The legend of William Tell






The different versions of the Story of William Tell

In a canton in the valley of the Rhine lived the Hapsburg family, whose leaders in time grew to be very rich and powerful. They became dukes of Austria and some of them were elected emperors. One of the Hapsburgs, Albert I, claimed that the land of the Forest Cantons belonged to him. He sent a governor and a band of soldiers to those cantons and made the people submit to his authority.  


William Tell the Mountaineer

In one of the Forest Cantons at this time lived a famous mountaineer named William Tell. He was tall and strong. In all Switzerland no man had a foot so sure as his on the mountains or a hand so skilled in the use of a bow. Many Swiss people were convinced he was determined to resist the Austrians. And believe secret meetings of the mountaineers were held and all took a solemn oath to stand by each other and fight for their freedom; but they had no arms and were simple shepherds who had never been trained as soldiers. The first thing to be done was to get arms without attracting the attention of the Austrians. It took nearly a year to secure spears, swords, and battle-axes and distribute them among the mountains. Finally this was done, and everything was ready. All were waiting for a signal to rise. Other people believe that Tell was a good huntsmen and resisted on the square and became a hero by coincidence.

Governor Gessler, delegated at that time by the Emperor to the area, did not fail to notice that the people were generally unhappy. In order to test the loyalty of the citizens of Uri,  he had a pole planted, a high pole in the market place of Altdorf with a hat in Austrian colours in the square of Altdorf. Everyone passing had to bow to the hat in order to show their respect. The hat was guarded by soldiers who made sure that the governor's orders were carried out and so forced everyone who passed to bow before it.


William Tell and Gessler - William Tell shoots an apple from the head of his son

One day, an inhabitant of Bürglen, William Tell, passed the square, accompanied by his son, without saluting the hat. Immediately he was arrested and brought before the governor. (In the series Crossbow it is his son named Matthew who refuses to salute the hat) "I know", said the governor, "you are an accomplished marksman. As a punishment for your disobedience of my order, you shall shoot an apple, but it will be put on your son's head". The governor hated Tell and made this offer hoping that the mountaineer's hand would tremble and that he would kill his own son. It is said that Tell shot the apple from his son's head but that Gessler still refused to release him.


Tell tried to convince Gessler to carry out a different punishment but with no success. Gessler insisted and even threatened to have Tell and his son killed if he did not follow his orders. Tell was brought back to the square of Altdorf. Gessler followed with his soldiers and servants. An indignant crowd surrounded them. Tell's son was placed against a tree, an apple on his head; 50 steps were counted. Tell put an arrow on his crossbow, aimed slowly and pulled. The arrow pierced the apple without touching the boy. The crowd applauded the skills of the courageous archer. Tell, however, had hidden a second arrow under his quiver. Gessler who had watched Tell do so asked: "Why the second arrow?". Tell waited with his answer. The tyrant urged him to answer: "If you tell me the truth your life will be saved!" "It was to pierce your heart, was Tell's grim answer, if my first arrow killed my son".


William Tell's imprisonment and escape

Gessler, beside himself, ordered to jail the rebel at once. "I do not come back on my promise but you will be jailed until your death in the prison of Küsnacht castle." A boat was launched immediately at Flüelen. Tell was chained in it while Gessler and his soldiers were embarking. Not far from port a tempest broke out. The Föhn (a southernly wind) caused such high waves that the boat almost got lost or thrown onto the nearby rocks. The boat people became very frightened and shouted: "Only Tell can save us!" Gessler ordered to free Tell who then took the rudder in a firm hand and steered the boat to the foot of the Axenberg Mountain, near a rock called the 'Tellsplatte'. All of a sudden Tell took a spear from a soldier, jumped from the boat onto the shore, pushing back the boat with his foot, then in a great hurry traversed the county of Schwyz. Gessler managed to survive the bad storm and reached Küsnacht castle that very night. Tell hid behind some bushes along an alley which led to the governor's residence. Soon enough Gessler and his people appeared and Tell killed him with an arrow from his crossbow freeing the country from an evil tyran.


Another version of this part of the story is the following:

That night as Tell was being carried across the lake to prison a storm came up. In the midst of the storm he jumped from the boat to an over-hanging rock and made his escape. It is said that he killed the tyrant. That night the signal fires were lighted on every mountain and by the dawn of day the village of Altorf was filled with hardy mountaineers, armed and ready to fight for their liberty. A battle followed and the Austrians were defeated and driven from Altorf. This victory was followed by others.


William Tell his role in the Republic of Switzerland

A few years later, the duke himself came with a large army, determined to conquer the mountaineers. He had to march through a narrow pass, with mountains rising abruptly on either side. The Swiss were expecting him and hid along the heights above the pass, as soon as the Austrians appeared in the pass, rocks and trunks of trees were hurled down upon them. Many were killed and wounded. Their army was defeated, and the duke was forced to recognize the independence of the Forest Cantons. This was the beginning of the Republic of Switzerland many Swiss people believe in.



The Opera

Guillaume Tell is an opera in four acts by Gioachino Rossini to a French libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, based on Friedrich Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell. Based on the legend of William Tell, this opera was Rossini's last, even though the composer lived for nearly forty more years. The William Tell Overture, with its famous finale, is a major part of the concert and recording repertoire.

While it was first performed by the Paris Opera at the Salle Le Peletier on 3 August 1829, the opera's length, roughly four hours of music, and casting requirements, such as the high range required for the tenor part, have contributed to the difficulty of producing the work. When it is performed, it is often heavily cut. Performances have been given in both French and Italian. Political concerns have also contributed to the varying fortunes of the work


Performance history

In Italy, because the work glorified a revolutionary figure against authority, the opera encountered difficulties with the Italian censors, and the number of productions in Italy was limited. The Teatro San Carlo produced the opera in 1833, but then did not give another production for around 50 years. The first Venice production, at the Teayro La Fenice, was not until 1856. By contrast, in Vienna, in spite of censorship issues there, the Vienna Court Opera gave 422 performances over the years 1830-1907. As Hofer, or the Tell of the Tyrol, the opera was first given in London on 1 May 1830. In New York, William Tell was first presented on 19 September 1831.



William tell Overture

Today, the opera is remembered mostly for its famous overture. Its high-energy finale is particularly familiar through its use in the American radio and television shows of The Lone Ranger. Several portions of the overture were used prominently in the films A Clockwork Orange and The Eagle Shooting Heroes, as well as in the first movement of Shostakovich's 15th symphony. The overture falls into four parts, each segueing into the next.


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