During his career, Domenico Cimarosa probably composed about 70 operas. Except in very rare cases, Cimarosa prepared an introductory overture for all his works.
Cimarosa uses two musical structures in all of his overtures: the three-movement and the one-movement forms, the second often being introduced by a short lento section. Very rarely does Cimarosa also use a two-movement structure that is only a simplification of the three-movement cycle. The three-movement overtures, typical of the Neapolitan operatic tradition, and whose origin goes back to Alessandro Scarlatti, consist of a rapid first movement which Cimarosa introduces thematic episodes made up of quick rhythmical elements, generally assigned to the first violins (the second violins typically double this at the lower octave or play broken chord accompaniment patterns similar to an Alberti bass). The violas double the bassline (consisting of the violoncellos and double basses) at the octave or, on occasion, double the first violin part at the lower octave.
At times, after an obvious cadence (in the tonic or the dominant tonality), the composer introduces, as in the overture written for the opera I Tre Amanti, a second motif (that occasionally may present the characteristic of a musical theme proper), often played by the strings but also sometimes by the oboes or, very rarely and only in the late operas, by the clarinets. In the absence of a second theme, the movement finishes with a reprise of the principal motifs (often shortened) after a brief elaboration of the musical materials. The first movement is always written in a duple metre, generally 4/4, but sometimes also alla breve). The second movement has a freer formal structure than the first; it is generally quite short and scored for strings alone except in the case of the overture to La Finta Frascatana in which he adds a solo flute. The central movement, with its slow tempo, always offers more melodic breadth than either the first or the third even if it is brief and scored in the same way; the theme is assigned to the first violins, with the second violins realising a delicate accompaniment doubling the firsts at the lower octave. The violas double the bass at the higher octave or double, at the lower octave or tenth, the first violin. The tonal contrasts between the first and second movements of an overture are not very numerous: the second movement may be in the submediant, or the subdominant, in the dominant, in the relative minor scale and, in only one case, in the same tonality (in Le Stravaganze del Conte Overture).
The Allegro third movement is almost always written in ternary or compound metre (in most cases the time signature is 6/8, sometimes also 3/8). In some overtures both time signatures are present.13 The third movement tonality is always the same as the first;14 it does not keep any rhythmic or melodic element. The dancing rhythm, often an explicit reference to the Neapolitan Tarantella, suggests to Cimarosa the adoption of melodic phrases with more thematic features, even if very similar in the course of the various overtures, than the ones used in the first movement.
The typical orchestration of the three-movement overtures, according to the original disposition of the instruments in the holograph scores, is: 2 horns, 2 oboes, and strings (first and second violins, violas, basso). Very rarely does Cimarosa support the oboes with two flutes and he never writes an independent part for the flutes. The composer labels the flutes Traversieri. More problematic for the editor is the presence of the bassoon in the orchestra. The composer never gives an independent staff to these instruments, except in the overture to L’Amante Combattuto dalle Donne di Punto. It is probable that Cimarosa counted on the bassoon’s presence in the orchestra as the bass of the wind instruments, playing the same part as the cellos and double basses with some possible rhythmic simplification by the performer himself. The omission of the doubling part in the score may have been a time-saving measure.
The two-movement overtures, rarely used by Cimarosa, have the same formal structure as those in three movements but omit the central section. The two parts are always composed in the same tonality.
From the composition of the comic opera L’Armida immaginaria (Teatro Dei Fiorentini, 1777), Cimarosa quite regularly used the one-movement structure. The one-movement overtures are inclined to be more interesting not only because of his use of ‘real’ themes but also because of the tonal relationships between thematic groups. The single movement is divided into three different sections (even if realized without a thought of continuity): the first consists of a group of linked themes with a clear rhythmic character in the tonic and often introduced by a thunderous introduction for full orchestra. To these the composer at times adds a second motivic/thematic group, performed by the strings, that may also appear on the dominant tonality. In the middle part of the movement, a new theme, more cantabile and relaxed, is interpolated; this is also generally performed by the strings. The range of the harmonic relationships between the two themes is rather vast: sometimes the first part of the overture ends in the dominant tonality (confirmed by cadence) and the second theme, after some measures of harmonic transition, reaches the sixth degree of the dominant tonality (that is the third degree of the tonic). In other cases, the second theme, after the usual dominant cadence may appear in the relative minor tonality. During his career, the composer also used other harmonic relationships between the first and second parts of his single-movement overtures. In this way, he made the traditional tonal links more varied and sometimes also unexpected.
After the exposition and a brief elaboration of the second theme, the composer inserts a retransitional passage which is followed by a full or an abbreviated reprise of the first thematic group, to which Cimarosa adds a Coda that brings the overture to its end.
Starting from the overture to La Vergine del Sole Cimarosa at times inserts a slow and very free introduction, made up of a few measures based on a rhythmic and quite martial feature.
The scoring used by Cimarosa for his single-movement overtures varies over the years of composition. At the beginning of his career, following the Italian practice, he follows the model of the three-movement overture with two oboes, two horns and strings. Starting from his later operas, particularly from La Vergine del Sole and the compositions for the Russian Court, horns (or trumpets) and strings, two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons (with an independent line often freed from the basso) and the Timpani are also used frequently.
Last but not least is an observation about the keys used by Cimarosa in his overtures: D Major is used with embarrassing frequency (see the table below); only in some cases does the composer choose to use BÏ; and very rarely does he use EÏ Major, G Major and F Major. No overture is written in a minor key.
The principal key of a piece, according to the Italian tradition, also influenced the choice of the brass used in the orchestration. The overtures composed in D and G, always have horns in the orchestra; when the composer wrote a piece in a flat key, the horns were replaced by the trumpets. Cimarosa, in the first part of his career (i.e. until his return to Naples from the Viennese Court, in 1793), adheres to this standard; in his late operas, by comparison, he has no hesitation in using the horns in the flat keys if it was warranted by his project.