Steven Vande Moortele

The Potpourri Overture as Musical Form

Richard Wagner’s essay De l’ouverture of 1841 contains a famous invective against the then increasingly popular format of the so-called potpourri overture: a form in which isolated melodies drawn from the opera are strung together in loose concatenation. Such overtures, Wagner writes, may possess great entertainment value, but lack artistic merit. Similar comments abound in music criticism of the second quarter of the 19th century, often marking the potpourri overture as typically French (as opposed to German), or as inferior to the more established sonata-form overture.
In this paper, I take the potpourri overture seriously as a musical form and problematize the binary opposition between sonata form and potpourri. Drawing on theories of musical form by Caplin (1998), Hepokoski and Darcy (2006), and Vande Moortele (2009), I will focus on cadential plans, tempo organization, and key distribution in order to show how potpourri overtures, far from presenting their different sections in random succession, display a surprising degree of formal organization. Underneath their heterogeneous surface, they often mimic procedures familiar from the single-movement sonata form or the multi-movement sonata cycle; in their combination of these two types of formal organization within a single movement, they may even be said to be quite innovative.

Conversely, loosening phenomena such as excessively long introductions, internally heterogeneous expositions, changes in tempo and meter, and interruptions of the expected course of the form are not limited to the potpourri overture. They can also be found in several overtures from the second quarter of the 19th century that are generally thought to be in sonata form, but that are more accurately understood as moving in and out of a strict sonata-form organization.
Examples will be drawn from overtures by Weber (Oberon, 1826), Rossini (Guillaume Tell, 1829), Hérold (Zampa, 1831), and, indeed, Wagner himself (Der fliegende Holländer, 1841).