William Tell: Story, Legend, Music & Composer

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Review the legend of William Tell and learn how this famous story inspired an important play and later, an opera. At the end, test your knowledge with a quiz.


Did you ever hear the story of George Washington as a little boy chopping down his father's prized cherry tree? When confronted by his father, the young George confessed, saying 'I cannot tell a lie'. That legend, like many others, is based on some facts. In this case it highlights that George Washington, who became the first president of the United States, was remembered as an honest man -- someone who could be counted upon to tell the truth. Accounts like these are not necessarily intended to be historically accurate. Their purpose is to celebrate the famous qualities of an individual, and to serve as an inspiration for future generations. The legend of William Tell comes from Switzerland. While much of it cannot be proven, this legend emphasizes the conviction and bravery displayed by an individual now considered a national hero of that country.

According to Swiss lore, William Tell was a 14th century hunter skilled in using the crossbow. At the time, a tyrant named Hermann Gessler insisted that everyone should honor him; Tell refused to do so. Gessler decides to punish Tell. Knowing of Tell's hunting skills, Gessler orders that Tell's little boy be forced to stand in the public square with an apple upon his head, and for his father to shoot the apple with an arrow. Tell accomplishes this successfully and the townspeople rejoice. Tell, however, has a second arrow and Gessler demands to know why. Tell responds that it was intended to kill Gessler if his little boy had gotten hurt. Versions of the legend vary, but most end with Tell eventually killing Gessler with an arrow. This act inspires his fellow countrymen to rise up and fight for Swiss freedom.

William Tell monument, built in 1895
William Tell monument, built in 1895

The Story Becomes a Play

The actual story of William Tell cannot be proven. It took place at a time when accounts such as this were passed along to future generations through oral tradition. The first written version appears over a century later. It is now considered a legend by the Swiss people, recounting the bravery and determination of a man who inspired his fellow countrymen to fight for freedom.

It was this legend and its ideal of liberty that attracted a young German poet named Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) to adapt the story into a play. At the time, Europe was experiencing tremendous political upheaval. Napoleon Bonaparte had recently been declared Emperor of France. So audiences could easily identify with the oppression and desire for freedom found in the William Tell legend. (Napoleon Bonaparte was eventually overthrown; he died in exile in 1821.)

Meet the Composer

Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote nearly 40 operas, with The Barber of Seville (1816) still a favorite today. While he was residing in France in 1804, it was Schiller's play that inspired Rossini to write an opera. Guillaume Tell (William Tell) premiered in 1829 and turned out to be Rossini's last opera. It remained popular for several decades but is rarely performed today. What has remained famous is the opera's overture.

Gioachino Rossini
Image of Rossini

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