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The story behind the opera "William Tell" by Rossini

“William Tell” is a four-act opera in French crafted by Gioachino Rossini. L. F. Bis and Victor-Joseph Étienne de Jouy created the libretto. It is based on the legendary character “William Tell.”

opera "William Tell" poster

Origin

“William Tell” is also Gioachino Rossini's last crafted piece. Although the composer lived for another 40 years, he had planned it to be his ultimate work. Charles Malherbe, an archivist at the Paris Opéra archivist had fortunately discovered the original score at a secondhand book shop, which led to the subsequent acquisition of the piece by the Conservatoire.

History & Performances 

“William Tell” premiered on the 3rd of August, 1829 at the Salle Le Peletier. It was organized by the Paris Opéra, who also made several cuts after just three performances. The length of the opera, combined with the high-range of casting and tenor requirements makes it one of the most difficult pieces to produce.

In its Italian premiere, it was censored by the authority after being touted as a revolutionary figure against the ruling government. In 1833, it was produced at the “Teatro San Carlo,” but subsequent performances were limited. It was only in 1856 that the opera was again produced at the “Teatro La Fenice” in Venice. “William Tell” crossed the English Channel in May 1830, and was performed at London’s “Drury Lane.” It made the journey across the Atlantic in September 1831 and was held in New York City. In 1923, another performance at the Metropolitan Opera was produced. In 1893, an anarchist bombed the performance at the “Gran Teatre del Liceu” in Barcelona. In 1989 and 1990, it was produced at the “Théâtre des Champs-Élysées,” and “Covent Garden” respectively. In 2010, the opera was revived by Antonio Pappano, featuring some cuts originally made by Rossini himself. In 2011, a live-recorded version was released for the public.

The Play

Painting of a scene from William Tell

Act I

The first scene takes place near Lake Lucerne, as the local inhabitants celebrate the  Shepherd Festival. They are building small cabins, or “chalets” for three newly married couples while doling out the chorus titled, “What a serene day the sky foretells.”

Ruodi, a fisherman, also joins in with a love song (accompanied by flutes and harps). William Tell is seen standing at a distance, consumed by the thoughts of Switzerland's continued oppression. The Aria, “He sings, and Helvetia mourns her liberty” is performed in the background. The merriment is interrupted by the sound of “ranz des vaches,” announcing the arrival of the canton’s respected elder, Melchtal. He blesses the young couples upon arrival. Another celebratory chorus “Let all celebrate, on this glorious day, work, marriage, and love” are sung. Arnold, his son is rebuked for his failure to tie the knot, despite being of age.

Arnold had previously served in the Austrian forces and had fallen in love with Mathilde, the crown princess, who he had saved from an avalanche. He is conflicted between his feelings and the shame of serving a treacherous kingdom. The sound of another horn announces the impending arrival of the highly detested Austrian governor Gesler. Arnold prepares to set off to greet them, hoping to meet Mathilde again. However, William Tell coaxes him to join the uprising against the governor instead. The duet, “Ah, Mathilde, the idol of my soul..Oh my fatherland, my heart sacrifices to you” accompanies this scene. Tell succeeds in persuading him to not commit anything during the festival.

An archery contest is held after some exuberance, which is won by Jeremy, Tell’s son. Jeremy also notices a pale and wounded Leuthold, a local shepherd who is trying to flee after killing one of the Governor’s soldiers to defend the honor of his daughter. After Ruodi refuses to take him to the opposite shore, Tell comes to his rescue. Soon, Rodolphe, the Captain of the guards arrives at the scene and takes Melchtal prisoner. As the villagers refuse to divulge any information, the soldiers promise retribution and leave.

Act II

On top of Mount Rütli, the shepherds and a hunting party prepare to return as the evening approaches. However, Mathilde decides to lurk around, believing that Arnold is nearby. She further contemplates her feelings towards Arnold through the Aria, “Somber forest, sad and savage wilderness.” Soon, Arnold appears as the couple embarks on the duet, “Yes, you wring from my soul.” As they share their mutual admiration, Walter Furst and William Tell are heard approaching them. As Mathilde leaves, the duo confronts Arnold, questioning the futility of loving the oppressors. Arnold is initially offended but soon changes his stance after hearing that the Austrian governor has executed Melchtal, his father. He vows vengeance through the Aria, “What do I hear? O crime!”

