (1910–11), 565–85
H.Botstiber: Geschichte der Ouvertüre (Leipzig, 1913)
C.Girdlestone: Jean-Philippe Rameau: his Life and Work (London, 1957, 2/1969)
N.Demuth: French Opera: its Development to the Revolution (Horsham, 1963)
F.Neumann: ‘La note pointée et la soi-disant “manière française”’, RdM, li (1965), 66–92; Eng. trans. in EMc, v (1977), 310–24
M.Collins: ‘A Reconsideration of French Over-Dotting’, ML, l (1969), 111–23
B.Deane: ‘The French Operatic Overture from Grétry to Berlioz’, PRMA, xcix (1972–3), 67–80
R.M.Isherwood: Music in the Service of the King (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1973)
F.Neumann: ‘The Question of Rhythm in the Two Versions of Bach’s French Overture bwv 831’, Studies in Renaissance and Baroque Music in Honor of Arthur Mendel, ed. R.L. Marshall (Kassel and Hackensack, NJ, 1974), 183–94
D.Fuller: ‘Dotting, the “French Style” and Frederick Neumann’s Counter-Reformation’, EMc, v (1977), 517–35
F.Neumann: ‘Facts and Fiction about Overdotting’, MQ, lxiii (1977), 155–85
R.Leavis: ‘Double-Dotting and Ultra-Dotting’, EMc, vi (1978), 309 only [letter to editor]
G.Pont: ‘Rhythmic Alteration and the Majestic’, SMA, xii (1978), 68–100
F.Neumann: ‘Once More the French Overture Style’, EMc, vii (1979), 19–45
J.O’Donnell: ‘The French Style and the Overtures of Bach’, EMc, vii (1979), 190–96, 336–45
F.Neumann: ‘The Overdotting Syndrome: Anatomy of a Delusion’, MQ, lxvii (1981), 305–47
D.Fuller: ‘The “Dotted Style” in Bach, Handel and Scarlatti’, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti: Tercentenary Essays, ed. P. Williams (Cambridge, 1985), 99–117
F.Neumann: ‘Graham Pont’s “Paradigm of Inconsistency”’, EMc, xiv (1986), 403–6
D.Wulstan: ‘Glorious Uncertainty’, EMc, xiv (1986), 406–9
B.Scheibert: ‘French Overdotting’, EMc, xv (1987), 443–4
S.Hefling: Rhythmic Alteration in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Music (New York, 1993)