Our Music Our Selves

Commentaries, 14 Muharram 1436 (November 7, 2014) — Suggested Listening — Overtures

Posted in Miscellaneous Essays by Lester Knibbs on the November 7th, 2014

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

As-Salaam alaikum! Peace!

I bear witness that there is nothing and no one
worthy of our devotion and service except Allah,

and I bear witness that Muhammad
is the servant and the messenger of Allah.

Our Music Our Selves is an exploration of the symphonic structure and message of the Qur’an and an exploration of the symphonic structure and message of our serious music, and of the role of both in shaping our human history and identity.

The final internet radio program of Our Music Our Selves on American Muslim Blogtalk Radio was on the 29th of Dhul-Hijjah 1435, the last Thursday of the Hijrah year (also known as October 23, 2014). Our Music Our Selves is continuing (Allah willing) as a blog, and possibly in other forums. Hopefully, you will enjoy and benefit from our commentaries and suggestions.


Suggested Listening — Overtures

Overtures were originally written as the opening piece for an opera or other music making use of voices and staging. The word “overture” means “opening”, and in the 17th and early 18th centuries, an overture could be the opening piece of any kind of music involving several pieces grouped together — such as a suite of dances written for a keyboard instrument, or a cantata for voices and an instrumental ensemble. From the late 18th century into the 20th century, an overture was usually the opening to an opera.

Starting in the early 19th century, some stand-alone pieces came to be called overtures, and some overtures originally intended to begin an opera came to be performed as stand-alone pieces. An example of the former is Felix Mendelssohn‘s “Hebrides Overture (10:20, the duration of the YouTube selection, in minutes and seconds) (also known as the “Fingals Cave Overture”) — an excellent and exciting example of the form.

An example of the latter is Ludwig van Beethoven‘s “Leonore Overture No. 3 (14:02) — perhaps (and certainly in my opinion) the finest symphonic composition ever written. Beethoven wrote three overtures for three different performances of his opera originally entitled Leonore (after the real name of the heroine). He eventually wrote a fourth overture, known as the “Fidelio Overture (6:49) — after changing the name of the opera to Fidelio (after the assumed name of the heroine, who had disguised herself as a male prison guard in a scheme to rescue her husband from death in a political prison).

I don’t like Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 1 (9:20) — a melodramatic mess, if you ask me. His “Leonore Overture No. 2 (13:41) is an inferior version of the “Leonore Overture No. 3″. You might try listening to them back-to-back, and see which one sounds more effective to you. A live performance of symphonic music is usually best, and in the case of the “Leonore Overture No. 3″, when the strings get going in the build-up to the final climax, you can actually feel the air moving if you are sitting close enough to the orchestra. And, of course, seeing all those string players hustling up a super sweat is worth the price of admission. I suspect that Beethoven’s dissatisfaction with the “Leonore” overtures — and this is especially true of the third — is that, after hearing the overture, who needs the opera? What a workout. The “Fidelio Overture” is a much less ambitious work.

Beethoven wrote only one opera, and he was, in my opinion (and I am hardly alone in this), not such a great opera composer. As you should know, I hate opera — but I study it for professional reasons — actually, for more than professional reasons, which I plan to discuss later. Nevertheless, I admire something when it is done well.

One of the most famous and excellent opera composers of the early 19th century was Gioachino Rossini. I’ve heard only parts of one or two of his operas — because they happened to be on the classical music station while I was driving somewhere. What I am familiar with — as both listener and violinist in my high school orchestra — are his opera overtures. These are fun pieces. I will repeat that: These are fun pieces. (Just be patient with the introduction.) They are not impressive examples of symphonic composition, but they are effective. Rossini wrote them on the fly — usually the night before dress rehearsal — but they demonstrate something that becomes evident in some of Rossini’s later works, that Rossini was quite a capable symphonic composer.

Most opera composers were either uninterested or incapable of quality symphonic writing. Giuseppe Verdi — possibly the best opera composer of all time — apparently was uninterested in symphonic writing. (His overtures make disappointing listening, to me.) Only a few composers demonstrated superlative gifts in both operatic and symphonic composition — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner, come immediately to mind, and Wagner wrote almost nothing but operatic works. Rossini is one of the few who demonstrated gifts in both areas.

I recommend the following Rossini overtures: “The Barber of Seville (7:48); “The Italian Girl in Algiers (8:02); “The Thieving Magpie (10:05); “Semiramide (13:29); “William Tell (12:06). The first three (and, to some extent, the fourth) have some things in common, which I will leave for you to find out for yourself. Parts of the “William Tell” overture should be familiar to anyone who has watched a certain classic TV western. The “William Tell” overture is a more subtle work than the others and I suspect that Rossini did not just dash it off at the last minute.

I just learned the following from Wikipedia: During his lifetime, Rossini was the most popular composer in history. He retired at the age of 37 and lived to the age of 76. He left a fortune at his death, and the Rossini Foundation continues to support the Rossini Conservatory to this day.

There are more overtures I could recommend. The following is a short list, in addition to those already mentioned.


Once again — I call on my Muslim Brothers and Sisters — especially my Brothers (because Allah has given men the responsibility of leadership) — to read/recite the Qur’an (which is in Arabic and only in Arabic), and to do this regularly and often.


I continue to suggest that you listen to at least one symphony every week. The later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, any of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Schubert’s eighth or ninth, Mendelssohn’s third or fourth, Tchaikovsky’s fourth, fifth or sixth, Borodin’s second, or Franck’s only symphony. There are others we might suggest. If you are ambitious, you might listen to Mahler’s second, fifth or sixth. Dvorak’s seventh, eighth and ninth are also excellent.


I also suggest that most of us become familiar with one or two symphonies in particular, so that they becomes a sort of common currency. I suggest, first and foremost, Beethoven’s fifth symphony — perhaps the most famous symphony ever composed. The first movement is fairly compact, for a symphonic movement, and exciting. If you are not familiar with listening to symphonic music, this might be a good start. Dvorak’s ninth symphony (“From the New World”) is another symphony that we all might become familiar with — especially since it is influenced by African American themes.

Good listening!


Dear Brothers and Sisters, please check out my other blogs from time to time. They are:

Doctor Hakeem: African-American Commentaries


Word-to-Word: A Comparative Study of the Bible and the Qur’an


Take it easy.

As-Salaamu alaikum! Peace!

Brother Lester

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