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Overture (French ouverture; German Ouvertüre, Vorspiel; Italian overtura; i.e. opening) in music is the term originally applied to the instrumental introduction to an opera. During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the term to refer to independent, self-existing instrumental, programmatic works that presaged genres such as the symphonic poem. These were at first no doubt intended to be played at the head of a programme.

Twentieth-century and contemporary overtures accompanying Broadway and other musical theatre almost always follow this pattern, consisting of segments from the more popular songs in the musical: Gypsy (1959) and Candide (1956) are considered masterpieces of their genre by many musical theatre scholars and working professionals. The overture usually is played before the musical starts; however, some musicals (such as Passion, LaChiusa's The Wild Party, Sunday in the Park with George, and Rent) dispense with a formal overture altogether. A unique example is the recent revival of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, wherein the overture appears between the opening and closing choruses of the show's opening number, "Another Op'ning, Another Show," with the company remaining on stage, acting in pantomime. (However, in the original 1948 production, and all other productions of the show up to 1999, the overture to the show appeared in its usual place—before the first song.) Likewise, musicals such as A Little Night Music, Nine, and Company begin with vocal overtures. The overture to the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical The Threepenny Opera (1928) is written in the neoclassical style (and like neo-classical and pre-19th overtures, is an entirely original melody that is not heard anywhere else in the score).

In European music after 1900 the traditional overture was scarcely relevant any longer, though the name continued in use as one of a number of alternatives for describing an orchestral piece, often written for a festive occasion, in one movement of moderate length. A notable late exception displaying a connection with the traditional form is Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Op. 96 (1954), which is in two linked sections, "Allegretto" and "Presto" (Temperely 2001). Film composer Miklós Rózsa's Overture to a Symphony Concert, Op. 26a (1963) is also worth mentioning. Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture, Op. 57 (1956), is a 20th-century parody of the late 19th century concert overture, scored for an enormous orchestra with organ, additional brass instruments, and obbligato parts for four rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners (two uprights in B♭, one horizontal with detachable sucker in C), and an electric floor polisher in E♭; it is dedicated "to President Hoover".