Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Overture to Gillaume Tell (1829)

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Gioachino Rossini (February 29, 1792–November 13, 1868)

Rossini was satisfied with second rate material when it would take too long to produce first rate material. His operatic overtures were frequently reused and hastily composed. Known for the breakneck speed at which he wrote operas, Rossini purportedly finished composing an aria in the time it took him to cook a pot of noodles. His most famous opera, the Barber of Seville was written in 13 days, and, as was usual for Rossini, the well-known overture was actually taken from another of his operas. Although his theatrical career began at age 18, by the time Rossini was 37, he had written 37 operas.

Although he lived to be 76, Rossini retired after writing William Tell. A creative near-silence lasted until the end of his life. In the 39 years that remained to him, Rossini wrote only some church music and piano music, but no more operas. There are many theories surrounding this unparalleled silence. The most convincing theory is that a nervous disorder (neurasthenia) prevented him from summoning the creative energy and concentration required to write operas.

William Tell was written in 1829, and was Rossini’s last and most ambitious opera. It was based on a drama by the German poet Schiller. In this opera, Rossini experiments with a precursor of leitmotif, the compositional technique developed extensively by Wagner. Even the arrogant Wagner credited Rossini for that. William Tell is also an opera of large scope. To perform it in entirety would take 6 hours! Hector Berlioz called the overture “a work of immense talent which resembles genius so closely as to be mistaken for it."

The overture to William Tell is more like a symphonic poem than an overture. It is in four parts. In the first section, the celli and basses depict a sunrise over Swiss mountains. Next, there is a storm. With its passage comes the famous and tranquil ranz des vaches melody played by the English horn. Next, the trumpets signal the approach of the Swiss army, and the overture is concluded with the famous march popularized by the American TV show The Lone Ranger.