A Rossini overture, a Mozart piano concerto, then a Mahler Symphony after interval… Sounds like a typical night in just about any Australian concert hall. But how is it that the overture-concerto-symphony combo came to dominate concert programs? Tom Ford leafs through the history books to find out.

Have you ever sat in your concert seat, heard the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th or Mozart’s Jupiterand thought to yourself: Didn’t I hear this recently?

In all likelihood, you probably did.

Large orchestras tend to perform what they (and we) regard as the masterworks of classical repertoire regularly and routinely. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, for instance, has performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on three separate occasions over the last four seasons, most recently with Richard Tognetti last March. And after the interval? A symphony – Dvorák 8. The overture-concerto-symphony program may seem like a natural grouping of forms, especially now we’re so used to it, but it actually emerged over several centuries through a largely random confluence of musical ideas and events.

The overture was one of the first musical forms to gain a secure spot in the concert program. Although overtures had existed since Jean-Baptiste Lully opened his ballets with them in the 1650s, it was not until the...