1812 Overture
The overture is a work for the orchestra. There are two main types – operatic overtures and concert overtures.

The Operatic Overture
The Operatic Overture consisted of instrumental music written as an introduction to an opera or oratorio. The earliest operas usually began with a flourish of instruments. This, no doubt, was to settle the audience before the curtain rose on the performance. The idea of a fanfare was replaced by orchestral movements of greater length during the 17th and early 18th Centuries.

By about 1750, the early Classical composers were writing overtures incorporation themes heard later in the opera. The overture thus helped to prepare the mood for the first scene of the work. Mozart at time included in his overtures themes that were to be heard in his operas. Wagner, the great composer of German opera i.e. Götterdämmerung, used his overtures to create atmosphere. He did this by introducing themes which were associated with characters and incidents from the opera. These themes are called leitmotifs.

The Concert Overture
The concert overture is a single movement for orchestra which developed in the 19th Century. This type of overture was intended for the concert hall and was written as an autonomous piece of music which stood on its own.

Themes in the 1812 Overture
This is a concert overture – that is, a self-contained piece of orchestral music – and not the overture to an opera or some other larger work. The piece describes the invasion of Russia by Napoleon’s army in 1812, and its retreat and defeat in the winter of that year. And despite Tchaikovsky’s own reservations about the music, there is no doubt that it is a very effective piece for a festival occasion. It starts solemnly on the strings, with the tune of an old Russian hymn. The music soon gathers pace as Napoleon’s army advances into Russia. Tchaikovsky portrays the opposing armies by using extracts from the French national anthem – La Marseillaise – and from various traditional Russian melodies.

The spirit of Mother Russia
Yet another theme played high on the violins, invokes the indomitable spirit of Mother Russia. The sound of cannon and the clash of cymbals suggest the Battle of Borodino, fought on the approaches of Moscow. (The French reached Moscow, but were soon forced to retreat again, being almost destroyed by the terrible Russian winter.)

The overture celebrates ultimate Russian victory with more cannon effects and a joyful ringing of bells, as the brass triumphantly proclaim the theme of the Russian national anthem.

  1. Define the term overture.
  2. Explain the difference between an operatic and concert overture.
  3. Who was Wagner?
  4. What was the purpose of the operatic concerto in early opera?
  5. After 1750 how did the overture change?
  6. What three famous pieces of music are alluded to in this overture?
  7. Which country was invaded in 1812?
  8. What does this overture celebrate?
  9. What sounds in the overture suggest the battle of Borodino?
  10. Which section of the orchestra is heard playing the Russian National Anthem?
Period –The Romantic Era

What are the characteristics of the Romantic Era?
The Romantic Era hailed a great change in all areas of life, art and society and occurred from between the mid 19th Century to the early 20th Century. When trying to understand a particular era in time it is important to examine the period which led up to it. The Romantic era was preceded by the Classical period which may be summed up as a time where ‘strict laws of balance and restraint’ were adhered to. The Romantic period on the other hand saw a reaction to these ideas. This resulted in a great deal of importance being placed on artistic freedom experimentation and creativity. This may be seen in the architecture, art and music of the time.

The Romantic period was also a time of much social change with the Industrial and French Revolutions, as well as a growing demand from women for more rights and independence. This disruption in social hierarchy directly affected the era’s literature, art and in particular music, as women’s role in society was challenged and as a result of this, began to change. This is particularly evident in the vast number of romantic novels which were written in response to a high demand for them during this period. Not unsurprisingly their main readership consisted of women who, unconcerned with the inappropriate content of these novels and what the more conservative would think, brazenly read them anyway. Anne Forde is a good example of a woman who was not afraid to challenge society’s ideals. Her defiance of society’s demands to play the submissive role which a lady of her standing was expected to fill, not to mention her rather famous and controversial portrait by Gainsborough epitomise the change which was taking place during the Romantic period (though admittedly her story is a little more extreme than many of the women of her time).

In addition to desiring artistic freedom, Romantic artists also became fascinated with the supernatural and fantasy. They even moved from idealising nature as they did in the Classical period to viewing it as more a ‘source of mysterious powers.’

This in turn bared witness to a rise in programme music where composers based their music on a story or as a representation of people, things, dramatic situations or even emotional states or philosophical theories. Opera also became a highly popular genre as well, as it allowed composers to explore these ideas even further.

Another common thread which ran through all areas of life, art and society during the Romantic era was a renewed interest in nationalism and heritage as well as the exotic.

Composers in particular used their music to portray their patriotism through the use of local folk music and tales. In his operas Verdi set texts with very patriotic themes. Smetana and Bartok used folk music as the basis for some of their pieces. Other composers travelled to other countries and used themes from local music in their compositions. This may be seen in the tonality of Debussy’s L’Apres midi d’un faune.

Women’s changing status at the time of the Romantic period was also accompanied by the changing status of musicians and composers in society (though the two were probably unrelated). Composers’ previous reliance on the patronage of nobles and the church meant that they held the lowly status of a mere tradesperson.

This all changed during the Romantic period when the role of art and music in society began to be seen more for their appreciation purposes than their everyday role in society.

Composers began depending on the support of the public through commissions and concert attendance and the patronage of wealthy individuals. As a further result of the diminishing support of the church and nobles in the specific area of music training, specialised training institutions called conservatories formed to teach musicians. Music also began being viewed as a calling rather than an occupation.

Musically there were many changes which took place during the Romantic period. As it was a time in which to push the boundaries it became in vogue to use a greater range of dynamics, experiment with phrase length and tempo variation (rubato), use richer harmonies including more dissonance and chromaticism and experiment with existing structures of form ie ternary, concerto. This was often due to the programmatic nature of the work. All these techniques were used in order to achieve a higher level of expressiveness and creativity. The melody also became the sole focus for composers in every attempt to bring as much emotion and drama to their work.

The stable economic situation which was a direct result of the industrial revolution also meant that there was a greater variety of instruments available to composers, through the creation of new instruments and also the improvement of existing ones. Existing instruments were also pushed to their extreme limits and experimented with to find different sounds and this may be seen in the compositions of the time. The Romantic period also hailed the birth of the symphony orchestra, a great deal larger than its Classical counterpart.

The main characteristic of the Romantic era which may be seen throughout all areas of life, society and art is that desire to break out from the balance and restraint of the Classical era and experiment without any regard to the rules. This ideology can be seen to be mirrored in the music which was composed at the time. Indeed this proves the theory that music does not occur within a vacuum. It is in fact greatly influenced by society and its ideals, and more often than not, as we have discovered by looking at the Romantic period in particular, it will mirror it.

  1. How was the Romantic era different from the Classical era in general?
  2. What type of literature became popular among women of the Romantic period and why do you think it might have been considered inappropriate material for women’s eyes?
  3. Which two revolutions occurred during the Romantic era?
  4. How is Anne Forde a good example of the social change which began during the Romantic period?
  5. Which two genres became popular during the Romantic period and why?
  6. Another common thread which ran through all areas of life, art and society during the Romantic era was a renewed interest in nationalism and heritage as well as the exotic. How did composers portray this through their music?
  7. As a further result of the diminishing support of the church and nobles in the specific area of music training, specialised training institutions called ……………………………… formed to teach musicians.
  8. How did the status of musicians and composers change during the Romantic period?
  9. How did composers push the boundaries through their music? What was the purpose of this experimentation?
  10. What occurred during the Romantic Period which enabled the creation of new instruments and also the improvement of existing ones?
  11. How might you describe the music of the Romantic era in relation to its society?