William Tell Overture

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Rossini by Grevedon.jpg
Rossini portrayed in 1828, the year he began composing William Tell

The William Tell Overture is the overture to the opera William Tell (original French title Guillaume Tell), whose music was composed by Gioachino Rossini. William Tell premiered in 1829 and was the last of Rossini's 39 operas, after which he went into semi-retirement (he continued to compose cantatas, sacred music and secular vocal music). The overture is in four parts, each following without pause.

There has been repeated use (and sometimes parody) of parts of this overture in both classical music and popular media. It was the theme music for The Lone Ranger in radio, television and film,[1] and has become widely associated with horseback riding since then. Two different parts were also used as theme music for the British television series The Adventures of William Tell, the fourth part (popularly identified in the US with The Lone Ranger) in the UK, and the third part, rearranged as a stirring march, in the US.

Franz Liszt prepared a piano transcription of the overture in 1838 (S.552) which became a staple of his concert repertoire.[2] There are also transcriptions by other composers, including versions by Louis Gottschalk for two and four pianos and a duet for piano and violin.[3]


The overture is scored for: a piccolo, a flute, two oboes (first or second oboe doubles a cor anglais), two clarinets in A, two bassoons, four natural horns in G and E, two trumpets in E, three trombones, timpani, triangle, bass drum and cymbals, and strings.


The overture, which lasts for approximately 12 minutes, paints a musical picture of life in the Swiss Alps, the setting of the opera.[4] It was described by Hector Berlioz, who usually loathed Rossini's works, as "a symphony in four parts".[5] But unlike an actual symphony with its distinct movements, the overture's parts transition from one to the next without a break.

1. Prelude: Dawn

The prelude is a slow section in E major and in an A-B-A-Coda structure, scored for five solo cellos accompanied by double basses. It begins in E minor with a solo cello which is in turn 'answered' by the remaining cellos and the double basses. An impending storm is hinted at by two very quiet timpani rolls (1st on E, 2nd on B) resembling distant thunder. The section ends with a very high sustained note played by the first cello.[6] Its duration is about three minutes.

2. Storm

This dynamic section in E minor and in an A-B-A structure, is played by the full orchestra. It begins with the violins and violas. Their phrases are punctuated by short wind instrument interventions of three notes each, first by the piccolo, flute and oboes, then by the clarinets and bassoons. The storm breaks out in full with the entrance of the French horns, trumpets, trombones, and bass drum. The volume and number of instruments gradually decreases as the storm subsides. The section ends with the flute playing alone.[6] It also lasts for about three minutes.

3. Ranz des vaches

This pastorale section in G major and in an A-B-A-Coda form, signifying the calm after the storm, begins with a Ranz des vaches or "Call to the Cows", featuring the cor anglais (English horn). The English horn then plays in alternating phrases with the flute, culminating in a duet with the triangle accompanying them in the background.[6] The melody appears several times in the opera, including the final act, and takes on the character of a leitmotif.[7] Its duration is a little more than two minutes.

This segment is often used in animated cartoons to signify daybreak or bucolic beauty, most notably in Walt Disney's The Old Mill[8] and Marv Newland's Bambi Meets Godzilla, which uses the tune as its main musical score before Godzilla stomps on Bambi.

4. Finale: March of the Swiss Soldiers

The finale, often called the "March of the Swiss Soldiers" in English,[9] is in E major like the prelude, but it is an ultra-dynamic galop heralded by trumpets and played by the full orchestra. It alludes to the final act, which recounts the Swiss soldiers' victorious battle to liberate their homeland from Austrian repression. The segment, in an Intro-A-B-A-Coda form, lasts for about three minutes.

