The French overture is a musical form widely used in the Baroque period. Its basic formal division is into two parts, which are usually enclosed by double bars and repeat signs. They are complementary in styles (slow in dotted rhythms and fast in fugal style), and the first ends with a half-cadence (i.e., on a dominant harmony) that requires an answering structure with a tonic ending. The second section often but not always ends with a brief recollection of the first, sometimes even repeating some of its melodic content (Waterman and Anthony 2001).
The form is first encountered in Jean-Baptiste Lully's ballet overtures from the 1650s (Waterman and Anthony 2001). Later examples can be found as the opening movement of each of Johann Sebastian Bach's Orchestral Suites, Partita in D major, BWV 828, C minor Cello Suite, BWV 1011, and as an opening to many oratorios by George Frideric Handel (including Messiah). The 16th of Bach's Goldberg Variations is a miniature French overture.
The French overture should not be confused with the Italian overture, a three-part quick-slow-quick structure.
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