Born: February 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy
Died: November 13, 1868 in Passy, France
Overture to William Tell
Premiered: August 3, 1829 in Paris, France
Composing is often considered a lifelong calling: few composers contemplate retiring from their career, and even fewer act upon it. This was not the case with Gioachino Rossini, the most successful composer of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in the 1820s. Not only did Rossini announce his retirement publicly at the age of 37, but he also negotiated a contract with the government of Charles X to secure a lifetime annuity, regardless of his output. Rossini even threatened to withdraw Guillaume Tell, his eagerly anticipated final opera, if his terms were not met. After some tug of war, the opera was launched successfully in 1829, and Rossini vacationed in Bologna with the signed contract in hand and more than half of his life still before him. The reason for his departure at the height of his career is unclear. Perhaps he was simply tired from years of bringing forth operas one after another, a total of 39 within the span of 19 years. Musicologist Philip Gossett suggested that Rossini’s withdrawal had to do with the changing political and artistic milieu in Paris. Rossini was close to the old regime that was dethroned in 1830, and the emergence of German opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer as a new household name may have been demoralizing for the already exhausted composer. Rossini considered writing more operas after his semi-retirement but never actually yielded another one, making Guillaume Tell his last operatic output. (He wrote smaller-scale works for his circle of friends later in his life.)
Rossini poured his creative energy into his final opera. To start, he composed his most ambitious and original overture yet, discarding his well-known practice of recycling his own music—a habit developed as he produced three to four operas a year during his early career.
An overture was traditionally an introductory instrumental piece, or a prelude, played before the main acts of an opera. By the time of Guillaume Tell, however, opera overtures had turned into lengthy, complete works. Yet, even by this standard, the Guillaume Tell overture is unusual, having four distinct sections that resemble movements of a symphony. Each section has a well-defined and complete musical idea that alludes to the scenery or key moments of the opera. Put differently, the Guillaume Tell overture lies somewhere between an overture and a symphony, heralding a new symphonic genre known as symphonic poem that became popular during the late nineteenth century. In addition to such formal innovation, the overture superbly displays Rossini’s mastery of programmatic music, and is certainly one of the most effective among Rossini’s overtures. Some features to listen for…
Some features to listen for...
Each section of the overture represents different episodes in the Swiss Alps, the backdrop of Guillaume Tell. The first part depicts a quiet dawn before the storm: an extended cello solo passage accompanied by double basses evokes the mysterious and expansive forest, while the quiet timpani rolls interjecting the sweet cello melodies hint at distant thunder. After a sustained high note by the first cello, restless music in E minor signals that the storm has arrived. The wind instruments (piccolo, flute, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) indicate the rapid development of the storm. With the entrance of the full orchestra and the emphatic passages by the brass, we know that the storm is in full swing. As the storm abates, fewer and fewer instruments play, until only the flute remains. The ensuing idyllic music signals the calm after the storm. The Ranz des vaches or “Call to the Cows” is heard in the delicate exchanges between the English horn and the flute, later joined by the triangle. The pastorale is suddenly interrupted by a trumpet call, which is followed by the famous galop (widely known as the theme music to The Lone Ranger). Also known as the “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” this dynamic final section in E major foreshadows the final act in the opera, where the Swiss soldiers victoriously defeat the Austrian army.
- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Music Department, Duke University