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French overture

The French overture is a musical form widely used in the Baroque period. It is in two parts: the first is slow, often with double-dotted rhythms (a double-dotted crochet followed by a semiquaver), and the second is quick and fugal. Sometimes the first part returns at the end.

When written for orchestra, the French overture is often scored with trumpets and timpani, and aims at grandeur. The form was thus highly suited to an era in which all orchestras were employed by royalty or other aristocracy.

The name is acknowledgement of the importance of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the French baroque composer, in developing the form. He often used it to open his opera-ballets. Later examples can be found as the opening movement of each of Johann Sebastian Bach's orchestral suites, and as an opening to many oratorios by George Frideric Handel (including Messiah). The 16th of Bach's Goldberg Variations is a French overture in miniature.

The French overture should not be confused with the Italian overture, a three-part quick-slow-quick structure.