THE overture Rossini’s only dramatic overture Berlioz said was really a symphony in four parts instead of the ordinary opera prelude in two movements. The first part, beginning with five solo violoncellos, accompanied by the other violoncellos, pizzicato (divided into firsts and seconds), and double basses, expresses the solitude and silence of nature, as well as the repose of human passions. The Storm, immediately following, is in great contrast, as all the orchestra is in requirement ; it is a realistic musical picture with the lightning darting, the thunder reverberating among the mountains, and the ” raindrop ” notes. It is interesting to note that Rossini does not need the clash of cymbals to produce the effect of terror. The decrescendo of the tempest is managed with rare skill. While this Storm has not the grandeur of Beethoven’s in the Pastoral Symphony, nor the awe-inspiring quality of that in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, nor the realistic effect of the Vorspiel to Die Walkure, it is full of majesty.
” To this Storm succeeds,” says Berlioz, ” a pastoral scene of great freshness ; the melody of the cor anglais, in the style of the ranz des vaches, is delicious, and the gambolings of the flute above this calm chant are of a charming freshness and gaiety. Let us remark in passing that the triangle struck at intervals by little blows pianissimo, is perfectly appropriate here ; it is the bell of the flocks grazing quietly whilst the shepherds are singing their joyous songs.
To the last notes of the cor anglais, which sings the pastoral melody, the trumpets enter with a rapid, incisive fanfare on B.”
The last part of the overture is brilliant. With a springing bow, the violins rapidly play a gay melody, and ” the peroration of this petulant Allegro,” again to quote Berlioz, ” is of great warmth.”
AcT I. The curtain rises on a village near Altorf, Switzerland, with a waterfall in the background and Guillaume Tell’s cottage in the foreground. The Alps, with cottages here and there, are in the distance. Guillaume Tell, the patriot and famous marksman (baritone), Hedwige, his wife (soprano), Jemmy, his son (soprano), mountaineers and villagers are discovered. A fisherman (tenor) is rowing his boat over the lake. The chorus sing of the happiness and peace of the day (Quel jour serein), the accompaniment to which is in the style of a ranz des vaches. This is followed by the Fisherman’s boat song, Accours dans ta nacelle, accompanied by two harps. As the Fisherman sings his second strophe, Guillaume Tell begins a measured monologue revealing his sorrows as a patriot at the oppression, and Hedwige and Jemmy comment upon the Fisherman who rows away. This number therefore becomes a quartette. A distant horn’ echoes through the mountains. The people cease working and hail the fête des pasteurs about to begin.
The aged Melcthal, the Pastor (bass), and his son Arnold (tenor), enter, and the former is received with homage. Hedwige explains that three couples, long betrothed, will be united today, and asks Melcthal for his blessing for them. This makes Arnold sad, for he would like to marry, and Melcthal would also like to see his son wedded. Tell invites Melcthal into his house ” where he, a happy husband and father, lives hidden from the wicked Gessler.” Melcthal, turning to Arnold, curses the bonds that fetter him. He and all except Arnold enter Tell’s house.
Arnold speaks of his love for Mathilde; he cannot even hate her brother, Gessler, who is oppressing his father and his country. Sounds of hunting-horns are heard ; perhaps Mathilde may be passing ! He will try to see her ; but he is interrupted by Tell, who, stepping from his cottage, asks the cause of his grief (duo, Ou vàs tu ?) ; and when Arnold tells him of his love for Mathilde, Tell begs him to drive Mathilde from his heart and persuades him to fight against the tyrant Gessler. Although the sounds of the chase are again heard, tempting Arnold, he yields to Tell and curses Gessler. Rossini has well expressed Arnold’s conflicting emotions in the music.
Melcthal, Hedwige, Jemmy, and the villagers enter. Melcthal, seated on a grassy bank, blesses the three couples. The people sing a nuptial chorus, Ciel, qui du monde est la parure ; Arnold of his sadness ; and Melcthal delivers an exhortation. Again the hunting-horns are heard, and Arnold leaves. Tell, thinking he will break his vow to him, follows. The chorus sings again, Hyménée, ta journée fortunée and after, a Pas de Six and a Pas d’Archers. Then follows an archery contest. The orchestra prepares us for this with a fugued movement, and plays an ingenious ascending scale while the arrows are being drawn.
Having won the prize, Jemmy runs to his mother in excitement, and the people congratulate him, Gloire au fils de Guillaume Tell. ” But who is this coming ? ” Jemmy asks his mother. The Fisherman answers : ” It is Leuthold !”
The latter (bass) rushes in breathless, crying for help and holding a bloody axe.
