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William Tell
(French title: Guillaume Tell)
An Opera by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini

Of all Rossini’s tragic operas, "William Tell" has alone retained the regard of the public. It is founded, needless to say, on the well-known story of Tell and his endeavours to relieve his countrymen, the Swiss, from Austrian domination. Several pens were engaged on the somewhat tedious libretto, Rossini’s amongst them, but all followed Schiller in the main.

Leutold, having killed an Austrian soldier in revenge for his child’s abduction, is flying for safety. Tell succours him, and this incurs the wrath of Gessler, the Austrian despot. Melchtal, the patriarch of the village, suffers death, by Gessler’s orders, for alleged insubordination. His son Arnold is in love with Mathilda, Gessler’s sister, and hesitates between love and duty. Finally he joins Tell and the other conspirators in an oath of vengeance. An excited, warlike scene follows, with the cry "To arms!" To discover the plotters, Gessler demands obeissance to his hat, which is placed on a pole in the square. Here comes the famous archery scene. Tell refuses homage to the hat, and is ordered to shoot the apple from his son’s head. He accomplishes the perilous feat, but discloses a second arrow, with which, he declares, he meant to despatch Gessler had he killed his son. For this he is thrown into prison. Then Arnold raises a band of sympathisers and rescues Tell; Tell kills Gessler; and Arnold and Mathilda are united.

"William Tell," though never Rossini’s most popular work, is in many respects his finest. It was written in a style entirely different from anything he had previously attempted. As Fetis said, "the work displays a new man in an old one, and proves that it is in vain to measure the action of genius." It is simple, emotional, and eminently dramatic. Here the singer has not so much to display vocal agility as to express human feeling. It has a seriousness, in keeping with the subject, that contrasts to advantage with the flimsy style of the conventional operas which Rossini turned out like a machine. "The choral and instrumental parts," says Mr. Streatfeild, "are particularly important; the latter especially have a colour and variety which may be considered to have had a large share in forming the taste for delicate orchestral effects for which modern composers are famous." The brilliant overture, with its thunderstorm, its Swiss "Ranz de Vaches," and its trumpet calls, is a familiar and widely appreciately number on the concert platform.

"Tell" was written for the Grand Opera in Paris, where it was first produced in August 1829. The audience received it with comparative indifference, but Rossini had become quite callous about first-night opinion. Ten minutes after the curtain had fallen he appeared in the librettist’s drawing-room, cool as a cucumber. "Well?" they asked him. "Well," he said, "it’s a quasi-fiasco. The overture went magnificently; there were several splendid effects in the first Act; and the whole of the second was an unbroken triumph. But the third and the fourth were very coldly received. It was a quasi-fiasco." He did not tell his friends that at the close of the performance the Director of the Opera had expressed himself as so disgusted that he sent for Rossini and declared he must annul a contract made with him for certain other works. "Don’t worry yourself, my good monsieur," said Rossini; "I’ll cancel the contract at once, and, if you like, I’ll add that I’ll never write another opera as long as I live." Unfortunately he kept his word.

There are many stories connected with "Tell." It was always too long, and, even in Paris, soon after its production the management began to perform only one Act at a time. "I hope you won’t be annoyed," said the manager to Rossini one morning, "but to-night we propose to perform the second Act." "What! the whole of it?" asked Rossini in reply. The original "Tell" was in five Acts; now it is always played in three.


Gioacchino Antonio Rossini poster

Portrait of Rossini
Size: 12.5 in x 18 in.
Art Print.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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