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Revolutionary Rossini

It’s music about a folk hero, rather than folk music but Rossini’s William Tell Overture is truly revolutionary art. Bill Scott tells the tale.


Gioachino Antonio Rossini Image: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

William Tell, like Robin Hood was an outlaw and an archer, he is the national hero of Switzerland, and renowned as the man who started and inspired the Swiss people’s revolt against the tyranny of the Austrian Empire - a revolt often credited as the first European national resistance movement to foreign rule (but only if the Scottish Wars of Independence are ignored!).

William Tell from the Swiss canton of Uri was known as a crossbow marksman. At this time the Austrian empire had occupied Switzerland and imposed a hated Poll Tax. Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian overlord raised a pole in the village square with his hat on top and demanded that all the locals bow before it. As Tell passed by without bowing, he was arrested. He received the punishment of being forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter, or else both would be executed.

Published histories state that on November 18, 1307, Tell split the fruit with a single bolt from his crossbow. But when Gessler asked why he had taken two bolts from his quiver, Tell answered that if he had accidentally killed his son, the next bolt would have been for Gessler. Gessler was enraged by this reply and had Tell bound and brought to his ship to be taken to his castle.

In a storm on Lake Lucerne, Tell managed to escape then went to the castle, and when Gessler arrived, shot him with the crossbow. Tell's defiance sparked a rebellion leading to the formation of the Swiss Confederation. Tell fought in the Battle of Morgarten where in 1315 the pride of the Austrian aristocracy were defeated by peasant foot-soldiers. He died in 1354 while trying to save a child from drowning in an alpine river. There are statues to him across Switzerland.  There’s only one problem with all of this. William Tell is even less likely to have been a real person than Robin Hood himself.

The story of a great hero successfully shooting an apple from his child’s head is present in early Nordic stories. The oldest documented Tell-like figure is a Danish warrior named Toko whose story appeared for the first time in the 12th century. Toko was forced by King Harald Bluetooth to shoot an apple off his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship and he too was credited with taking more than one arrow out of his quiver.

In fact there is no written reference to Tell prior to 1474 - which would be like Scottish historians failing to mention William Wallace in their accounts of the Wars of Independence. Swiss historians were forced to conclude that Tell’s story was based on earlier legendary figures and that the whole story is pure fable.

But Tell’s story had a continuing political influence - Antoine-Marin Lemierre wrote a play inspired by Tell in 1766 and revived it in 1786. This revival’s success was largely due to its popularity with the very same citizenry that soon afterwards  rose up against tyranny (and an Austrian Queen) in the French Revolution.  Tell’s fight against tyranny became associated with the French Revolutionaries same fight. This was reflected in Switzerland where the Helvetic Republic was established with Tell’s image on its official seal.

Tell’s fight against tyranny became associated with the French Revolutionaries same fight. This was reflected in Switzerland where the Helvetic Republic was established with Tell’s image on its official seal.

The German writer, Goethe, learned of the Tell saga and considered writing a play about him, but ultimately, gave the idea to his friend Friedrich Schiller another closet supporter of the French Revolution. Schiller wrote the poem “Ode to Freedom” in praise of the revolutionary spirit and this inspired Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Schiller then wrote the play “Wilhelm Tell”, first performed in March, 1804. 

Schiller's sympathies shine through as his play is heavily inspired by the political events of the French revolution. The Italian composer, Rossini, another supporter of the Revolution, then used Schiller's play as the basis of his 1829 opera William Tell. The opera’s overture is one of the best-known and imitated pieces of music. Much later Hitler banned the play because of its anti-tyrannical message asking - "Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!".

Sixty percent of Swiss people still believe that Tell was a real person and the truth is that the Swiss did rise up against their Austrian occupiers and threw them out.  In the process the Swiss commoners, with their revolutionary zeal, became the most feared infantry in Europe. Whether Tell was an actual person or not the Swiss were inspired by some very real people who began the resistance to Austrian oppression.  William Tell the person may never have lived but Tell the idea has never died.

For baby-boomers the William Tell Overture got a new lease of life in the 1950s due to an innovative American TV producer. Hannah Weinstein had a distinguished career as a journalist, publicist and political activist. She initially worked for the New York Herald Tribune until joining Fiorello H. La Guardia's New York mayoral campaign in 1937. She later organised the Presidential press campaigns of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, in 1948, of Henry Wallace, the socialist candidate for President.

In order to avoid the anti-Communist persecution and hysteria of McCarthyism sweeping the US in the early 1950s, Weinstein moved her family to Britain and established her own production company, Sapphire Films. Under the Sapphire banner, she created the popular action-adventure series The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV, 1955-59), starring Richard Greene.

Weinstein hired  exiled blacklisted American writers accused of being communists (Cy Enfield, Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Jr. and others) to write the Robin Hood scripts behind 'front'  names

What was not known at the time was that Weinstein hired  exiled blacklisted American writers accused of being communists (Cy Enfield, Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Jr. and others) to write the Robin Hood scripts behind 'front'  names (non-blacklisted writers who lent or were paid to provide their names for script credits) . This strategy not only helped the persecuted and otherwise unemployed writers, but it also allowed the writers to indulge their politics - just what they’d been banned from doing in the States. They wrote scripts that showed the nobility as a bunch of crooked villains whilst Robin and his men, nominally outlaws, were pure heroes giving their booty to the poor.

The enormous success of Robin Hood, on both sides of the Atlantic, encouraged Weinstein  to make other period series including The Sword of Freedom, Ivanhoe & The Buccaneers all of which featured commoners revolting against rotten aristos! With these exciting series, Weinstein, almost single-handedly, created the television swashbuckler genre.
One of the best remembered of her series is The Adventures of William Tell which originally screened in 1958-59 but was re-run frequently throughout the sixties. .It featured Rossini’s overture with some new lyrics appropriate to the music’s revolutionary origins.  Here’s a sample verse -

The shepherd’s crook, the reaping hook
Has taken on a warlike look
With blades we’ve beaten from the plough
We reap a harvest now.

In 1962 Weinstein returned to America, where she continued her left-wing political campaigning. In 1971 she founded the Third World Cinema Corporation to produce films about and with members of African-American groups. She received the Women in Film Life Achievement Award in 1982 and shortly before her death in 1984 she was awarded the Liberty Hill Award in honour of her artistic and political accomplishments.

Full lyrics of theme song here

Song from series on video here