Overture to William Tell
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), and strings
Length: c. 12 minutes
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 28, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
“… the piece as a whole is treated with incontestable superiority, a verve such as Rossini had perhaps never shown before in such alluring fashion… the overture to William Tell is a work of an immense talent which resembles genius so closely as to be mistaken for it.” The quote is by Hector Berlioz, who wrote at length – essentially in complimentary terms – about Rossini’s now very famous overture to his 35th and final opera.
The opera was premiered in Paris in 1829, just about the time Berlioz was preparing to compose his Symphonie fantastique, and the wild-eyed French composer-turned-critic found much to excite him in the opera’s overture. Some other of his observations are well worth noting. For example, of the overture as a whole, he said “… Rossini has so enlarged the form that his overture becomes, in truth, a symphony in four very distinct parts, instead of the piece in two movements with which composers are ordinarily satisfied.” Examining the four sections, Berlioz found “… the first paints well the calm of a profound solitude… It is a poetic opening… being written only for five solo cellos, accompanied by the rest of the basses and double basses, the whole orchestra being put in action in the following piece – the storm.”
Continuing his analysis, Berlioz said, “The storm is succeeded by a pastoral scene of the greatest freshness – the melody of the English horn is delicious, and the badinage of the flute above this tranquil song is of a ravishing freshness and gaiety. We observe in passing that the triangle, which is struck pianissimo at intervals, is very much in place; it is the bell of the flocks peacefully grazing while the shepherds utter their joyous songs.”
About the final, and most familiar section of the overture, Berlioz enthused, and then defused his enthusiasm, saying: “This last part of the overture is treated with a brio, a verve, which always excites an audience, but it is entirely based on a rhythm outworn today… (but) despite the lack of originality in the theme and the rhythm, despite an abuse of the bass drum which is very disagreeable at certain moments, and the slightly vulgar use of that instrument always to strike the accented beats… it must be admitted that the piece as a whole is treated with an incontestable superiority…” Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Berlioz.
— Orrin Howard