The Music Column

A Tour of Overtures

We somehow owe it to ourselves to contemplate the useful word sinfonia, one that once denoted the overture to an opera and suggested a pleasing combination of sounds.  So yes—the term that denotes the tradition of symphony is derived from another musical convention which we think of as not symphonic, but rather related to opera.  Going all the way back to Monteverdi, there was a distinction between vocal music and instrumental music, the former preceding the latter.  If we consider how long it took for Beethoven’s symphonies to be played in Italy (more than a generation after the composer’s death), we can see how fixated Italy was on vocal and operatic presentations.  Here musical distinctions reflect broader cultural ones, as Milan is contrasted with Vienna.

So the qualities of symphonic construction and even the sonata form have their beginnings in the conventions of opera.  The projection of contrasting first and second subjects in sonata form was probably influenced by operatic tradition and the contrasts of female and male characters and voice-types.  The struggle in sonata form seems to be an abstraction of other conflicts that were acted out onstage.  Outstanding music recapitulates more than its themes—it seems also to re-enact musical evolution.  And in that evolution, the overture became the sinfonia, and the overture became an independent entity, a...

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