Gioachino Rossini: William Tell Overture

Context

Born in February 1792 into a family of musicians in Pesaro, Italy, Gioachino Rossini began to learn the piano from age eight. Rossini became a multi-instrumentalist at a young age, being competent at piano, cello and horn by his late teens. Rossini is most well-known for his operas, and he wrote his first when he was fourteen years old, however, this was not staged until he was twenty, making it his sixth staged opera.

Whilst studying at the Conservatorio di Bologna, Rossini changed from being a cello student, to a much freer composition course. His first opera debut was at age eighteen with La cambiale di matrimonio, which gave him the platform he needed to keep writing and staging operas.

Some of Rossini’s best-known and loved operas include:

  • Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
  • La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
  • L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers)
  • Otello
  • Tancredi
  • La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie)
  • Guillaume Tell (William Tell)

William Tell was originally a drama written by Friedrich Schiller in 1804. The play centres around Swiss marksman William Tell, and shows the Swiss struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire in the early fourteenth-century. Rossini wrote a four-part opera with the same name, which premiered at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris on 3rd August 1829. However, after three performances one of the four acts was cut due to the sheer length of the opera – which in full comes to around four hours in duration. As well as this, the casting requirements, set and musical demands has meant that this opera has not been staged in full many times since its conception.

The overture is perhaps the most well-known part of the opera, with the last section being the most famous. The overture is split into four sections, which all lead into each other with no breaks. The sections are as follows:

  • The Prelude (Dawn)
  • The Storm
  • The Ranz des Vaches (Call to the Dairy Cows)
  • The Finale (March of the Swiss Soldiers)

 

The overture has become a staple in concert repertoire, with the final section appearing in lots of modern-day popular media, most notably as the theme tune for The Lone Ranger. Interestingly, the overture did not originate with this opera, in fact 24 operas before Rossini composed this overture for one of his earlier operas, Elizabeth, Queen Of England. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, the William Tell Overture does not take its melodies from the opera, but a pre-existing work by Rossini.

 

The Music

I. The Prelude

Beginning with The Prelude, which fluctuates between E minor/major, a solo cello sings out the initial melody, which is then answered by the cello and bass sections. This slow and very elegant opening section is warm and chorale-like, with the lower strings mixing their low timbres together. A pizzicato section begins and is interrupted by a low rumbling of the timpani – which represents the impending storm. This section evokes nature, dance and serenity, the literal calm before the storm.

 

II. The Storm

The Storm section is in E minor, and is started by the violins and violas who take over from the calm lower strings. The frantic perpetuum mobile-like feel to this section sets the tone for the storm. This is also the first time the whole orchestra are playing in the overture, which shows Rossini’s dramatic dynamic contrasts and his playful melodies.

The string motif are accented by short wind interventions. These begin with three notes in the upper winds (piccolo, flute and oboes) which then moves to the lower winds (clarinets and bassoons). There is a noticeable build up to the orchestra entering, with the brass leading the outburst of the storm. There is a call and response between the strings and winds and the brass sections, with fast descending melodies that mimic each other. The adrenaline of this section begins to die away, with the winds playing their three-note motif again. This section ends with a solo flute, signifying the storm subsiding.

 

III. Ranz des Vaches

The third section, Ranz des Vaches, signifies the calm after the storm. This section has a wonderful stillness to it, and the melodies reflect a pastoral countryside. Modulating the G major, the ‘Call to the Dairy Cows’ features the cor anglais. The cor anglais and flute play alternating phrases and this is meant to represent daybreak. Some of the melodies from this section have been used in popular media, such as Disney’s The Old Mill. This simple section is very effective considering it is sandwiched between two fiery and fast-paced sections.

 

IV. March of the Swill Soldiers

The Finale, often called the March of the Swiss Soldiers, breaks through the pastoral countryside with a fast gallop lead by the trumpets. The Finale alludes to the final act of the opera, where the Swiss are victorious after battle, which liberates their homeland from Austrian repression. The whole orchestra enters with the famous gallop motif, which infers galloping horses, or even a hero riding to the rescue. However, in the opera there are no horses.

The orchestra have come together for this Finale, and many of the fast-paced motifs are played tutti by the whole ensemble. This section is exciting, frantic and is still incredibly popular today. The Finale was also quoted by Dmitri Shostakovich in the first movement of his Symphony No. 15.

 

Final Thoughts

Although the full opera is seldom seen, the overture is now perhaps one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever composed. A particular favourite for training bands and training musicians, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is a staple in classical music repertoire.

 

Happy Reading!

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