Rossini’s William Tell Overture
Notes by TŌN horn player Shane Conley
William Tell premiered at the Paris Opera on August 3rd, 1829. It was the 39th and final opera of Gioachino Rossini, one of the most prolific and popular opera composers of the 19th century. William Tell is based on the eponymous play by William Schiller, which tells the story of a 14th-century Swiss folk hero who helps to liberate Switzerland from the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. Both Schiller’s and Rossini’s adaptations should be considered in a context of romantic nationalism. Schiller’s play was written during the wars following the French Revolution, Rossini’s opera in the context of a growing movement for Italian unification in the face of renewed Austrian control of Italy. Rossini’s father was actually imprisoned in 1800 for supporting French Republican forces in their campaigns against the Papal States.
The overture has had much more success as a concert piece, becoming a mainstay of the symphonic repertoire. The composer Hector Berlioz described his interpretation of the overture as a symphony in four movements. The first section is often associated with calmness, solitude, and dawn. It is played alone by the celli and basses. The second section is typically described as a storm and is very reminiscent of the storm from Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. The third section is pastoral, depicting the calm of the Swiss alpine landscape and featuring prominent solos for the English horn and flute. The fourth and final section is the famous “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” popularized by its appearance in various media such as The Lone Ranger and A Clockwork Orange.