William Tell: Breaking down the world's most famous overture

Thursday, 3 November, 2022
Guillaume Tell Shooting The Apple Off His Sons Head

Irish National Opera’s new Marketing Executive (and mezzo-soprano) Sarah Thursfield shares her thoughts on the enduring appeal of the William Tell overture.

Why does a dance party break out in INO HQ every time the heralding trumpets announce the March of the Swiss Soldiers? Is it a classic case of pre-show mania? Do we all need more fresh air? Or is there something hidden within the William Tell overture that makes it infectiously good? Let’s look at the history behind it.

Composing the overture was a last-minute job. With the premiere performance fast approaching in August 1829, Rossini scavenged his past works only to find an opera he composed years prior, Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, or Elizabeth, Queen of England. He (very sustainably) recycled his existing ideas to put into the overture, and even reworked Elizabeth’s first aria to become the beautiful ‘Una voce poco fa’ from one of his most popular works, The Barber of Seville. Even better – Elizabeth, Queen of England was itself a scavenge from Rossini’s even earlier works. Nothing like a bit of self-plagiarism!

It's a well-known fact that the world’s most famous overture has an enduring hold on audiences, lone rangers and beyond – even Berlioz described it as “a symphony in four parts”. So, what makes it so great? What can you expect from the impeccable forces of the Irish National Opera Orchestra, led fearlessly by Fergus Sheil?

Let’s break it down into its four sections, starting with the prelude, Dawn (which not one, but three of our staff members mistook for Peer Gynt at one time or another). Click the link below to listen along with us!

Welsh National Opera (Opera Cenedlaethol Cymru)'s recording of the William Tell overture

A tender start to what’ll become a raucous finish, Dawn (0:00 onwards) is a lower-string fest of five cellos with double bass accompaniment, with a solo cello evoking the image of the sun clambering over the Swiss Alps, being answered in turn by the cellos and double basses. But listen closely – can you hear that distant rumble by the timpani, evoking the breaking storm to come in the second section?

Acting as a slap-in-the-face contrast from our gentle beginnings, we rip from E major into E minor in Storm (3:10 onwards), with upper woodwind, strings and timpani announcing this bracing new theme. The storm breaks in earnest with the entrance of our brass section, with the dynamic taking new height. However, as sudden as the storm breaks it again subsides, petering out into a lone flute.

Now comes the Ranz de vaches (Call to the Cows - 5:50 onwards) – another crowd pleaser which is heavily featured in popular media to signify morning or daybreak (yes, it’s the one you’re now singing in your head). This is a pastorale section which heavily features the cor anglais. The melody explored by the cor anglais in this section becomes a leitmotif throughout the entire work – in opera terms, this is a recurring musical phrase which is associated with a person, place or theme.

And the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the galop, or March of the Swiss Soldiers (8:38 onwards). Tune! Taking the form of an Intro-A-B-A-Coda, this dynamic finish alludes to the third act of the opera, telling the tale of the Swiss soldiers’ victory over their Austrian oppressors in winning back their homeland.

There’s a reason you immediately think of horses when you hear this section – although no horses or cavalry feature in William Tell, this segment has been used time and time again to depict horses, racing and rescue missions. Most famously, the radio series, television series and film The Lone Ranger used the galop as its theme tune.

So – why do we all know this particular overture, when there are hundreds of overtures out there? We have popular culture and media to thank. Refreshing!

Among those who have used excerpts from this certified banger are Disney, and the movies A Clockwork Orange and The Princess Diaries. Even before technology took over however, this overture had an enduring appeal to none other than Franz Liszt and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Liszt transcribed a solo piano version of the overture in 1838 and performed it regularly as part of his concert repertoire. Shostakovich quoted the galop in the first movement of his Symphony no. 15 (to take Rossini down a peg, many other composers were also paid homage in this work). He went on to say about his decision, “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them.”

Well – now that we’ve given you an anything-but-brief summary of what you’re hearing and where you might have heard it before, the only logical next step is to hear it live!

William Tell is live in the Gaiety Theatre from 8 – 13 November 2022. Booking available below.