Although originally written at the same time as the incidental music to Irving’s 1888 production of the play, the fine Macbeth
overture by Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) is a concert overture in all but name, and was doubtless revised before its publication six years later, as the Lyceum pit can hardly have contained so large an orchestra, complete with tuba and harp. Composed at a time when Sullivan was at the height of his powers—between The Yeomen of the Guard
(1887) and The Gondoliers
(1890)—the overture aims at a closely knit musical structure rather than the loosely assembled string of melodies that he usually provides. Although the benevolent influence of Schubert and Mendelssohn can still be felt, there are strikingly successful evocations of the grim northern setting of the play (broad unison phrases), Banquo’s ghost (an eerie, harmonically strange passage for flute and strings), regal glory, the witches and, in the most characteristically broad tune, the figure of ‘gracious Duncan’. All this is expertly conceived with Sullivan’s usual technical mastery and command of orchestration.
from notes by Hugh Priory © 1991