In reply to Hedwige’s questioning, he says one of Gessler’s soldiers stole his daughter ; he overtook him and killed him : his blood is on this axe. His daughter is now in Gessler’s castle. Will anyone row him there ? The dangers of the lake are too great, and all refuse. Tell enters, saying that Arnold has gone. He is told the meaning of the excitement ; the voices of Gessler’s pursuing soldiers are heard : there is no time to be lost. Tell will aid Leuthold. Hedwige is in despair, but Tell trusts in Heaven, and, entering the boat with Leuthold, rows rapidly across the lake. The people offer a prayer for their safety, Dieu de bonté, and just as they reach the opposite shore, Rodolphe (tenor) arrives with his men. There is the greatest excitement. The Swiss brave the fury of the threatening soldiers, and the women are alarmed and implore mercy. Rodolphe and the soldiers demand, on pain of death, the name of him who aided Leuthold to escape. Melcthal tells his flock to speak if they have no friendship in their hearts, and, of course, no one will betray Tell after that. At Rodolphe’s command, his men seize old Melcthal and sur-round Tell’s house. After Rodolphe’s fury has been answered by Jemmy with the same musical phrase that Rodolphe sang, and the chorus has taken it up, the orchestra depicts the horrors of pillage with which the Swiss are threatened. The villagers rush upon the soldiers, endeavouring to save Melcthal, and the curtain falls upon the struggle.
AcT II. After a few bars of hunting-music, the curtain rises on a deep valley, with the mountains of Rutli in the distance and the village of Brunnen at their base. A portion of the lake and the Four Cantons can be discovered. Night is closing in. Huntsmen gallop across the stage and the fanfare heard in the entr’acte is repeated. Gessler’s huntsmen sing of their successful hunt in a merry chorus, . Quelle sauvage harmonie, during which, every now and then, we hear the tinkle of the bells of the flocks in the valley, to produce which effect Rossini has used a little bell in the orchestra in high G.
The Swiss bagpipe is heard, and a chorus of shepherds sing a hymn to the setting sun, the horn again sounds, and the huntsmen leave.
A long ritournelle precedes the entrance of Mathilde (soprano), who has withdrawn from the party. Then follows a recitative of perfect diction in which she fears Arnold may not return to her and during which the orchestra reproduces fragments of the ritournelle. Of her romance, Sombre forêt, Berlioz says : ” Rossini has rarely written so elegant and fresh a piece as this, a melody full of distinction and happily modulated, not to speak of the immense merit of the song and harmony. We find here a mode of accompaniment in the violas and first violins full of melancholy, also an effect pianissimo of the kettledrums at the beginning of each couplet which greatly excites the attention of the audience. You seem to hear one of those peculiar noises of nature, the cause of which is unknown, such as you notice at the calmest moment in the midst of the woods ; one of those mysterious sounds which redoubles in us the sentiment of silence and isolation. That is poetry, that is music, that is art, noble and pure, such as its admirers would wish to have always.”
Arnold enters, expresses his love, and in their duo, Oui, vous l’arrachez à mon ame, so full of chivalrous passion, we may note a long pedal of horns and trumpets alternating on the tonic and dominant.
Footsteps are heard and Mathilde leaves. Guillaume Tell and Walter Furst (bass) enter. We are now forced to leave all thoughts of love for patriotism. Tell accuses Arnold of having been with Mathilde, and Arnold vows he loves her. Now occurs the famous ” trio of the conspirators,” .Quand l’Helvetie est un champ, in which we learn that Melcthal has been killed by Gessler’s soldiers and in which the son vows to avenge his father and deliver Switzerland. Of this trio begun by Tell, Berlioz wrote : ” Analyze ? What ? Passion, despair, tears, the cries of a son learning the death of his father ? Notice details grupettos, a flute solo, an obscure part of a second violin ? Oh no, let those do it who have the courage I lack; I can only exclaim with the crowd, beautiful, superb, admirable, heart-rending ! ”
Three Cantons now arrive, giving the composer the chance to write three pieces of different character. The first chorus, from Unterwalden, strong and robust in style, indicates a labouring people with strong arms and rough hands ; the second chorus, Switzer Hunters and Shepherds, has a gentle and veiled melody in which one recognizes the timidity of pastoral folk ; and the third, from Uri, are fishermen, who arrive in boats on the lake while the orchestra imitates the cadenced movements of the oars. As soon as these have landed, the three choruses unite in an ensemble rapidly sung and supported by the strings pizzicato and a few heavy chords from the wind instruments. The phrase :
” Guillaume, tu le vois, Trois peuples à la fois Sont armés de leur droit Contre un pouvoir infame,”
first sung by the fishermen and repeated by the others, is very dramatic. The execution of this coro parlato is very difficult.
Tell animates and inspires them, and promises to lead them. All cry, ” To arms ! ” Arnold sees the first rays of dawn. Walter remarks that dawn is the signal for arms, and the chorus ends in a great outburst the cry, ” To arms ! To arms !
