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What is William Tell?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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William Tell is the English name of two French operas, both called Guillaume Tell. The first is a three act drame mis en musique by the French composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry with a libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine, based on a play of the same name by Antoine-Marin Lemierre, and premiered in Paris in 1791. The second is a four act opera by Italian composer Gioachino Rossini with a libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis, with help from Armand Marrast and Adolphe Crémieux, and based on the play Wilhelm Tell by the German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller. Rossini’s William Tell premiered in Paris in 1829, at which point Grétry’s work was updated in order to compete.

Grétry’s William Tell premiered very soon after the French Revolution, which took place in 1789, so it is likely that the themes of a people revolting against an oppressive regime would have struck a chord with the audience in the Paris of the time. Rossini’s William Tell, on the other hand, was commissioned by the restored Bourbons. This work was Rossini’s last opera, and the overture is, perhaps, the best known part, particularly the section that was used as the theme music for The Lone Ranger.

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The story of William Tell takes place in Switzerland, where Austrians rule, while resistance grows. Both operas begin with an interrupted wedding. In each case, the happy domestic life of the Swiss is impinged upon by their oppressors. In Gréty’s Act I William Tell’s daughter is marrying the son of the Canton chief, Melktal. Melktal senior is detained by the Austrian commander, Guesler. Melktal refuses to salute Guesler’s cap, and in punishment, his eyes are put out. The party ends as the guests go off to deal with the political situation.

In Act II of Grétry’s William Tell, The Swiss arrive in the village square, and find that Tell has now also been arrested for refusing to salute the cap. He is ordered to shoot an apple off his son’s head, which he does, but Guesler finds that William Tell had a concealed arrow with which to shoot Guesler if he had failed in the trial. Guesler has William Tell taken away to be executed. In Act III, Tell escapes from prison as the revolt begins. Tell shoots Guesler, and the Swiss overcome the Austrians.

Rossini’s William Tell begins with the news that a young Swiss man, Arnold Melcthal, is in love with the Austrian princess, Mathilde. From there we move to a triple wedding that is interrupted by news that a Swiss herdsman has killed an Austrian soldier who attempted to rape the herdsman’s daughter. Tell volunteers to ferry him to safety. The Austrians are furious at the escape and both take a hostage and prepare to sack the village. In Act II, Mathilde and Arnold meet, and he decides to join the Austrian army to please her. The Swiss see what is happening, and try to convince Arnold to enlist with the Swiss rebels instead, aided in their argument by the fact that Arnold’s father has just been murdered by the Austrians. The Swiss gather to swear allegiance, and the call to arms is sounded.

In the opening of Act III of Rossini’s William Tell, Arnold feels that he must give up Mathilde, and tells her so. Back in the village square, Gesler has ordered a festival to celebrate 100 years of Austrian occupation, demanding that the Swiss salute his hat. Tell not only refuses to salute the hat, but is recognized as the one who aided the herdsman’s escape, and he is arrested. He tells his son to give the signal to begin the Swiss revolt, but the Austrians arrest his son as well. Gesler orders Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head, which he does, and is freed — until he confesses that he had a second arrow, intended for Gesler, which leads to his rearrest. Mathilde intervenes and demands to be given custody of Tell’s son. Gesler sends Tell to a dangerous dungeon in the fortress of Küssnacht. In Act IV, Tell’s wife joins her son and Mathilde, and the signal is given for the uprising. Tell escapes and kills Gesler. The village is freed, and the Swiss revel in the beauty of their country and freedom.

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