The three individuals assert their dedication towards freedom at any cost. Soon, they are joined by the natives of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. All the cantons pledge their allegiance towards the independence of Switzerland through the chorus, “Let us swear, let us swear by our dangers.”

Act III

The first scene takes place on the grounds of Altdorf palace, where Mathilde and Arnold are meeting. He declares his intention to renounce both Mathilde and his glory to avenge his father. When he names Gesler as his victim, Mathilde castigates his decision and exclaims the unfeasibility of their relationship through the Aria, “All hope for our love has gone.” They subsequently bid farewell through the song, “Though upon a foreign shore.”

At Altdorf, the celebrations of the centenary year of Austria’s rule over Switzerland take place, with the Swiss people forced to pay homage to Governor Gesler. William Tell and his son are dragged forward for refusing to do so. Rodolphe recognizes him from the Leuthold episode and arrests them. However, the soldiers feel hesitant to arrest Tell, who is quite famous for his bow skills. The chorus, “It's that redoubtable archer” is sung. When Jeremy refuses to leave his father’s side, Gesler arrests him instead. He further comes up with a devious plan - Tell must successfully target an apple placed on Jeremy’s head, or else both of them will be executed. Everyone is horrified at the order, but Jeremy owes up to the challenge, urging his father to perform it. William acquires two arrows for the test but successfully hides one. He sings the song, “Stay completely still,” visibly perturbed.

He successfully shoots the arrow, piercing the apple, to Gesler’s dismay. He inquires about the second arrow, and after learning that it was intended for him, he orders to execute them. However, Mathilde saves Jeremy in the name of the Emperor, singing “You will not have him” to the Governor.

Gesler intends to take William Tell to the Kusnac Fort and subsequently throw him into Lake Lucerne to the reptiles. Rodolphe’s concern of crossing the lake in stormy weather falls into deaf ears.

Act IV

At the Melchtal residence, Arnold is seen lamenting his father’s death through the song, “Do not abandon me, home of my forefathers.” Soon, he is joined by confederates, and after learning about Tell’s fate, offers them access to his father’s weapons cache. Armed and revived, the men embark on the journey to rescue Tell. Arnold further sings the Aria, “Friends, assist my vengeance” to encourage his companions.

William Tell’s wife Hedwige is seen distressfully wandering on the shores of Lake Lucerne. Soon, Mathilde and Jeremy enter with the news that William is already in the lake. Hearing this, Hedwige starts mourning remorsefully through the Aria, “Save William! He dies a victim of his love for his country.” Leuthold enters the scene with the villagers. He informs everyone that the boat carrying Gesler, his soldiers, and Tell is in the middle of a storm. Tell is maneuvering the boat, and trying his best to avoid the treacherous rocks. 

Soon, the boat arrives in the vicinity, with Tell emerging from it. Jeremy informs him that he had set their residence on fire to create a beacon, but had retrieved Tell’s archery equipment before doing so. As Gesler and his soldiers emerge and try to recapture William, he shoots the Governor dead with a single arrow, bellowing to his fellow countrymen, “Let Switzerland breathe!”

Walter Furst also arrives at the scene. William informs him about Gesler's demise, adding caution that Altdorf is still alive. Consequently, Arnold and his friends enter with even better news - they have conquered Altdorf. Soon, Mathilde also pledges her allegiance towards achieving Switzerland’s liberty, deserting her “disabused false sense of grandeur.” The sun shines through the clouds as the gathered crowd breaks into the chorus, “Liberty, descend again from heaven.”

Musical Overview

William Tell & his son from opera "William Tell"

The composition of “William Tell” utilizes the following instruments:

  • Strings - harp, double basses, violoncelli, viola along with first and second violins
  • Percussion - cymbals, bass drum, triangle, and two timpani 
  • Brass - 3 trombones, 2 trumpets in E, and 4 horns 
  • Woodwinds: 2 each of bassoons, clarinets, and oboes, a flute and a piccolo

The renowned overture to “William Tell” is often performed independently of the opera. Although the “Finale” of the Opera is undoubtedly more prominent from a musical perspective, the Overture is unique in its own right. Rossini had structured it in 4 contrasting sections, each section depicting a distinct story. This was also the first time the renowned composer had crafted something like this. The Structure of the overture encompassed approximately 12 minutes, portraying a musical image of life in the Opera’s locale - the Swiss Alps. Even Rossini's most vocal critics termed it as a “symphony in 4 parts.” However, unlike an authentic symphony, the overture transitions from one part to another without any break.  

