August 2011

Overture to William Tell

by Gioachino Antonio Rossini

Gioachino Rossini (pronounced JOH-ah-KEE-no roh-SEE-nee) was born in 1792 in Pesaro, Italy. He wrote a lot of music, and quite a bit of it was for operas. In 1829, he wrote an opera about the legend of William Tell.

William Tell was a man who lived in Switzerland in the late 1200s. Austria was controlling Switzerland at this time. The legend goes that an Austrian leader named Gessler put his hat on top of a pole in this Swiss village, and demanded that everyone bow to this hat as they passed by it. William Tell did not bow, and was arrested. Gessler heard that William Tell (and his son) were expert archers (particularly with the crossbow). Gessler demanded that William Tell use his crossbow to shoot an apple off the head of his son, or William and his son would be executed. If he succeeded, he would be freed. He succeeded, and through a series of events, eventually assassinated Gessler. This led to the formation of the Swiss Confederation and eventually it's independence from Austria.

The opera was never really that popular, but the overture is one of the most well-known pieces of classical music in existence. The overture is about 12 minutes long and is actually broken up into four parts. It's almost a mini-symphony. But in a symphony, there's usually a pause or silent break between movements. In the overture, one part leads into the next with no break.

The first part is called "Dawn", and is probably the least well-known. It's quiet, but slowly builds to indicate that it's about to storm. Listen for flutes and other instruments representing initial drops of rain toward the end of the part.

The second part is called "Storm". This is better known and is used in movies and cartoons to represent a dangerous excitement or a mounting problem (or sometimes even an actual storm).

The third part might actually be the most well-known part, though few people recognize it as being associated with the William Tell Overture. It's called "Ranz des Vaches" or "Call to the Cows". This piece is used very frequently in movies and cartoons. It almost always represents a sunrise or dawn breaking.

Peaceful though the third part is, it breaks unexpectedly into the fourth part: the "Finale". This part is the part that most people think about when they think of the William Tell Overture. This is used heavily in movies, radio, TV, and especially, cartoons. Whenever a gallopping horse or a "ride to the rescue" needs to be represented, you will often hear this piece. Your parents and grandparents will know this piece as the Theme to The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger was a show about a masked Western hero. It was first a radio show in 1933, but then moved to television and even movies over the next few decades. The Finale from the William Tell Overture was almost universally recognized as the Lone Ranger's theme, due to the popularity of the show.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

This is a tough one. I'd certainly heard parts of the overture through cartoons at a very early age (the primary source was probably Looney Tunes). I remember knowing that the Finale was the Theme to the Lone Ranger, though I hadn't seen a lot of the show.

It probably wasn't until I was in Junior High School (early to mid teens) that I recognized that the Finale was a smaller portion of a larger piece, and that the other pieces were also well-known. By the time I was on my mission, I made sure (among my classical collection) that I had a recording of the overture, but if I remember correctly, the recording I had was just of the "Call to the Cows" and the "Finale", not the full overture.

The recording that I'm providing for you today represents the first recording of the full overture that I've owned. Sadly, this was purchased just a few days ago, but it's a good one. Worth the wait.


As I mentioned, the overture is about 12 minutes long, but it will be well worth your listen. I would encourage smaller children to listen for the beginning of the rain storm at the beginning, then see if they can see (in their mind) the storm breaking, and then the calm after the storm ("Call to the Cows"), and then, the Finale's just fun.

Overture to William Tell by Gioachino Antonio Rossini (12:25)

For those interested, this recording was performed by Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

"Dawn" takes up the first third of the piece, but I really don't know it that well. I do enjoy the use of flutes to represent the coming rainstorm. Other than that, it just sets a peaceful scene.

"Storm" is awesome, and it is really too short. If you've been following this series at all, you know I played trombone through school, and the use of low-brass in this section is powerful. The strings represent the blowing torrent of rain. The brass almost represents thunder. It's exciting and powerful, and I do enjoy that type of music.

"Call to the Cows" is about as serene as it gets. It's the ultimate representation of the quiet dawn. You just can't get uptight while listening to it.

"Finale" is exciting and heroic at the same time. It seems impossible to listen to it without picturing gallopping horses. There's something about the way the rhythm is done that inspires that thought in your mind. But besides that, you just feel good. It's heroic. It's the ride to the rescue. There've been times where this part has actually brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Extra Credit:

So now it's time for some fun. Keeping to tradition, here's the conductor's score of the William Tell Overture, should you wish to follow along.

Conductor's Score for Overture to William Tell by Gioachino Antonio Rossini

Next, we'll have a series of examples of how the William Tell Overture appears in cartoons. Here are three examples from Looney Tunes.

Storm [excerpt from The Up-Standing Sitter]

Call to the Cows [excerpt from Don't Give Up On The Sheep]

Finale [excerpt from Bugs Bunny Rides Again]

And I had to stick one more in there for Finale. To quote Daffy in this one, "This makes no sense and so do I." [excerpt from Yankee Doodle Daffy]

Now, because I enjoy electronic music, I decided to include this rendition by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos. This is from the soundtrack to the movie "A Clockwork Orange". I can't recommend this movie, and I can guarantee you that if you ask what was going on in the movie while this music was playing, you will be sorry you did. But the soundtrack is a great example of early electronic music, and I enjoy it.

William Tell Overture (Abridged) from A Clockwork Orange performed by Walter/Wendy Carlos (1:20)

And now, how could I possibly present the William Tell Oveture, without bringing you the Spike Jones rendition of it? Spike Jones was a comedian of the 1940s and 1950s. Along with his slapstick style and generally wacky songs, he was also well-known for doing parodies of well-known classical pieces, using such extra instruments as car horns, duck calls, and cowbells (not to mention his own vocal sound effects). This is our introduction to a hard-luck horse named Feetlebaum. The announcer you hear is Doodles Weaver, who is the uncle of Sigourney (and Trajan) Weaver (I mention Trajan, because he lives a couple of blocks away). Notice that Spike takes you through Storm, Call to the Cows, and the Finale. Enjoy!

William Tell Overture performed by Spike Jones (3:19)