Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.
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.
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.
Rossini's William Tell Overture is written in four large sections with each part depicting some aspect of the Swiss Alps. It begins quietly with 'Dawn', a solo cello answered by four other cellos, playing music intended to represent sunrise in the mountains. As this scene unfolds, thunder can be heard in the distance. This leads to 'Storm', that begins with a few drops of rain and quickly develops into a dramatic downpour (played by the brass section) with flashes of lightning (portrayed by cymbal crashes) and thunder (bass drum and rolls on the timpani).
The storm subsides to a period of calm with gentle music featuring the English horn and flute evoking a quiet pastoral scene. The final section, and also the most familiar, is the 'March of the Swiss Troops'. For many listeners, the music calls to mind galloping horses. This particular portion of the overture was used as the theme for 'The Lone Ranger', originally a radio drama that began in 1933 and later a television series from 1949 to 1957. This famous music has since been used and parodied often.
The legend of William Tell comes from 14th century Swiss folklore. The story cannot be proven true, but it highlights the spirit and bravery of a man who inspired others to fight for freedom. The story was turned into a play by Friedrich von Schiller during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was very popular because audiences could easily identify with the desire for liberty.
In 1829, Italian composer Gioachino Rossini transformed the play into an opera. The opera was performed regularly for several decades, but the overture is heard most today. The final portion of the overture known as 'March of the Swiss Troops' was used as the famous theme for 'The Lone Ranger' radio show and television series.
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