The Prelude is composed in “E major” by utilizing a combination of double basses and 5 cellos. It is a deliberately slow passage of music that starts in “E minor,” duly complemented by the basses and cellos. Two subtle timpani rolls offer the hint of an imminent storm. This 3-minute section finishes with a high cello note that is sustained throughout the end.

The second section of the Overture, known as “Storm” is played in “E minor” using a full orchestra, starting with violins. The initial phrases are intervened by three short notes using the following wind instruments - oboes, flute and piccolo, followed by bassoons and clarinets. When the storm breaks out over Lake Lucerne, there is a palpable increase in tempo through the bass drum, trombones, and French horns. Gradually, the volume subsides along with the storm. The section lasts around 3 minutes and ends with a solo flute music.

“Ranz des vaches,” or the third and “ pastorale section” of the Overture signifies the calmness after the storm has passed away. The phrase means “Call to the Cows,” and features an English Horn. The same instrument then collaborates with the flute in alternating phrases, which finally culminates in a duet. The same melody is used several times throughout the opera and eventually becomes a leitmotif.

In the Finale, which is also touted as the “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” the composer utilizes “E major,” which is further accentuated by trumpets. The final act lasts about 3 minutes and offers an alluring tale of the Swiss soldier’s ultimate victory and liberation of Switzerland from the Austrian regime.

Usage In Popular Culture

Painting of a scene from "William Tell"

  • The “Overture” of the opera has been used several times in popular culture, the most famous instance being in the theme music of the movie “The Lone Ranger.” 
  • Johann Strauss Sr. had attributed the Finale of the Overture in his opera titled “William Tell Galop.” 
  • The movies titled “The Eagle Shooting Heroes” and “A Clockwork Orange” utilizes several elements of the Overture throughout. 
  • The theme of the Finale is again quoted in the “15th symphony” by Dmitri Shostakovich, where he uses it in the very first movement. 
  • “Ranz des vaches” has been extensively used in animated cartoons, signifying daybreak. The most popular usage is in “The Old Mill” by Walt Disney. 
  • The overture again features in the animated Mickey Mouse movie titled “The Band Concert.”
  • The finale is also used in the episode titled “The Hot Piano” of The Flintstones and “Yankee Doodle Daffy” in the cartoon Daffy Duck.   
  • In 2001, a hip-hop version of the Overture was used by DJ Shadow for a Reebok campaign, and also by Honda in 2008 for an electronic Honda Civic advertisement. 
  • Lark cigarettes used the theme in their campaign titled “Show us your Lark pack!” 
  • The finale is also used by the Hong Kong Jockey Club in their sporting events. 
  • In the episode titled “Lost and Found,” the protagonist cartoon character Noddy uses the tune of the finale while searching for a toy clown.

Iconic 

The success of “William Tell” can be traced back to Rossini’s involvement with the Paris Opera. The institution had a history of demanding grandiose music, albeit, with heroic and noble historical storylines. This distinct style was termed as “grand opera” during the 1830s. When Rossini arrived, he had to face this elite genre, and “William Tell” is the proof of how he rose up to the challenge. Rossini has duly explored the conflicts faced by an oppressed nation, along with the challenges of paternal relations through his music. The results were a sense of profound solitude - beautifully captured through the contrasting storms and the majestic silence of nature.

The colossal musical forces at play here serve up a sense of adventure. Puccini exhibits the dilemmas and the obstacles faced by the human mind - a father struggling to save his family, also tasked to serve for the greater good. An icon, a hero whose influence goes beyond the mere boundaries of a nation is captured by an equally brilliant musician, whose influence and is prevalent even today. Rossini’s usage of “C major” in the finale is a testament to both his own genius, an act of defiance to face all musical challenges and overcome them. In his opera, that seat is reserved for one William Tell.

 

 

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