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Musical introduction to a larger, often dramatic, work. Originating with Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), overtures served as openings for operas. The large-scale two- or three-part French overture invented by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1658) for his operas and ballets was widely imitated for a century. The sinfonia, the standard Italian overture form in the late 17th and 18th centuries, was a principal precursor of the three-part sonata form and thus provided the model for the earliest symphonies, which consisted of three movements. In the 19th century, overtures independent of any larger work usually illustrated a literary or historical theme (seesymphonic poem). Overtures to operettas and musicals have traditionally been medleys of their themes.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on overture, visit Britannica.com.