ACT III. A long ritournelle prepares for the scene between the lovers. After a short, but energetic, recitative, Mathilde questions Arnold about his despair, and learns that his father was killed by Gessler’s men. She then begins her grand aria, Pour notre amour, with its rich instrumentation and difficult cadenzas. This number, ending in an ensemble in which they sing their farewells, is frequently cut, and in that case Act III begins with the second scene.
The scene changes to a square in Altorf arranged for a festival. On one side a platform, and in the centre a pole on the top of which is a cap. Gessler’s castle is seen in the background. Gessler (bass), Rodolphe, barons, guards, soldiers, minstrels, Swiss, and Tyrolese fill the square. The soldiers sing homage to Gessler, who, in a short solo, demands obeisance and seats himself on the dais with his barons. During the chorus, Gloire au pouvoir suprême, the people kneel , and render homage to Gessler’s cap on the pole. A ballet is introduced here and the famous unaccompanied Tyrolienne, Toi que l’oiseau ne suivrait pas on two rhythms and two different themes and dominated by women’s voices, is sung ; a valse follows, and a Pas de Soldats.
Tell crosses the square with Jemmy, refuses to honour the cap, and is reproved by Rodolphe, who also tells the enraged Gessler that Tell aided Leuthold. Gessler orders his arrest, and a quartette, C’est là cet archer redoutable, is sung by Tell, Gessler, Jemmy, and Rodolphe. Tell bids Jemmy tell his mother to light the fire on the mountain, the battle-signal to the Three Cantons. Gessler notices Jemmy and asks if he is Tell’s son. Tell answers, whereupon Gessler, taking an apple from a basket, orders the famous archer to shoot this apple from his son’s head. Tell refuses, and even kneels at Gessler’s feet. Then both father and son shall perish, says Gessler. Jemmy begs his father to have courage. Tell gives instructions to his son, Sois immobile, in which the violoncello is given the chief part in the accompaniment. Its plaintive melody, which seems to weep with Tell, is supported by chords pizzicato, while the bassoons, horns, clarinets, and oboes have long holds, pianissimo. Jemmy takes his stand ; the apple is placed on his head ; and Tell, in selecting an arrow, conceals another : there is a pause, and then the arrow flies from Tell’s bow, its whizzing being described in the orchestra. The apple falls pierced through the centre. The people cry, ” Victory ! ” and Jemmy rushes to his father. Gessler is furious. Tell faints ; his shirt is opened, and the concealed arrow is discovered. On his recovery, he tells them this was for Gessler, had Jemmy perished. Gessler orders irons for Tell and Jemmy. One of the barons brings in Mathilde, who intercedes. At least, Gessler must spare the child, and she takes Jemmy under her protection. Gessler will himself convey Tell out in the lake, and drown him. Rodolphe draws Gessler’s attention to the indignation of the people. Mathilde will still save Jemmy. Tell’s anathema is taken up by the Swiss, who curse Gessler. Gessler and the soldiers carry off Tell, and Mathilde exits with Jemmy as the curtain falls.
AcT IV. After a short prelude the curtain rises on the interior of Melcthal’s deserted and rustic home. Arnold enters and expresses his sorrow, Asile hèrèditaire, for he visits his home for the last time. This aria is reposeful and offers a fine contrast to the tumult of the last scene, as well as to the fiery chorus that follows, for the Swiss come to tell Arnold that Tell is a prisoner, and beg him to aid in his rescue. Arnold promises.
The scene changes to the lake of the Three Cantons ; above one of the large rocks is Tell’s house. There are indications of a storm. Hedwige enters with several women. She is going to Gessler ; as long as she has neither husband nor child left, he might as well kill her, too. Jemmy’s voice is heard. He enters with Mathilde, and the three sing a trio, accompanied by wind instruments, ye rends â votre amour un fils digne de vous. Mathilde will be the hostage for Tell. He is no longer at Altorf; he is on the lake; he must be saved. Jemmy runs to light the signal for an uprising; the growling of the storm is heard in the orchestra; and Hedwige and the women fall on their knees to offer a prayer. Leuthold, entering, informs them that Tell’s boat is driven by the tempest to this shore. This boat becomes visible : Gessler and Rodolphe are in it. Tell directs it to the shore and, as it nears a rock, he jumps to land, and pushes the boat back into the seething waters. Tell lands, and is welcomed. Gessler and his men also land in the distance ; they will follow, and Tell shall die. The latter, jumping on a rock, draws his arrow and Gessler falls into the lake.
Walter, Arnold, and others enter, armed. The tempest ceases, the sun rises, and several boats, gaily decorated, appear on the lake.
All unite in honouring the liberator of the loved country. In the final chorus, ” the ranz des vaches,” says Berlioz, “floats gracefully over the large chords, and the solemn Swiss hymn of liberty rises towards heaven, imposing and calm, like the prayer of a just man.”