Although there are no horses or cavalry charges in the opera, this segment is often used in popular media to denote galloping horses, a race, or a hero riding to the rescue. Its most famous use in that respect is as the theme music for The Lone Ranger; that usage has become so famous that the term "intellectual" has been defined as "a man who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger".[10] The Finale is quoted by Johann Strauss Sr. in his William Tell Galop (Op. 29b), published and premiered a matter of months after the Paris premiere of the original,[11] and by Dmitri Shostakovich in the first movement of his Symphony No. 15.[12]

Cultural references[edit]

Described by David Wondrich as a "frequent target of plunder by brass bands in the years during which they dominated the American musical landscape", the overture features prominently in Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoon The Band Concert.[13] It has also been used in cartoons parodying classical music (e.g. Bugs Bunny's Overtures to Disaster in which the overture's finale is performed by Daffy Duck and Porky Pig) or Westerns (e.g. Bugs Bunny Rides Again).[14] The finale has also been sung with specially written lyrics by Daffy Duck in Yankee Doodle Daffy [15] and by a quartet of singing policemen (as "Happy Anniversary") in The Flintstones episode "The Hot Piano".[16] "The Presidents Song" from the animated children's series Animaniacs is to the tune of William Tell Overture's finale,[17] as is a duet between Shari Lewis and Charlie Horse from Lamb Chop's Play Along in which Shari Lewis tires to sing the story of William Tell while Charlie Horse keeps talking about The Lone Ranger.

One of the most frequently used pieces of classical music in American advertising, the overture (especially its finale) appears in numerous ads,[18] with psychologist Joan Meyers-Levy suggesting that it is particularly suitable for those targeting male consumers.[19] It was used in a hip-hop version by DJ Shadow to accompany the 2001 "Defy Convention" advertisement campaign for Reebok athletic shoes and in an electronic version for a 2008 Honda Civic campaign.[20][21] Stan Freberg created a famous commercial for Jeno's Pizza Rolls built around the association of the Finale in the public mind with the Lone Ranger. At the time, Lark cigarettes was using the theme in a campaign called "Show us your Lark pack!"[22] and the Jeno's ad parodied this as well.[23] Kentucky Fried Chicken also used the tune for its "What-A-Lunch" promotion in the early '80's.

Amongst the films which feature the overture prominently is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, where an electronic rearrangement by Wendy Carlos of the finale is played during a fast motion orgy scene. The less frequently heard introductory portion of the overture is used as somber mood music later in the film.[24] The opening phrase of the Finale was used in The Princess Diaries when Security Chief Joe rescued Mia Thermopolis after her Mustang stalled out in a driving rainstorm.[25] The tune was also musically clucked by a group of Muppet chickens in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

The overture, especially its finale, also features in several sporting events. It has been used by the Hong Kong Jockey Club for many years.[26] During the third television time-out of every second half at Indiana University basketball games, the Indiana pep band and cheerleading squad perform the overture with cheerleaders racing around the court carrying eighteen flags. Indiana public address announcer Chuck Crabb said the tradition began in about 1979 or 1980.[27] Sportscaster Billy Packer called it "the greatest college timeout in the country".[27]

The Noddy episode "Lost and Found" uses the tune for a song of the same name that the toy characters sing when looking for Rusty, a toy clown.[28]

It was used as the theme song for the Canadian television show Camp Cariboo,[citation needed] "I've got a head like a ping-pong ball"—a variation on a campfire song popular among Girl Guides and Boy Scouts.[29]

