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Overture to William Tell

About the Work

Gioacchino Rossini
Quick Look Composer: Gioacchino Rossini
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Stéphane Denève, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano Nov. 3 - 5, 2005
© Richard Freed
The last of Rossini's operas, the four-act Guillaume Tell , with a composite French libretto based on Schiller's German play Wilhelm Tell , was produced at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829. The National Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance of the Overture on November 17, 1939, under Hans Kindler; the most recent one, conducted by Markand Thakar, was given on October 17, 2000. The NSO recorded the Overture's final section under Howard Mitchell for RCA Victor.

The Overture is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.

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In his earlier years as an opera composer, Rossini turned out as many as four works for the stage in a single year, and to keep up that pace he sometimes did a bit of recycling, at times using the same overture for two or three unrelated operas. By 1824, when he settled in Paris as director of the Théâtre Italien, he had begun to slow his pace: he was then 32 years old and had 33 operas to his credit, but in that year, for the first time since 1809, he did not produce a single new one. Five years later, with more than half his life still ahead of him, he concluded his activity as a composer of operas with a work which, fittingly enough, stands as the grandest and most ambitious of his efforts for the stage. For such an opera a recycled overture would not do, and Rossini created for it the most original and elaborate of his instrumental introductions.

The layout of this overture is strikingly different from the general format Rossini and other composers were writing at that time. Its four distinct sections, corresponding to the movements of a symphony, remind us that the symphony was in fact developed from the old Italian opera overture. Even today, Italian terminology designates a full-scale opera overture a sinfonia (in contradistinction to the shorter and simpler preludio ). Most of Johann Christian Bach's little symphonies ( sinfonie ) were actually composed to serve as overtures to specific operas, and so were many of Mozart's early ones. Sebastian Bach used the term sinfonia to label the instrumental introductions to his church cantatas, while he and his contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann called their large-scaled orchestral suites “overtures.” Toward the end of the eighteenth century the great symphonies which Joseph Haydn composed for his two extended visits to London were also introduced as grand overtures. T

While Rossini in this case did not simply concoct a potpourri, he did take all the material for this overture from the opera itself, and its four sections were given (or have acquired) descriptive titles of their own. The opening one, called A T D AWN , depicts sunrise in the Swiss countryside, in imaginative coloring provided by a quintet of cellos, with a prominent solo part for the quintet's leader. Next comes T HE S TORM , which may owe a bit to the model provided by Beethoven in the penultimate movement of his Pastoral Symphony ; it is in any event one of the most graphically descriptive storm pieces from any source prior to those of Berlioz and his successors. This in turn gives way to T HE C ALM , in which the English horn represents a cowherd playing a ranz des vaches on his rustic pipes, with flute accompaniment. (The tune is an actual ranz from Appenzell which André Grétry used in the Overture to his own Guillaume Tell a year before Rossini was born, and which Giacomo Meyerbeer used in his 1859 opera Dinorah. ) The reverie is broken off abruptly by the fanfare announcing the celebrated F INALE , a blazingly animated portrayal of Tell's ride. In the somewhat shorter version of the opera which Rossini arranged some time after the premiere, the words “Victoire et liberté” were fitted to the famous “ride” music to conclude the work.

As for the celebrated latter-day fictional rider associated with this music since 1933, The Lone Ranger , with its imaginative use of music by Liszt, Borodin and others as well as this overture, may have been as effective as Disney's film Fantasia in attracting new listeners to concert music. Readers interested in pursuing this subject are referred to The Mystery of the Masked Man's Music , an exhaustive exploration of the various materials by Reginald M. Jones, Jr., published by Scarecrow Press, Inc.