A somewhat jazzy version of the tune was used as the theme music for the children's sketch comedy show, You Can't Do That on Television.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Studwell, William Emmett (1997). The Americana Song Reader. Routledge, pp. 90–91. ISBN 0-7890-0150-0
  2. ^ Hamilton, Kenneth (2005). The Cambridge Companion to Liszt. Cambridge University Press, p. 82. ISBN 0-521-62204-2
  3. ^ Starr, S. Frederick (2000). Louis Moreau Gottschalk. University of Illinois Press, pp. 84, 180. ISBN 0-252-06876-9
  4. ^ Kinscella, Hazel Gertrude (1941/2005). Music and Romance. Kessinger Publishing, pp. 389–390. ISBN 1-4179-9594-7.
  5. ^ Rous, Samuel Holland (1921). The Victrola Book of the Opera 6th edition. Victor Talking Machine Company, p. 426.
  6. ^ a b c Rudel, Anthony J. (1995). "William Tell Overture" in Classical Music Top 40. Simon and Schuster, pp. 271–276. ISBN 0-671-79495-7.
  7. ^ Sadie, Stanley and Macy, Laura eds. (2006). The Grove Book of Operas, p. 271. Oxford University Press.
  8. ^ Stories Behind the Greatest Classical Compositions
  9. ^ "Gioachino Rossini: William Tell", Classic FM (UK)
  10. ^ The quote has been attributed to Jack Guin writing in The Denver Post in 1962. (Brooklyn Barrister (1962), vol. 14, p. 107.) Variations of the quote have also been attributed to Dan Rather, as E. Gene Davis cited in 2007 in Get 'Em Laughing, (p. 329), for Trafford Publishing, and David Frost on BBC News, 23 March 2013, in "A Point of View: Hi-yo, silver screen".
  11. ^ Mailer, Franz; (English version by Keith Anderson) (2003). "Album Notes for Johann Strauss I: Edition – Vol. 3". Naxos Records. Retrieved 1 January 2018.
  12. ^ Greetham, David, 2010. The Pleasures of Contamination: Evidence, Text, and Voice in Textual Studies. Indiana University Press, p. 2. ISBN 0-253-22216-8.
  13. ^ Wondrich, David (2002). "I love to hear a minstrel band: Walt Disney's The Band Concert" in The Cartoon Music Book (edited by Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor), pp. 67–72. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 1-55652-473-0
  14. ^ Goldmark, Daniel (2005). Tunes for 'toons: music and the Hollywood cartoon. University of California Press, p. 39. ISBN 0-520-23617-3
  15. ^ Friedwald, Will and Beck, Jerry (1981). The Warner Brothers Cartoons, p. 101. Scarecrow Press
  16. ^ Erickson, Hal. The Flintstones: The Hot Piano". All Media Guide
  17. ^ Palan, Erica (June 25, 2013). "Educational Animaniacs Songs". Mental Floss. Retrieved April 6, 2020.
  18. ^ Twitchell, James B. (1996). Adcult USA: The triumph of advertising in American culture. Columbia University Press, p. 27. ISBN 0-231-10324-7.
  19. ^ Meyers-Levy, Joan (1993). "Gender Differences in Cortical Organization: Social and Biochemical Antecedents and Advertising Consequences" in Attention, Attitude, and Affect in Response to Advertising (edited by E. Clark, T. Brock, and D. Stewart). Routledge, p. 117. ISBN 0-8058-0756-X
  20. ^ Hickey, Lisa (2002). Design secrets: 50 real-life projects uncovered. Rockport Publishers, p. 145. ISBN 1-56496-663-1
  21. ^ Semuels, Alana (October 13, 2008). "New way to tout cars: a musical road". Los Angeles Times
  22. ^ Lark.wmv on YouTube
  23. ^ Famous Pizza Roll Commercial – from the 1960s!! on YouTube
  24. ^ Rasmussen, Randy (2005). Stanley Kubrick: Seven Films Analyzed, p. 157. McFarland
  25. ^ The Princess Diaries (2001) at IMDb
  26. ^ Anthony, Ted (15 June 1997). "Hong Kong's last colonial race day brings out the bets". Associated Press. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  27. ^ a b Laskowski, John (2012). Tales from the Indiana Hoosiers Locker Room. Skyhorse Publishing Inc.
  28. ^ "Song Activities – "Lost and Found", episode 104". Noddy, PBS Kids. Archived from the original on 17 December 2000. Retrieved 20 May 2018.
  29. ^ "Johnny Had A Head Like A Ping Pong Ball", scoutsongs.com

Further reading[edit]

  • Kirby, Percival R. (April 1952). "Rossini's Overture to William Tell". Music & Letters. 33 (2): 132–140. JSTOR 730802. (subscription required)

External links[edit]